Mr Spelling Bee
As a writer I get asked to spell words by as many adults as children, not in a formal way, just 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, sentences and punctuation in the right order. No surprise, like any other flawed human I make errors and get memory blocks on certain words.
“You’re a writer” said a plumber. “Spell ‘containerised.” He reminded me of the road painters who sprayed ‘Manetenence Deppo’ at their garage 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 ‘p’ at the front of pseudo. Things are getting silly. To those learning to write I usually say spelling and grammar do not matter, so long as your meaning is clear. To which grammarians answer, if meaning isn’t clear its because of bad grammar and poor spelling. The perceptive will spot that that is exactly what I just wrote, only in reverse.
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 are many instances where a word has more than one way to spell it. Judgement can be written with or without the ‘e’.
There’s another thing: how to write the plural of a single letter, such as ‘e’ without it looking distinctly odd on the page. Write it as ‘es’ and its singular. You have to stick an apostrophe in the middle – ‘e’s’, something normally done to indicate the possessive.
Classic stumbles are Cholmondely, pronounced ‘Chumley’, and Mainwaring pronounced, Mannering. But to my credit I can spell Balquhidder without a hiccup.
Memory fail is most often active when trying to think of synonyms. I can spend an hour going around ‘block’ until I reach the word I really want, which is halt. (‘We must halt the spread of odious unionism’ is better in meaning and scansion than, ‘We must block odious Unionism.’) And every so often I remind myself that strictly speaking you get irritated by something or someone if already annoyed.
I console myself in the knowledge the worst grammarians are automobile journalists and property agents. They have a jargon all of their own, and one copies the other blindly. Thus cars are described as ‘flexible’ as if the seats bend when you sit on them. 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 another regular question. Well, in truth there is no single answer to that. My guide is, read over the paragraph and drop in commas to make the sense communicate.
I play safe. I sprinkle commas like rain, liberally, wherever possible, in my prose, to stay on the safe side.
Most of our howlers are in written English, but we can surpass ourselves in tweets, too. Our First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, bless her, tweeted “back peddling” to an opponent when she meant back pedalling.
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 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?” Her howls of laughter echo inside my skull to this day.
Spelling and grammar minefields
On one occasion a film colleague noticed I omitted the apostrophe from ain’t throughout a piece of screenplay 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 script and not the 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, we can begin a sentence with a conjunction) we adopt written language in speech when it isn’t necessary.
How many times have you heard a pundit or politician answer a question by saying ‘eg’ rather than for example? Or start to count on their fingers as they make a list of things, “Well, ‘a’ we can do this, and ‘b’ we can do that.”
There’s a risible fashion for miming air quotation marks. You place both hands in the air with index and middle fingers flicked twice to indicate parenthesis. The gesture usually accompanies expressions of cynicism. When conveying sarcasm you accompany your quotation mime by rolling your eyes to the ceiling.
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. Still, to pedants using a split infinitive can mark you out as 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.
In any event, the rule is, there is no rule. Treat the split infinitive as a preference.
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 told sternly to lose my Scottish accent, or expect to lose my career in theatre. (I wanted to direct, but that’s another story.) Those tutors who warned me were both of English birth and sadly Scottish too. Colonised habits die hard.
I recall the furore over Glaswegian journalist Cliff Hanley’s entry to BBC Scotland’s morning radio news programme. The complaints poured in from all quarters of society, thousands of them, from Glaswegians to posh Jocks, all railing against a non-BBC voice. What was the BBC thinking? Snobbery and pomposity flowed as thick as molasses from listeners expressing outrage.
Only the Queen speaks the Queen’s English
Later, when I worked 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 are what make Shakespearian verse rhyme. Without it the verse doesn’t scan. That 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, and the English Albert Finney, to name too few. Class barriers were breaking 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, cold showers and all. That need for illusory status is another manifestation of what’s become to be known as the ‘Scottish cringe’, the feeling that as a Scot you are of less worth than people of the UK’s other nations.
When it comes to affecting an upper crust English accent the former MP, Malcolm Rifkind, who left his career shrouded in ordure, is top of the list of worst offenders. His strangled vowels are reminiscent of a chicken with constipation.
There are lots more public figures to choose from. Once aware of attempts at verbal diversion you’ll recognise the inferiority complex that manifests itself in so many Scots keen to be seen as upper-crust English, people who aim to govern the rest of us as if educated to do just that.
For the English-born listener with no ear for Scottish accents it can be daunting holding onto the sense of whatever is spoken in a Scottish native tongue. A composer friend handed back a video of Billy Connolly. “I can see he’s a very funny fellow, but I cannot understand a word he’s saying.”
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 the September edition of iScot – support the march to full democracy, order a subscription.