Alison Boston, Poetry, PostADay2011, Use of Language, Writing

Style, Grammar and Punctuation: The Writer’s Voice

Title page from Joseph Priestley's Rudiments o...
The English language has a come along way since Priestley wrote down the rules! This page taken from Rudiments of English Grammar. London: Printed for R. Griffiths, 1761. Eighteenth Century Collections Online. Author: Joseph Priestley (1733-1804) Image via Wikipedia

Two books that blasted my writing style when I was a beginner, which anybody can now refer to online, are William Strunk and Fowler’s The King’s English

When I studied the Style of Writing at the University of Ottawa, an elective I took towards my theatre degree, the prof preached Fowler and I obediently followed. When I started to look at my writing through his standards, I saw the flaws – mostly in my use of adjectives and adverbs, and misplaced modifiers (I think), as well as punctuation: commas, as I recall, were my bugbears. I worked to eliminate them.  I’m not perfect and grammar and punctuation sticklers will find errors in this text, I am sure!

I now live in the U.K. where Oxford and Cambridge dictionaries disagree about spelling, and was surprised when a colleague at one of the language schools I worked in told me if I sign a letter (email) to someone I’ve never met with Best Regards I reveal myself to be uneducated. Yours Sincerely is the British standard (according to him and many others) for a letter (email) to someone you’ve never met.  A tad outdated, don’t you think?  Could the British relax their style and grammar standards to include the rest of the English-speaking world without diminishing the language?

For example: I started to teach EFL in North America, where we say experience in and I was so stunned the first time I saw a U.K. job posting using experience of I went to my Canadian DOS who had written a massive guidebook on the use of prepositions and who was working on his Masters in Linguistics, and asked him about experience of.  He told me to stick with experience in. Same thing with at the weekend (British) and on the weekend (North American). Then there’s the British fondness for Have you got? Whereas N. Americans are content with Do you have? The latter is far less confusing for a beginner EFL student to grasp! i.e. consistent with Do you need? Do you want? Do we really need to confuse them with another form for have?

An Italian immigrant makes an American breakfa...
Image via Wikipedia

I have a hard time with such strict rules. I’m not an MA in linguistics, but I have spoken English all my life, educated in rural Canada, raised by British parents – both of whom were sticklers for grammar and pronunciation – and I’ve lived and worked in bilingual (English-French) and foreign countries and the thing I’ve come to understand, and accept, is that the English language is evolving, and we no longer need to adhere to outdated rules written down by a couple of now deceased men (Fowler and Strunk.)

Regional misuses of English grammar can sometimes be considered colloquialisms. They are part of the writer’s voice.

Knowledge of English as a foreign and second l...
English: Knowledge of English as a foreign and second language in the EU member states (+Croatia and Turkey), in per cent of the adult population (+15), 2005. Data taken from an EU survey. ebs_243_en.pdf ( This image was created by Acker and is licensed under Creative Commons, Attribution-Share Alike. Image via Wikipedia.
For example: When I started to teach EFL in Hungary I was appalled by the misuse of the present perfect continuous (or progressive as we call it in N. America) verb form by native Hungarian EFL teachers. Today I recognize and accept it as a common element of eastern European English! Would I let it go when preparing students for an exam? No. Do I let it go when teaching students how to communicate in English? It depends on the student’s goals.

Punctuation in poetry is an entirely different animal. Do we even need punctuation is poetry? What is poetry? What is the most important thing in a poem?

I read a poem the other day – online – written by someone for whom English was clearly the second language. It was a beautiful poem, full of grammar mistakes – yet it worked. It sang from the page. I heard the writer’s voice (east Indian). If I denied that poem because of the grammar mistakes, I’d be the loser.

I’ve encountered another writer online – whose punctuation and capitalization is clearly uneducated – yet she has a powerful and pure voice that comes through in her writing. If I’d immediately clicked off her page when I first landed on it, I would have missed out on her voice.

I think if people are writing fiction, poetry, opinion, personal commentary – and you can understand what they are writing – we need to allow for the errors that are part of their voice.  When you read their writing, can you hear them speaking?  Do they have an accent that comes through?  We can’t be so demanding that we kill the voice.

It’s a tough call. Because nor can you let them get away with laziness.  If English is their first language and the text is rife with mistakes they should have learned in school, then you can send them to Strunk and Fowler.  If they don’t want to change their style to meet yours, then perhaps you aren’t the right editor for their work.

ART, Concept, Experimental, Mixing Audio, Music, Poems, PostADay2011

Check out my new audio track! Utopia

I made an audio track in response to Fabrica Gallery’s call for 1 minute manifestos on Utopia for White Night.  To listen to it, click here: Utopia.

In case you’re wondering why there haven’t been any audio tracks lately it’s because I desperately need to upgrade my system and as it is now it’s very frustrating to work with.  I’m annoyed that Apple has designed a product that requires buying an upgrade to keep something working and think that’s just about the lowest of the low.  It seems technology is all about that.  The software should continue to function without problems without me having to spend money and if I do need an upgrade to keep my system working, well then, it should be free.

The image with the audio track – also posted here – is one I made when I had my Toshiba and had ACDSee installed. I really enjoyed using that software and playing around with it.  When the Toshiba died and I switched to Mac, I discovered I could no longer use the ACDSee on my Mac so that activity stopped.  I understand the comment I read that someone was sorry Steve Jobs had died but glad to see him go because he had ring-fenced so much software. (This was an article mostly about Google’s android conflict with Apple.)

People should be able to use stuff they buy.  We shouldn’t have to buy it again just because we switch from PC to Mac, or whatever. I guess this is why OpenSource and Creative Commons is the way to go. But…

…those are all topics for another day when I have more time.  I didn’t even have time to write this – hence no link back to the article about Jobs (may he rest in peace) – but for some reason I stopped to write it.