Mr Spelling Bee
As a writer I get asked to spell words by as many adults as children, en passant. I don’t claim to be a walking dictionary and often experiment to create new words that the ill-educated consider ‘wrong’. It’s called creative writing.
Writers and journalists are expected to be highly proficient in the job of putting letters, words and punctuation in the right order. No surprise then that, like any other flawed human, I make errors. Typos belong to the speed I use a keyboard and a schedule that allows little time to check drafts.
Spelling howlers litter the history of literature. Back in the day it didn’t matter, but once dictionaries were published the pressure was on to conform. First printers and then publishers wanted their work made easy.
“You’re a writer” said a plumber. “Spell ‘containerised.” If only I was around when local college painters sprayed ‘Mantenence Deppo’ at the storage door for Maintenance Depot.
Fowler’s ‘Modern English Usage’, a one-time Bible for grammarians, actually advises we revert to the Greek and pronounce the silent ‘p’ at the front of pseudo and similar. That’s a truly eccentric proposal. Psephology is bad enough – the study of polls and statistics, but how do you pronounce pneumatic or psychic?
One of the best visual jokes I know is a naked professor standing in a pond. The caption is, “Psychiatrist has a silent P”. But I digress.
I take the attitude spelling and grammar do not matter so long as your meaning is clear. To which grammarians answer, if meaning isn’t clear it’s because of bad grammar and poor spelling. The perceptive will spot that that is exactly what I said, only in reverse.
The fallacy of rules
Who doesn’t feel cheated taught by primary school teachers the strict rule of ‘i’ before ‘e’ except after ‘c’, only to discover later in life any number of exceptions: neighbour, weigh, weight, freight, sheik, deign, vein, caffeine, and so on, and so forth.
For my own part, I have to check renaissance, and millionaire to see where the double letter lands. One ‘n’ or two ‘s’s’? Actually, millionaire can have two ‘n’s’ if you like it that way. There’s lots of instances where a word has two acceptable ways to spell it. Exceptions abound. (‘Exceptions abound’ is not a proper sentence. There’s no verb in it!) Judgement can be written with or without the ‘e’ in the middle: judgment. And on it goes
The plural of one
Here’s another thing: how to write the plural of a single letter, such as the letter ‘e’ without it looking distinctly odd. Write it as ‘es’ and its singular. You have to stick an apostrophe in the middle – ‘e’s’, normally done to indicate the possessive. However, it’s not necessary when a capital letter, as in ‘Ls’, but it looks better with the apostrophe: ‘L’s’. Or does it? English can be hellish confusing.
The English language is full of potholes. Stumbles include Cholmondely, pronounced ‘Chumley’, and Mainwaring pronounced, Mannering. To my credit I can spell Balquhidder without a slip and speak it as it should be spoken.
Memory fail is most often active when trying to think of synonyms. I can spend ages going around a word in my head that isn’t quite the one I want. Take ‘block’, for example. The word I really want is halt. ‘We must halt the spread of colonialism’ is better in meaning and scansion than ‘We must block UKip.’
And there are personal foibles: I remind myself that one gets irritated by something or someone if already annoyed. Irritated is almost universally used in the wrong way. People talk of being irritated by this or that when they mean annoyed.
There is worse and ‘worser’
I console myself knowing the very worst grammarians are automobile journalists and property agents. They have a jargon all of their own. One copies the other blindly.
Car interiors are described as ‘flexible’ as if the seats bend when you sit on them. (My Mini seats did actually bend!) Property agents misuse the same adjective to describe the layout of homes when they mean ‘versatile’.
Commas are a matter of taste
“When should I use a comma?” is a regular question. There’s no single answer to that. Read over the paragraph you’ve written and drop in commas where you feel they help to make the sense communicate.
Personally, I play safe. I sprinkle commas like rain, liberally, wherever possible, in my prose, to stay on the safe side.
Our First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, bless her, tweeted “back peddling” to an opponent when she meant back pedalling. You will find lots of malapropisms in newspapers. And you will hear them spoken in opinionated company.
Some politicians cause mirth pronouncing ‘Brexit’ as ‘breakfast’, a clumsy abbreviation designed to trap the unwary.
The first malapropism I coined was during my final year dance at primary school. It took some time to screw up enough courage to ask my favourite teacher if she was free for the next dance, but when I approached her nervously it came out as, “Miss … are you vacant for the next dance?”
