HD English

The rapid advance in 21st-century technology affects (some would say, controls) every aspect of our lives, whether at home, school or work.  And it’s now become so ingrained that we barely notice it. For example, by far the most visible of today’s technological achievements is the one we think least about — the transition from old-school cathode ray tubes that required a whole army to install, to flat screens you can carry in your pocket or hang on a wall.

Actually, when you think about it, the characteristics of today’s most impressive screens are a great metaphor for the transformative power of language.  With this in mind, today I’d like to introduce you to a new technology. I call it HD English. So, what’s in the box?

  • Clarity and sharpness: In 2020, why would you seriously put up with a blurred, incoherent, out-of-tune message when you can have language that’s more vivid, colourful, and true-to-life than it’s ever been? That’s the beauty of high definition English.
  • Better upscaling: English used to be bulky and heavy (think of those endless Powerpoint presentations). But HD is lighter, brighter, and more efficient. Of course, you can still enjoy the classics, but with a good provider like English Wanted you’ll find even old material looks fresher and cleaner.
  • Personal experience: HD English is available everywhere, but that doesn’t mean it’s just ‘one size fits all’. These days you choose what you want from the widest variety of content and style, and make your writing and presentations truly individual. Say goodbye to single-use English: today’s technology allows you to stay up-to-date and personal.

See? Properly used, English can be as powerful and transformative as TV. To find out more, contact English Wanted. I’d be happy to give you a tour of our latest technology.

Fake Poohs

poohcorner

In the social-media-driven world of today, accuracy is more important than ever. It’s also, it seems, increasingly hard to find. A huge amount of what we read these days, on- or off-line, seems to be either deliberately or accidentally miswritten. And while readers are prepared to ‘call out’ photographic images that have been tinkered or tampered with –  in the process now universally known as ‘photoshopping’ – it’s harder to tell when it comes to the written word. 

Take this story, for example, which appeared recently on Facebook:

It occurred to Pooh and Piglet that they hadn’t heard from Eeyore for several days, so they put on their hats and coats and trotted across the Hundred Acre Wood to Eeyore’s stick house. Inside the house was Eeyore.

“Hello Eeyore,” said Pooh.

“Hello Pooh. Hello Piglet,” said Eeyore, in a Glum Sounding Voice.

“We just thought we’d check in on you,” said Piglet, “because we hadn’t heard from you, and so we wanted to know if you were okay.”

Eeyore was silent for a moment. “Am I okay?” he asked, eventually. “Well, I don’t know, to be honest. Are any of us really okay? That’s what I ask myself. All I can tell you, Pooh and Piglet, is that right now I feel really rather Sad, and Alone, and Not Much Fun To Be Around At All. Which is why I haven’t bothered you. Because you wouldn’t want to waste your time hanging out with someone who is Sad, and Alone, and Not Much Fun To Be Around At All, would you now.”

Pooh looked at Piglet, and Piglet looked at Pooh, and they both sat down, one on either side of Eeyore in his stick house.

Eeyore looked at them in surprise. “What are you doing?”

“We’re sitting here with you,” said Pooh, “because we are your friends. And true friends don’t care if someone is feeling Sad, or Alone, or Not Much Fun To Be Around At All. True friends are there for you anyway. And so here we are.”

“Oh,” said Eeyore. “Oh.” And the three of them sat there in silence, and while Pooh and Piglet said nothing at all; somehow, almost imperceptibly, Eeyore started to feel a very tiny little bit better.

Because Pooh and Piglet were There. No more; no less.

Author – AA Milne
Illustration – EH Shepard

Does this story look familiar to you? It certainly did to many readers who left grateful comments on the Facebook page in question, thanking whoever posted it for ‘reminding’ them of this episode, how they enjoyed it as children, and how they still read the book to their own families.

