Steven Pinker on rewriting

September 13, 2017

When you want to improve a piece of writing, showing it to someone (such as a beta reader) is often a good idea. This doesn’t apply to everything, obviously, but it’s especially valuable for text intended for publication, or when you’re concerned about how the audience will react to what you’ve written.

Steven Pinker, in The Sense of Style (2014), recommends that you also ‘show a draft to yourself’ – preferably having spent time away from it. This too is sound advice. It’s not new, but I like the slant Pinker puts on it, that you should show it to yourself as though you were another person, which, in a sense proportionate to the time that has passed, you are. He says you may find yourself wondering, as he does:

‘What did I mean by that?’ or ‘How does this follow?’ or, all too often, ‘Who wrote this crap?’

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Elena Ferrante delaying the verb

September 9, 2017

A long complicated sentence should force itself upon you, make you know yourself knowing it. —Gertrude Stein

Writers are often advised to introduce the main verb of a sentence early. It’s generally good advice. Delaying the verb by prefacing it with subordinate clauses, adjuncts, participle phrases and assorted throat-clearing puts a cognitive load on readers. They must hold it all in their short-term memory until the verb arrives and they find out what frame the extra information fits into.

This is a particular problem in nonfiction prose, where communicating facts is a primary aim. I see it regularly in texts I edit: long lists and unpredictable subclauses pile up before I learn what the sentence is even about. With a little rearrangement the main verb can be brought forward, and the point is made much more direct and comprehensible.

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Real World English: a video series

September 7, 2017

Over the last year or so, Macmillan Dictionary (for whom I write a column on language) published 11 videos and blog posts in a series titled Real World English. I wrote the video scripts, which were then revised by the editors, jazzed up by the graphics team, and presented by Ed Pegg of the London School of English.

Like the dictionary itself, this material is aimed at English-language learners but may be of use or interest to others too. Its focus is on dialect differences in the workplace, mainly UK/US. The entries focus on vocabulary (greetings, education, holidays, etc.) or pragmatics (irony, directness, politeness, etc.). The introductory video gives the gist:

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You can access all 11 videos and blog posts (plus video scripts) on this page, or you can use the playlist above. Each clip is 2–3 minutes long, and the whole series comes in under 30 minutes. Real World English follows the popular Real Grammar and Real Vocabulary series of previous years. I hope you enjoy it.


Linguistic sci-fi in Embassytown

August 29, 2017

The sun still rose, and the shops sold things, and people went to work. It was a slow catastrophe. —China Miéville, Embassytown

Science fiction offers endless scope for linguistic experimentation, and there’s no lack of creativity at a purely lexical level: new terminology abounds in hard SF, weird fiction, and other speculative genres. But I haven’t read many SF novels where language is a central theme, though I’m sure that says more about my underexploration of the genre than it does about SF itself.

Suzette Haden Elgin’s Native Tongue and Samuel Delany’s Babel-17 are notable examples. But they are several decades old, and – though I’m probably an exception here – the ideas and storytelling in both books underwhelmed me. So when I read China Miéville’s Embassytown (2011), I felt there was finally a linguistic science-fiction book I could recommend unreservedly, should anyone ask for one.

Embassytown does not admit of simple summary, so I won’t try, but I do want to describe some of its linguistic ideas. There will be spoilers. For proper reviews of the book, read Ursula K. Le Guin in the Guardian and Sam Thompson in the LRB.

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On foot of an Irish idiom

August 14, 2017

In a comment on my post about 12 Irish English usages, Margaret suggested that I write about the Irish expression on foot of. It was a good idea: the phrase is not widely known outside Ireland and is therefore liable to cause confusion, if this exchange is any indication.

On foot of means ‘because of’, ‘as a result of’, or ‘on the basis of’. T.P. Dolan’s Dictionary of Hiberno-English offers the example sentences ‘On foot of this, we can’t go any further with this deal’ and ‘On foot of the charges, he had to appear in the court’.

These lines suggest it’s a formal phrase, and that’s invariably how I see it used; I’ve yet to hear it in everyday conversation. A search on Google News shows that it’s common in crime reporting in Ireland. I also see it in academic and business prose, an impression confirmed by the example sentences in Oxford Dictionaries, e.g.:

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Language change and the politics of accents

August 12, 2017

These are the topics of my latest posts at Macmillan Dictionary Blog. In Words in constant motion, I write that every aspect of language use is subject to change, that this understandably unsettles some people, but that we can learn to live with it:

We may refuse to accept a new usage, especially if the change happens in our lifetime: Why can’t words stay as they are, with a fixed meaning and sound and use? Words here can be a substitute for deeper concerns. We tend to prefer when things are stable, and find instability disturbing.

The converse also applies. If we get on board with the fact that everything is in flux, it becomes easier to adjust to linguistic change instead of being automatically upset by it. It can be seen as a form of realism.

In The politics of accents, I examine a recent case of linguistic prejudice against a British politician that centred on her regional accent, and consider what motivates such a reaction:

Accents, like other aspects of language use, are sometimes a cynical excuse to judge other people – because they come from a particular area, are in a certain social class, or were educated to whatever level or not. Thus language becomes a tool for stereotypes, prejudice, tribal hostility, and often misogynistic abuse.

These attitudes reflect power differences in society. Nonstandard dialects are often wrongly associated with lack of intelligence, criminality, and other negative attributes. They’re even censured in schools because they are considered inferior.

One of Macmillan Dictionary’s busiest and most interesting features is its Open Dictionary, which relies on reader submissions of words and phrases previously absent from the dictionary. These entries, of course, are vetted and edited by lexicographers before being accepted (which many are not). Liz Potter wrote a helpful post on it last month: What’s the point of the Open Dictionary?

My full archive of posts for Macmillan is available here.


Reading coincidences: geese edition

August 5, 2017

Konrad Lorenz’s books always have wonderful anecdotes about animals, and On Aggression (1963, tr. Marjorie Latzke) is no exception. One chapter describes habit formation in geese, a greylag goose named Martina in particular, whom Lorenz had reared and who had imprinted on him. Lorenz writes:

University Paperback book cover on Konrad Lorenz's 'On Aggression', featuring a large b&w illustration of a snarling tiger's headIn her earliest childhood, Martina had acquired a fixed habit: when she was about a week old I decided to let her walk upstairs to my bedroom instead of carrying her up, as until then had been my custom. Greylag geese resent being touched and it frightens them, so it is better to spare them this indignity if possible.

Pleased by this information, and by how it was phrased, I tweeted it. Later, after sharing another excerpt on geese behaviour, I added a hashtag:

And there the idea would have remained, except that the next book I picked up, Molly Keane’s Loving and Giving, had its own geese tips.

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