Archaic Or Just Plain Strange

Ah, language. It’s a bizarre thing. I write in English and you’re all reading in the same language but do you really understand what I mean?

With people whose first language isn’t English, the occasional communication problem is only to be expected. But with those of us who share the same mother tongue then surely it should be easier? Right?

Hmm. I’m no longer quite so sure. I use British English – the Queen’s English some would say. (Though as an ardent republican, not me!) But then there’s US English, plus all the other variants.

For instance, consider the following:

‘We’d spent all day travelling and when we got to my friend’s flat I was glad to jump in the lift, get upstairs, relax with a fag and a beer, while parking my bum on the sofa. I slept well that night – and dreamt of nothing.’

Now, a British reader will interpret those words quite differently from a North American and (hopefully) won’t spot any spelling mistakes.

Or how about this one:

‘I was happy to see my little sister again. I gave her an affectionate pat on the fanny while we hugged. Then I sat down and took my suspenders off.’

To an American, I’m guessing that these three sentences seem fairly innocent. For a Brit, though, there’s definitely something suspect going on.

What prompted these latest ramblings comes from the fact that I’m really quite insecure when it comes to my writing. I think that I’m generally getting the hang of how to put a book together but I’m not totally confident about it.

Which is one reason I can’t help looking at the reviews my books are getting on Amazon. And, generally, they’re not that bad. Pagan’s Sphinx is doing particularly well – only published in December but already it’s got 17 reviews on Amazon.com and an average of 4.2*.

I was slightly bemused though by a recent 4* review that concluded with the words: “could have been edited a little better for misspelled words”.

My eyebrows rose. The book has been spell-checked many times and proofread several. I wouldn’t swear there are no typos but I’d be really surprised if there were lots.

Then it occurred to me. If it was me writing the review, I’d probably have written ‘misspelt words’. Now, in British English, that’s not wrong. I happen to like the slightly archaic forms for some past participles – like ‘slept’ and ‘dreamt’.

Unlike Americans, we also double the final consonant when changing the form of certain verbs – so ‘to travel’ becomes ‘travelled’ and ‘travelling’.

I don’t know if this is the problem with Pagan’s Sphinx – I hope so. But I wonder, how do you cope with these variations on our common language? I hate seeing ‘colour’ written as ‘color’. There’s no logic in it, I just prefer my version! (And I must admit, American spellings are often more logical).

Another Americanism that really grates on me is: ‘I wrote him’. No! Please. It should be: ‘I wrote to him’. (I mean, you wouldn’t say: ‘I listen music’. Would you?)

Bad grammar and punctuation are obvious no-nos that can spoil a good book. But it’s a problem when our ‘shared’ language causes the problem. Is there anything that makes you cringe when you read a book written in a different version of English?

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4 responses to “Archaic Or Just Plain Strange”

  1. poetmcgonagall says :

    Interesting post. I lived for 20 years in the US, so I pretty much internalised American spelling and phraseology. Returning to the UK in 2010 was a bit of a linguistic culture shock. By now I’m used to British English again, though the French endings on words like “colour” were a struggle. After all that time they seemed effete compared to the simper American spellings.Still have to think about “ise” and “ize” endings. Good thing my chell specker is set to British English.

    But I’ve always been a cultural magpie, and I enjoy zippy American phrases like “the whole nine yards.” Doesn’t hurt to mix things up a bit.

    • Huw Thomas says :

      Always happy to mix things up.
      I used to work on a newspaper in Cumbria that had a ‘TV program’ listing. I complained that ‘program’ was American and had it pointed out – accurately – that the spelling ‘programme’ was introduced in the 19th century to make the word look more French and, therefore, sophisticated! Before that, we used ‘program’.
      Still don’t like ‘write’ without the ‘to’ though!

      • poetmcgonagall says :

        Which newspaper? I lived in Keswick from 1985-9. Loved the place. Developed a Cumbrian accent.

      • Huw Thomas says :

        Cumberland & Westmorland Herald. I was a senior reporter there, living in Penrith, in the early 90s. Still love the place but not the rain. I’d swear that the last winter it rained from September to April without a break. Snow I can cope with but I need sunlight.

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