Style, Grammar and Punctuation: The Writer’s Voice

Title page from Joseph Priestley's Rudiments o...

The English language has a come along way since Priestley wrote down the rules! This page taken from Rudiments of English Grammar. London: Printed for R. Griffiths, 1761. Eighteenth Century Collections Online. Author: Joseph Priestley (1733-1804) Image via Wikipedia

Two books that blasted my writing style when I was a beginner, which anybody can now refer to online, are William Strunk and Fowler’s The King’s English

When I studied the Style of Writing at the University of Ottawa, an elective I took towards my theatre degree, the prof preached Fowler and I obediently followed. When I started to look at my writing through his standards, I saw the flaws – mostly in my use of adjectives and adverbs, and misplaced modifiers (I think), as well as punctuation: commas, as I recall, were my bugbears. I worked to eliminate them.  I’m not perfect and grammar and punctuation sticklers will find errors in this text, I am sure!

I now live in the U.K. where Oxford and Cambridge dictionaries disagree about spelling, and was surprised when a colleague at one of the language schools I worked in told me if I sign a letter (email) to someone I’ve never met with Best Regards I reveal myself to be uneducated. Yours Sincerely is the British standard (according to him and many others) for a letter (email) to someone you’ve never met.  A tad outdated, don’t you think?  Could the British relax their style and grammar standards to include the rest of the English-speaking world without diminishing the language?

For example: I started to teach EFL in North America, where we say experience in and I was so stunned the first time I saw a U.K. job posting using experience of I went to my Canadian DOS who had written a massive guidebook on the use of prepositions and who was working on his Masters in Linguistics, and asked him about experience of.  He told me to stick with experience in. Same thing with at the weekend (British) and on the weekend (North American). Then there’s the British fondness for Have you got? Whereas N. Americans are content with Do you have? The latter is far less confusing for a beginner EFL student to grasp! i.e. consistent with Do you need? Do you want? Do we really need to confuse them with another form for have?

An Italian immigrant makes an American breakfa...

Image via Wikipedia

I have a hard time with such strict rules. I’m not an MA in linguistics, but I have spoken English all my life, educated in rural Canada, raised by British parents – both of whom were sticklers for grammar and pronunciation – and I’ve lived and worked in bilingual (English-French) and foreign countries and the thing I’ve come to understand, and accept, is that the English language is evolving, and we no longer need to adhere to outdated rules written down by a couple of now deceased men (Fowler and Strunk.)

Regional misuses of English grammar can sometimes be considered colloquialisms. They are part of the writer’s voice.

Knowledge of English as a foreign and second l...

English: Knowledge of English as a foreign and second language in the EU member states (+Croatia and Turkey), in per cent of the adult population (+15), 2005. Data taken from an EU survey. ebs_243_en.pdf (europa.eu) This image was created by Acker and is licensed under Creative Commons, Attribution-Share Alike. Image via Wikipedia.

For example: When I started to teach EFL in Hungary I was appalled by the misuse of the present perfect continuous (or progressive as we call it in N. America) verb form by native Hungarian EFL teachers. Today I recognize and accept it as a common element of eastern European English! Would I let it go when preparing students for an exam? No. Do I let it go when teaching students how to communicate in English? It depends on the student’s goals.

Punctuation in poetry is an entirely different animal. Do we even need punctuation is poetry? What is poetry? What is the most important thing in a poem?

I read a poem the other day – online – written by someone for whom English was clearly the second language. It was a beautiful poem, full of grammar mistakes – yet it worked. It sang from the page. I heard the writer’s voice (east Indian). If I denied that poem because of the grammar mistakes, I’d be the loser.

I’ve encountered another writer online – whose punctuation and capitalization is clearly uneducated – yet she has a powerful and pure voice that comes through in her writing. If I’d immediately clicked off her page when I first landed on it, I would have missed out on her voice.

I think if people are writing fiction, poetry, opinion, personal commentary – and you can understand what they are writing – we need to allow for the errors that are part of their voice.  When you read their writing, can you hear them speaking?  Do they have an accent that comes through?  We can’t be so demanding that we kill the voice.

It’s a tough call. Because nor can you let them get away with laziness.  If English is their first language and the text is rife with mistakes they should have learned in school, then you can send them to Strunk and Fowler.  If they don’t want to change their style to meet yours, then perhaps you aren’t the right editor for their work.

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Life is an amazing journey. http://www.alisonamazed.wordpress.com http://www.alisonboston.wordpress.com

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Posted in Alison Boston, Poetry, PostADay2011, Use of Language, Writing
2 comments on “Style, Grammar and Punctuation: The Writer’s Voice
  1. Mary Sayler says:

    Yes, each poet has a unique voice to be respected and appreciated, whether punctuation is technically correct or not. The idea is for each aspect of a poem to work well and help readers to experience the poem,

  2. alisonamazed says:

    Hi Mary, thanks for coming by and reading this post. Sorry to be slow responding – I think I initially responded on your blog 🙂 I find it interesting what you say about the idea of correct punctuation being for “each aspect of a poem to work well…” Are you speaking of punctuation as one aspect of the poem?
    One of the things I like about writing poetry is that by playing with punctuation, and to a lesser extent spelling – sometimes even by breaking down a multi-syllabic word, and placing two parts of the word on two different lines – I can use a word to convey many ideas.
    Of course, I don’t adhere to any established rules of poetry 🙂 I see rules for poetry as something devised by academics to enable them to teach poetry (which has already been written) as a literary form, rather than as something for poets to adhere to. Afterall, the first poets who wrote the poems that the rules are based on didn’t have rule books, did they. 🙂

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