Learning To Write English All Over Again

There are times when I wish my mother tongue was something other than English  and I had to learn English from scratch. That way I would know my verbs from adverbs, my nouns from pronouns and how to construct a grammatically correct sentence.  I don’t know about you, but I have always been acutely aware of my lack of knowledge when it comes to English grammar.  Even as I start to write this post, I am wondering if anyone reading it might be thinking that I have used prepositions and subordinate conjunctions in the wrong place.   No, I don’t know what they are either!   I just write as I speak the language I have grown up with over the last 63 years.

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About 20 years ago I joined an adult education evening class at my local Sixth form college and took Adult English GCE. The majority of the syllabus was literature based which was most enjoyable and I discovered the joy of writing.   At that time, I was surprised how the written word had evolved since I left school. For example, we were told not to use a comma in front of the word and ( ,and ) as it was unnecessary.  I never did get around to reading “Eats, Shoots and Leaves”  written by Lynne Truss and published in 2003.  Maybe if I had read it I would not be struggling now.  10 years later I worked for someone who abhorred capital letters apart from the beginning of a sentence.  This threw me into a complete flummox trying to get things right, I had spent years, as a legal secretary, typing the Court, so to downgrade it to the court just didn’t feel right.

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I have muddled along quite happily over the years, accepting corrections from bosses, although I wasn’t entirely sure they were correct, and (see I still use the unnecessary comma) in the last 4 years writing my blog as if I was talking to you, without any hesitation as to whether the Grammar Police were going to come at me with a big stick.

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I am very aware that everything evolves over the years, but last week something happened at work that made me wonder, even question, whether it is changing for the better.   We have been given a “Writing style guide”  to be used as a reference tool to ensure that communications are presented in a consistent style.  It went on to explain that spelling and punctuation changes as the language evolves.  There is a list of words to be avoided “Jargon”, redundant phrases and how to simplify common phrases such as using ‘about’ instead of ‘in relation to’ and ‘from or for’ instead of ‘from the point of view of’.  We are shown how to use bullet points, capital letters and abbreviations.    It was at abbreviations that was one hurdle I found a bit too high.   The style guide goes on to explain that abbreviations pronounced as words are written in sentence case, giving the example of NATO should be Nato.    Surely this is WRONG WRONG WRONG!!!

Feeling strongly about this, I took it up with our Marketing Department, sorry that should be marketing department (lower case), and received a reply that they were “delighted to see that I was absorbing the writing style”, explaining acronyms can be presented in both forms but a consistent approach was important and provided me with a link to the Guardian and Observer style guide.    I am not a Guardian reader but this was interesting and I learned that the ubiquitous comma can be used in front of the word ‘and’ and it is known as the Oxford comma:

Oxford comma – a comma before the final “and” in lists: straightforward ones (he ate ham, eggs and chips) do not need one, but sometimes it can help the reader (he ate cereal, kippers, bacon, eggs, toast and marmalade, and tea), and sometimes it is essential:

compare
I dedicate this book to my parents, Martin Amis, and JK Rowling

with
I dedicate this book to my parents, Martin Amis and JK Rowling

All is not lost, fortunately.

Meanwhile, I will continue to write as though I am speaking to you, whether it is right or wrong.  If I ponder too much over correctness it will slow down my process of thought, or should that be thought process.  I will remember not to use capital letters for the seasons which is something I always get wrong, and I will continue to stumble over the use of which and that –  “This is the house that Jack built” “This house, which Jack built, is now falling down.”

What is your take on all of this?  I leave you to think about how English has changed having read my post which is probably bursting with grammatical errors.

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23 thoughts on “Learning To Write English All Over Again

  1. Hi Ronnie, as I am self-publishing a book on Amazon, I have become much more aware of some of these issues that you speak of (or about). I have to focus a lot more on what others would consider to be grammatically correct and yes, I think this has slowed my progress down from getting it completed and upload. I am scared that I will be criticised, but it’s stupid, because of course I will be, not everyone is going to like my use of the English language, as most of us, especially over generations, have been taught differently. I have always been better at writing literature than language (apart from one paren’t evening when my English teacher said how one paragraph I had punctuated was perfectly done and that was good considering how young I was) and yes, I write like I am talking directly to you on my blog too xx

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  2. We were always taught that you did NOT use a comma when using and and but! I get really annoyed when I see a comma then and! The other bug with me is people saying prounouciation!! Not pronunciation!! grrr! As you see I tend to write as I speak and think. Definitely not correct grammar etc! At 76 can do what I like, so there!

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  3. I did enjoy this. As someone who writes high level minutes on a daily basis I am acutely aware of grammar and punctuation. I hate acronyms and often write the title out in full but if I have to use the acronym for the sake of brevity it would always be in capitals since to convert NATO into Nato makes it a proper noun and this might not be the case. Would we write Bbc instead of BBC – I dont think so it looks silly.
    As for writing style. I have to write quite formally and precisely at work so I write blog, like you, as if I am having a conversation with someone and I rarely proof it properly as I think you can loose the flow when you over edit and proof.

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    1. Thank you Helen, so glad you enjoyed reading this post. I like to break away from gardening once in a while, although I seem to have written more on a non gardening theme lately. Having worked in the legal profession for over 20 years and always had to be formal, I do find the new “friendly unstuffy approach” hard to change to, but there you go that is the way of the world!

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  4. Ronnie I write as I speak as well, and that often means I don’t punctuate enough because I speak quickly until I’m out of breath. I went to an old fashioned grammar school, was well taught and got my ‘o’ levels in both English language and lit and have since gained a Dip He in Literature and Creative writing – are you out of breath yet? My feelings these days are that standards have slipped so much that few people will know how badly I’m writing.This is a fab post!

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    1. You may wonder where my reply went to. On reflection I thought I should delete it lest I upset people. My English lessons at school were not so great, maybe it was because it was a Secondary Modern and we learned how to cook and sew rather than get high grades in exams. That is why I went back to Adult Education to get some GCE’s.

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  5. You write beautifully. I hate that Portuguese spelling has changed recently. Some of the changes make sense but others don’t, in my humble opinion, and now I’m never sure if I’ve written texts correctly. I think it’s harder than learning it the first time.

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  6. I struggle with grammar, Ronnie. I studied English at O Level and Eng Lit at A level but we didn’t cover grammar – which I always thought odd? I hope I’ve got better since I started blogging. I often Google things I’m unsure about and thankfully there is a huge amount of on-line help. Incidentally, I bought Eats, Shoots and Leaves today for a £1 in a charity shop. I was like well pleased innit tho? D

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    1. Hi Dave, is that a coincidence you buying Eats, Shoots & Leaves? I don’t think we learn English as well as someone from another country does. I remember having all those French verbs drilled into us I wonder if the French have to learn as much? Perhaps it happens in every country.

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      1. Yep. Pure coincidence. I’ve been meaning to read it for years so grabbed the copy eagerly yesterday. I remember struggling with German in the same way as you did with French. At least in English we don’t need to learn the gender of every single noun.

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  7. It is not only English that has changed, all languags change from time to time so when you are a bit older you don’t know how to write unless you are a language teacher that has to learn the new rules all the time. Besides I think not many people can write correct, even the smartest make a mistake once in a while !!!

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  8. I think the most important thing is to express oneself clearly. Some of these things vary over time. When I was in grammar school, we were supposed to put that final comma (before the ‘and’). Also one could be influenced by having studied different languages. Don’t Germans use a lot of capital letters? (not that I have studied German) 🙂

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