And why not? After all, the post tells us that the author is A.A. Milne, and the accompanying illustration implies that the story is indeed from his 1928 book ‘The House at Pooh Corner’.  It’s set in Hundred Acre Wood; words like ‘trotted’ and ‘glum’ sound appropriate for Piglet and Eeyore; and the mock-title ‘Not Much Fun To Be Around At All’ is capitalized in the same way as the famous ‘Bear of Very Little Brain’.  To cap it all, there’s a Pooh-like simplicity to the story, best summed up in the final line: ‘Because Pooh and Piglet were There.’

But here truth and reality part company.

Would A.A. Milne, writing in 1928, really have used ‘okay’ so freely? Would he have used the expression ‘We thought we’d check in on you’? Or ‘hanging out with someone who is sad’? Or ‘True friends are there for you’? Just a brief examination of the vocabulary of the piece is enough to convince a number of readers that this is in fact an early 21st century parody of A.A. Milne.

Which is not to say it is bad, or wrong. In fact as parody it’s highly successful. Good pastiches like this preserve enough of the original to make us laugh out loud precisely at what is unlikely and unexpected. The first appearance of the above passage was on the Facebook site of its true author, the energetic blogger Kathryn Wallace, whose parodic versions of Winnie the Pooh are the perfect vehicle for articulating the hassled life of a busy mum. Here’s another of hers:

“I just don’t understand, Piglet,” said Pooh.

“What’s that, old pal?”

“Well, why do we have to have Mondays? They’re just so… unnecessary.”

Piglet mused on the question for a moment, his tiny ears wobbling up and down with concentration as he thought.

“Well,” he said, after some consideration. “I suppose, that if we didn’t have Mondays…well, Fridays wouldn’t be so ruddy marvellous, would they?”

“Oh Piglet,” said Pooh. “You really are the Best Pig of Greatest Brain that I have ever met. Now, can we go and celebrate the marvellousness of Fridays with gin and takeaway?”

“Too bloody right we can,” said Piglet. “Too bloody right.”

So, if the parody is not a problem, what is? Well, in the interest of copyright, research, honesty and simple transparency, the problem is in the attribution. When Kathryn’s story was copied (as it has now been hundreds of times) to social media feeds, it somehow picked up the tag ‘Author – AA Milne / Illustration – EH Shepard’. That is the problem.

If the passage is not by A.A. Milne, it should not claim to be. Anything other than the original is just Fake Poohs.  Oh, and by the way, the illustration I’ve used above is also a fake. It’s actually a copy of a drawing by E.H. Shepard, as explained in its artist’s blog.

For want of a nail, the kingdom was lost

newsroom

Proofreading by definition comes at the end of most publishing projects, and for that reason is the part of the process most frequently put off or even ignored. One of the most thankless aspects of the proofreader’s job is to have a job cancelled by clients who decide at the last moment to make do with what they have.

The problem is that proofing is not built in to most project managers’ timetables. It becomes an add-on, and therefore an after-thought. Which is a bit of a surprise, given that project pipelines are built precisely to be testable for weaknesses at multiple points in the process.

Imagine that the shirt you bought turned out to be lacking a button, or that your new screen had some broken pixels; or that the self-assembly furniture pack was missing one screw. Twenty years ago, perhaps. But now, quality control is so good that these things simply never happen. And as a result, the companies do very well who churn these products out day after day to satisfy the demand of their millions of customers.

Missing components, incorrectly fitted parts, poor quality manufacture; in the world of engineering, such errors are picked out by rigorous quality control at every stage. These days QC is invariably a blend of the automated and the human, but the fact is that it happens at every stage, from planning to dispatch.

With written text, however, it is a whole different story. It seems that people are content to put up with failure, not just in the writing itself (which often defies the rules of anybody’s grammar, let alone agreed standards) but also in terms of quality control, be that fact-checking or correcting misplaced commas, dashes or brackets.

Failure to pick up a tiny error at the start of a process can lead to it becoming embedded, like a splinter, at all subsequent stages of the process: once the initial pain has worn off, it’s less likely that anyone will notice it… until infection sets in.

