Friday, September 03, 2010

How Wrong Can You Be?

Still in the throes of writing my new book, I share with you today a few thoughts on the mechanics of writing, and in particular of the differences in writing for British and American publishers.

We’ve all heard the phrase: Two nations divided by a common language.

It’s never truer than when trying to meet the different grammatical standards of two versions of the same language. Most Americans will be unaware of these differences, since they are unlikely ever to be writing specifically for a British audience.

But most British writers who are published in the States bang up against those grammatical inconsistencies all the time (I’ll leave spelling for another occasion).

For example, my American publisher is always berating me for the use of non-active verbs. This despite the fact that non-active verbs have been used in English literature dating back to the time of Shakespeare - who was not averse to using them himself - and before.

But it seems that sometime in the not too distant past, some American grammarian decided that it was bad writing, and that you should always use active verbs. Even the “grammar” component of Microsoft Word highlights non-active verbs as incorrect.

Everything, it seems, has to be “doing” something. Houses have to “stand” at the end of the road, books have to “sit” on the table. Writers, conscious of the requirement to use active verbs, search frantically for doing words to describe inanimate objects, coming up with sometimes absurd descriptions in the process. Which seems to me to be nonsense. Since not everything is doing something. Sometimes things just are.

Another example is the use of the singular “they”. This is perfectly acceptable usage in British English. EG: “The person responsible was told that they would have to report to the group leader”. In American usage, I would be forced to abandon the “they” for the sexist “he” or “she” (without knowing the sex of the “person”), or the clumsy “he or she”. Which seems a terrible shame. So let me here and now fly a flag for the introduction of the singular they to American literature.

My last thought applies equally on both sides of the Atlantic, to the growing clamour of linguistic “purists” who love to denigrate the use of adverbs. I am mystified. The adverb is a perfectly good and useful weapon in the writer's armory. It is, after all, just an adjective for verbs, and used well will enhance any narrative. Any kind of adjective which is overused would be considered bad writing, but let’s not throw away a perfectly good literary tool for the sake of some evanescent grammatical fashion.

Of course, it seems to me that Americans have always had a problem with adverbs, constantly dropping the “ly” in daily use. A recent example made me smile. Readers’ Digest not long ago published an article on 24 THINGS YOU MIGHT BE SAYING WRONG.

Spot the mistake. Deliberate? I don’t think so.


Donis Casey said...

I heartily second your motion to standardize the singular 'they'. If not, someone is going to have to invent a genderless third-person word for the English language. And while I'm at it, why not a word for the second-person plural? We Southerners have made a brave attempt with "y'all". A sensible and logical solution.

Donis Casey said...

Of course, I could be wrongly.

Rick Blechta said...

I could easily add to your list of "gripes", Peter. There are just so many things done in North American English that are completely brainless -- and ugly.

And always there's a constant push to dumb everything down.

But you are completely correct about Americans and adverbs. I have a sister who hasn't used one in thirty years if it's a day.

And then there's "gotten"...

Janice said...

We in Scotland have the second person plural of "youse" - not officially condoned, of course!

Donis Casey said...

In the Missouri hills, it's "you'uns".

John said...

Janice, New York vernacular also uses youse as the second person plural.
But isn't there already a second person plural in English - YE - as in "Oh ye of little faith."

Rick Blechta said...

Yes, John! Let's all make it our personal crusade to bring back the use of "ye" -- and not just on Talk Like a Pirate Day, either.

I'm certainly up for it!

Janice said...

Avast ye hearties!!