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Verily, English is confusing, innit

I read an interesting post on a Facebook group yesterday. It explored whether the rules of writing, especially grammar, are too rigidly applied. The argument was that language changes all the time, that the way a writer chooses to express themselves is part of this process, and that their approach should not be altered. I can see the point, but I also see some problems with this idea. However we view the issue, it is at the heart of what proofreading aims to achieve. When I proofread a document, I have to apply my judgement; I’m looking to eliminate errors, not to re-write it in my own style. But when is a new phrase or way of expressing something an error, and when is it the development of the English language?


It’s undeniable that English is a fluid language (I’m sure this is true of many others too). We only need to go back a few years to see words, expressions, styles of writing and even punctuation that feel uncomfortable today. The further back we go, the more instances we see, and the harder we have to work to understand what we’re reading. To a large extent this is likely to reflect changes in the way we speak. It is right that text reflects the time in which it is written. It makes the literature accessible to more people today, and provides a clear history of the development of our rich language over time. We shorten and adapt words all the time; we all understand the word ‘plane’ as an aircraft; we measure things with a ‘ruler’ without confusing it for a king; we happily use ‘maths’ rather than ‘mathematics’. At one time, all of these were considered inappropriate in written English, and often in spoken language too.


The same basic argument can also be applied geographically. English is the widest-used language in the world, but it varies enormously. The most common example comes in the British approach to American English (about which entire books have been written by people far better qualified than me). We smile at ‘color’ and ‘aluminum’, ask where the ‘s’ has gone in ‘math’. Commentators rage about the use of ‘vacation’ in place of ‘holiday’, ‘season’ rather than ‘series’, and hate having to use a ‘cart’ rather than a ‘trolley’ when shopping online. I certainly get a little irritated by some Americanisms, from time to time. But are we trying to protect a pure form of English that simply doesn’t exist? It is argued that ‘train station’ should never be used, and we should always refer to a ‘railway station’. Similarly, ‘lift’ is preferable to ‘elevator’, and we should always use ‘lavatory’ in preference to ‘toilet’. But we know what these words mean, they are clear, simple and in common use, both spoken and written. They get the point across, and isn’t that what language is for? English has a long and proud history of absorbing words from other languages. We can all understand the image of someone sitting on the veranda of their bungalow, perhaps smoking a cigar while planning a safari. They’re words that we’ve adopted, adapted and that are now part of our language. When and why did they stop being wrong?


I summarised earlier the argument that a writer’s choice of words, punctuation and style should not be altered. The more I’ve considered this, the less certain I’ve become. Spelling errors and punctuation that alters the meaning of a sentence need to be corrected. Imported words, abbreviations and slang can sometimes be justified. If I ever see ‘aluminum’ from a British writer, I’ll always add the missing ‘i’! It all goes to show the difficulty of editing and proofreading, where so many factors have to be considered.

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