Noah Webster and His Hainous Korus of Grotesk Syllables: How British English Became American English and the Main Differences

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Noah Webster has a lot to answer for. A prolific American writer and editor, he was also dedicated to the reformation of English spelling. He compiled several dictionaries over his lifetime, including spellings that more closely matched how the words were pronounced instead of the traditional compositions. In most cases, he didn’t originate these revised spellings but he was responsible for popularising them and many of the “reformed” spellings gradually became standard throughout the United States, the reason we now have significant differences between British English and American English.

Without any academic study to back it up, I have often thought that Americans frequently do things simply to be different from the British and in reading up about Webster, I discovered this to be true in relation to his spelling changes. Yet again, we discover the US is the source of a bloody annoying and unnecessary set of circumstances.

Some of his revised spellings didn’t catch on. If they had, I beleev wimmin (and men) would be spewing forth a steddy and hainous korus of grotesk syllables from their tungs, creating a nightmar for the masheen I’m now typing on. (The Spell Checker is going to have a field day with that sentence.)

As much as I would clearly like to, we’re not going to be able to wind back the changes that did catch on. But what we writers and editors should do is make sure that when we edit, we pick one variation of English and stick to it. This will largely be guided by the location of the primary audience.

There are lots of differences between British English and American English, far too many to go into here. But here are a few highlights to help begin the process and ensure consistency. Continue reading

Misspellings, Misuses and Typos: Getting It Right Helps Readers Get You (and Not Want to Get You)

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As the heading suggests, English is a complex language. There are many, many instances of exactly the same or similar words meaning very, very different things – after all, writers want readers to get them (in the sense of understanding) but they very rarely want readers to get them (in the sense of being attacked). A blog I recently read on Hubspot about twenty-five common grammatical errors contained a comment from someone calling himself (or herself) BJ that “as long as you don’t do anything egregious you can bend and break the rules as much as you want. The only thing that matters is whether or not the reader understands, accepts and appreciates how you communicate with them.” BJ promptly earned himself (or herself) a grand verbal spanking from everybody else reading the article. In fact, I couldn’t find a single comment supporting that view. Perhaps because anyone who was inclined to read a post on that topic wasn’t likely to understand, accept and appreciate BJ’s views.

The fact is that more people get annoyed by writers bending and breaking the rules than support “creative” but incorrect approaches so it’s generally in your best interests to try to get it right. And it doesn’t matter whether it’s a misspelling, a misuse or a typo, the effect is the same – it’s wrong. In fact, you can run the Spelling & Grammar Check as many times as you want but the problem with Microsoft Word is that if a word is spelled correctly, regardless of whether it’s appropriate for the context, it won’t be highlighted as an error by the program. I once accidentally typed “whale dongs” as two of my characters discussed a potential soundtrack for meditation. Of course, I meant “whale songs” but it could have been highly embarrassing if I hadn’t picked it up. And it could be much worse, especially if you confuse your onus with your anus.

There are some obvious homonyms like “here” and “hear” and “none” and “nun” that I hope don’t need explanation but here are a few to be on the lookout for. Continue reading

For the Love of Language

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I like knowing stuff. It doesn’t matter what that stuff is, I just like knowing it. Knowledge is cool. I haven’t figured out what to do with it all yet but in the meantime, I’m continuing to accumulate it.

In that spirit, I was watching a couple of documentaries about Tourette’s syndrome – one focused on children struggling with the condition and the other explored the difficulties in obtaining employment when unable to control muscular and vocal tics. And as I commonly do (because I always want to know more), I Googled Tourette’s syndrome and began reading on Wikipedia about the details the documentaries weren’t going into.

One of the children in the documentary and one of the men looking for work had what I discovered was called coprolalia – “the utterance of obscene words or socially inappropriate and derogatory remarks” – and that only a small minority of people with Tourette’s exhibit this symptom. When I clicked through the link to find out more about coprolalia, I discovered that “copro” came from the Greek for “faeces” and “lalia” came from the Greek for “to talk”. Coprolalia literally means “to talk shit”. Continue reading

The Unusual and Irrational Obsessions of Writers

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Miranda Margulies: We can get the Times to write something. Or that nut from the Observer.
Kathleen Kelly: Wait, what… what nut from the Observer?
Miranda Margulies: Frank something? The one who’s so in love with his typewriter. This is just the sort of thing that would outrage him!
You’ve Got Mail

Most writers have unusual obsessions. For Frank Navasky in You’ve Got Mail, it was his typewriters (yes, plural – he had several). For me, it’s my dictionaries (yes, plural – I have more dictionaries than Frank had typewriters). I’ve written previously about how my dictionary is the one book I can’t live without, specifically my Macquarie International English Dictionary.

But the version I have was published in 2004 (which was when I bought it), making it twelve years old and meaning it doesn’t contain any of the words invented in the intervening period or reflect changes in how English is used (and as much as pedants would prefer there weren’t, there are always changes).

Last year, when I was using it to ensuring spelling accuracy and consistency as I edited Project December: A Book about Writing, I thought it would do the job well enough. But it was in the back of my mind that I wouldn’t be able to put off buying a new dictionary for much longer. And this year, when I was hired (and subsequently paid) to edit an autobiography, I knew the time had come. Continue reading

The One Book I Can’t Live Without

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You might be at a dinner party, at a writers’ group meeting or just hanging out with some literary-minded friends. And someone poses a familiar question in a familiar scenario: you’re stranded on a desert island and you have to sacrifice all books except one in order to start the campfire. (Okay, I may have taken some artistic liberties with the question.) So which book gets saved? What is the one book you can’t live without?

Continue reading