The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

It’s not all about the apostrophes…

I saw a tweet recently that really made me smile:

When I meet new people, it’s always a bit of a challenge to explain what I do, mostly because I don’t do a single job. Once people get the general idea though, I find it leads to all kinds of assumptions about what a languagey sort of person must be interested in.

“Correct” grammar
As someone who spends a lot of time researching and writing about grammar norms, yes, non-standard grammar does, inevitably, jump out at me. I do automatically spot misplaced apostrophes, there/their/they’re mix-ups and sentences missing a main verb, but they don’t necessarily have me up in arms. For me, it’s all down to context. If it’s in a Facebook post or a quickie email, I really don’t care. If someone has gone to the trouble (and expense) of having something professionally printed without getting it proofread (a menu, a leaflet, a business website), then yes, it makes me sigh and roll my eyes.

I admit that I love words. I find English vocabulary in all its wonderful variety fascinating. Am I bothered about the origins of a particular word or expression though? Not especially. Yes, understanding a bit about the roots of English can be useful, but for me, it’s functional rather than fascinating. I’m much more interested in how language is used now than where it came from. I have several unopened books on my shelves about the “stories behind words” bought as well-intentioned presents, but now collecting dust.

Trendy coinages
When I tell people I work in dictionaries, one of the common reactions is: “it must be all about finding new words”. Unsurprising perhaps, seeing as the only time dictionaries seem to be in the news is when they announce their “word of the year”: staycation or post-truth or sharenting. And yes, they’re fun, I enjoy a new coinage much as the next person, but they’re very much the fluffy, soundbite end of lexicography. As someone working in ELT, I’m much more involved in trying to explain the frequent, and yes even boring, everyday language that the average learner needs to master. Which, by the way, can be far more interesting and challenging.

The decline of English
At the same time as being excited by new coinages, people also expect me to be outraged by the apparent decline of the English language. I should be vehemently against verbing and appalled by the Americanization of English. I’m not. Language change happens, it always has (see etymology above). Of course, there are some changes that I personally embrace more than others, but asking whether I’m for or against language change seems a fairly nonsensical question to me. There isn’t some malign force out there forcing changes on us, it’s how we collectively choose to use our language that influences the direction of change.

I could go on (my spelling is rubbish, I’m not a literary type, I’ve never watched Countdown …), but I guess my real message is: I love language in my own ways.

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