The howls of laughter echo inside my skull to this day.
On one occasion a film colleague noticed I omitted the apostrophe from ain’t throughout a piece of screen dialogue.
“You can’t write it that way. It has a comma!” [He was wrong. It has an apostrophe.]
“Listen” I shot back, “James Joyce wrote can’t and won’t without an apostrophe, so I’m in good company! Pay attention to the bloody quality of the dialogue not the written grammar!” In everyday speech we omit grammatical accuracy for immediacy of meaning. We break up sentences, fracture them, recast, hesitate, and repeat words.
No matter our education, we pay little or no attention to grammar when communicating verbally. Oxbridge dons are no better. They overlook perfect grammatical sentences in their speech. But weirdly (yes, you can begin a sentence with a conjunction) we adopt written language in speech when it isn’t necessary.
Readers will have heard a pundit or politician answer a question by saying ‘eg’ rather than saying for example. Another is counting on their fingers as they make a list of things, “Well, ‘a’ we can do this, and ‘b’ we can do that.” Odd how abbreviations strictly for written English are used in everyday speech without embarrassment.
The split infinitive
How do you avoid the infamous split infinitive?
The answer is you don’t have to if you don’t want to. The problem of the split infinitive only arises when the infinitive appears with the preposition to, and an accompanying adverb, or adverbial phrase. If you put adverbial words between the ‘to’ and the verb, you split the infinitive. Pedants think those who employ split infinitives are uneducated.
I avoid the split infinitive only because it makes a sentence sound clunky.
The glitch is in the relationship between English and Latin. In Latin the infinitive appears as one word. You cannot split the infinitive in Latin. We dropped Latin grammar when men wore tights and cod pieces. The exception is public schools, such as Eton, but it teaches Latin for England’s future civil servants to interpret heraldic inscription, and to separate its students from the rest of us, the riff-raff.
In any event, the rule is, there is no rule. Treat the split infinitive as a preference.
Speak English not Scottish
My primary education was severely wanting in anything remotely connected to cultural education. I was chastised for saying “aye” instead of yes. I was told to lose dialect words, such as ‘siver’, the Edinburgh word for the drain in a road gutter, ‘stank’ in Glasgow.
When I entered drama tuition I was warned sternly to lose my Scottish accent or expect to lose my career in theatre. (I fancied direction of plays and films, but that’s another story.) My tutors were English and sadly Scottish too. Colonised habits die hard.
Older readers will remember the furore over Glaswegian speaking journalist Cliff Hanley’s entry to BBC Scotland’s morning radio news programme. Outrage poured from all quarters of society, thousands of furious listeners, from Glaswegians to posh Jocks, all railing against a non-BBC Southern voice.
What was the BBC thinking? Snobbery and pomposity flowed as thick as molasses.
When I worked a short time with the Royal Shakespeare Company, I was astonished to discover English actors speaking Shakespearian lines and sonnets in their local tongues, Somerset, Devon, Suffolk. The artistic director Trevor Nunn explained that local accents enrich characterisation. “That is the reality those actors bring to the role. Why should I demand a BBC accent and have everybody sound like a blueprint of voice tuition?”
English accents and dialect words make Shakespearian verse rhyme. Without it the verse doesn’t scan.
This revelation coincided with the entertainment world opening the door to working class playwrights and actors: Arnold Wesker, C.P. Taylor, John Osborne, the multi-talented John Byrne; in actors we got the Welsh Stanley Baker, the Scottish Sean Connery, the Liverpool-Irish Peter O’Toole and the English Albert Finney, to name too few. Class barriers broke down.
Arriving full circle
Today, fashionable actors speak with plummy voices once more, and are educated at Eton. Presumably they’re no longer expected to make Shakespeare’s verse rhyme.
We are left with Scottish politicians who want people to think they had a full-blown English public school education. When it comes to affecting an upper crust English accent the former MP, Malcolm Rifkind, is top of the list of worst offenders. Next comes the Spectator editor Fraser Nelson who can torture any vowel to death.
As for people like me who spend long periods in the United States and return with a creeping pseudo American accent, the less said the better … dude.
I now ‘boldly’ hand this essay over to grammar pedants, or is it pendants?…..
(An abridged version of this essay was published in iScot magazine – support the march to full democracy, order a subscription.)