This week, I was subbing a story about horses that had been rescued from dire circumstances. If not for the language educated among us, the situation could have given rise to an inadvertent mondegreen (when a phrase is repeated incorrectly over time and eventually replaces the original phrase).
The English language is so rich and diverse that one lifetime is just not enough to master all of it.
But I have discovered that as much as English owes many of its idioms to the writings of the great Shakespeare, the bible has made a significant contribution of its own.
I hasten to add at this point, that researching Shakespearean idiomatic origins is a whole lot easier than that of biblical references.
I am reading a book in which the author has swamped the pages with an oversupply of adjectives.
Of course, this is just my opinion, but I find the need to qualify every verb and every noun in the sentence an overreach and, worst of all, a punishment to the text. And the reader.
Last month I received a self-sealing letter in the post. These are usually some or other form of traffic infringement notice. Indeed, it was. But it was red. This was the first time in my life that I had received a fine in red. Reading further, I found the fine showed a photograph of a car that is not mine, for a date on which I was not available, in a city I haven’t visited for more than 10 years. “No admission of guilt”, the document warned.
Thinking I would have to show up in court to defend these outrageous allegations, I had a conniption. Or a conniption fit, as is sometimes incorrectly stated.
Why is surgery an operation?
When asking this question, it brings to mind a scenario in a sitcom. For example, in The Nanny, Fran could be devastated when she learns that Mr Sheffield has to go for surgery. “Oh, an operation,” she might exclaim, explaining to herself that her boss will be going under the knife.
In modern language, surgery and operation are used interchangeable but not in equal measure.
Have you ever paid attention to the ampersand? Did you know that it and similarly formed words are called mondegreens?
Newspaper style prefers the use of a full “and” only permitting the use of this mondegreen (oh how titillating is the English language?) in a name such as Fick & Sons or Johnson & Johnson. The ampersand, disrespected as it is in today’s press, had an important place in the history of the English language.
In my job, as sub-editor at a community newspaper, I had to reprimand a reporter for shoddy work.
His report was submitted for subbing with several repeated paragraphs. When I pointed this out to him, he swore it was a systems error.
This was highly unlikely and even if it was, he should have made the necessary corrections to the piece before sending it on for subbing.
Usually I write about grammar, but what about style?
Grammar, if you know the rules, can with effort and dedication be learnt. Style, however, is unique to the individual. Writing in your own voice almost as you speak, is how you will develop your style.
When you build your unique style, you readers will begin to recognise your work before they see your by line.
Ernest Hemingway used to begin his sentences with ‘and’ or ‘but’, that was his style; Dickens used aesthetically complex sentences, and that was his style. So, each writer has his own style, which is the sum of all the writing mannerisms, choice of vocabulary, and grammar constructions. Will your sentences be long or short? Will you use words that are simple or sophisticated?
I once punned in a headline “No comma sense”.
This referred to a number quoted by a government department which did not know where to put the comma between noughts so it had created an astronomical number, millions more than what was accurate.
With numbers commas and their placing are critical. With words, commas are the most helpful grammar tool, to help make sense of a sentence.