So, here’s a plea to all clients, past, present and potential. Please build in proofreading from the very start. Budget for it — just a small amount at a time is fine — and you will save yourself a lot of effort and cost further down the line.

Please, don’t critique me!

talentshow

The word ‘critic’ originally denoted a judge, whose job was to draw the (often fine) distinction between a good or bad action, a defendant’s guilt or innocence, or the positive or negative outcome of a disease. Life is full of such ‘crisis’ points; the outcome either way could, after all, turn out to be ‘critical’. The essential point was that the critic was impartial, and the decision could go either way.

But by the time this Greek word entered the English language (like so many other words, it first appeared in the works of Shakespeare, in 1598), ‘critic’ had already taken on the negative connotation it has today. Appropriately enough, the critics who attracted the greatest opprobrium were those in the theatre, whose reviews could make or break a reputation, but more frequently the latter.

Amid all this negativity, a new expression was needed. Only a hundred years later, the French ‘critique’ became popular in England to refer not to the critic but to the work of the critic – be it an essay, a review, or a printed article. By 1751, ‘critique’ was being used as a verb, but one which was blissfully free of the reputation of ‘criticize’.

So now a person could write a critique, which might or might not be critical in a negative sense. Equally, one could ‘critique’ a performance, or a piece of writing, again without necessarily condemning it to the limbo of one-star reviews.

But language is a living thing. Words, and their meanings, are constantly shifting under the pressure of popular usage. Roll on to 2019, and we have a problem.

Partly as a result of the popularity of TV talent shows presided over by experts from the music industry, ‘critique’ itself has now been infected with the same sense of disparagement as ‘criticize’. So we have ended up with two verbs, ‘criticize‘ and ‘critique’, used pretty much interchangeably, and both of them negative in tone. “I don’t mean to critique you,” says the 21st-century critic, “but that was terrible.” Actually, critiquing is their job – but that’s not what they mean.

In the story of language, it’s quite normal for speakers to adopt new expressions when a word has become so ambiguous that it requires some special distinction to be made. And it’s true that over time, such distinctions can in turn be eroded. Perhaps ‘critique’ is too close to ‘critic’ to imply something different or opposite. In which case we need to start all over again. Which word would you recommend as the new ‘critique’?

A question of style

mhra

Because everyone uses language differently, style guides exist to provide some degree of consistency. They are like rule-books, providing a ‘correct’ approach to punctuation, grammar, sentence structure, disputed spellings and so on. They also cover areas such as layout of dates and numbers, use of abbreviations, capitalization, and how to refer to cited articles, essays and publications.

Of course, it would be wonderful if there were one compendium to cover all possible eventualities. But the fact is that different professions require particular rules and ways of laying out information.

Journalists, for example, may use ‘AP’ style, and academics ‘Chicago’ or ‘MLA’ style, whereas lawyers may refer either to the ‘Bluebook’ or else ‘ALWD’ style. (Incidentally, ‘Harvard style’ – which actually has no official connection with Harvard University – is technically a system for referencing cited works, rather than a complete style guide.)

To complicate matters still further, individual institutions and publications, for example The Guardian, The Washington Post or the BBC, have their own ‘house styles’, which may change over time.

For instance, in the case of the oft-disputed spelling of verbs in ‘-ize’, The Times newspaper has plumped for ‘-ise’ – but only since 1992. And in what they see as a reflection of today’s less hierarchical society, editors at The Guardian have drastically reduced the use of capital letters. Among their controversial recommendations are ‘St Nicolas church’, ‘Great Ormond Street children’s hospital’ and ‘Ripon grammar school’.

Our blogger, George, recommends one of three usage and style guides for general use: New Hart’s Rules (formerly The Oxford Guide to Style), the MLA Manual of Style, and the MHRA Style Guide.

The last of these, published by the Modern Humanities Research Association, is particularly good for those writers who are new to style guides. It’s compact, up-to-date, and best of all completely free online at this link.  It’s also the style guide which we use at English Wanted. Take a look, and see if your own writing comes close to their rules and recommendations!