Thursday, 23 June 2011


I recently found this YouTube video by the incredibly witty Stephen Fry.  If you haven't watched it yet, it is well worth the few minutes.

This video is clever and entertaining, and it got me thinking about words and language and writing.  I do not think that I am a language snob, but it does bother me when I encounter bad grammar in a published book.  For one thing, it slows me down and interrupts the flow of my reading.  If the writing draws attention to itself in a negative way (not for some sort of dramatic effect), then that can't be good.  It pulls the reader out of the world the author has worked so hard to create.

There are the delicious times, however, I stop to savour a passage of well written writing, something I do - I will mark the page and re-read it, enjoying its flow and insight.  Writers who are masters of language are amazing to read and I can't get enough of it, they are magical to me.  I will even forgive a not so good story for the sake of beautiful sentences.

Perhaps it is like when Stephen Fry says you dress up for a job interview, including your language.  I expect that in published books.  I spent a couple of years marking papers at university for a first year history course that also counted as an English component and it was difficult to impress the need for good grammar and spelling on many students, that in formal work you need formal grammar.  I also remember my favourite university professor drilling into our brains that we had to learn the rules first before we were alowed to break them.  And we were alowed to break them, so long as we knew we knew what we were doing and not just being careless.  These lessons are hard for me to give up,

Some things I am learning to forgive, however, such as sentence fragments.  They are so pervasive in today's writing that I hardly even notice them anymore.  Sometimes this is is shame because it makes everything seem so urgent and rushed.  However, it could be inevitable in our Twitter and texting world.

Other things I have a harder time with.  One of my absolute pet peeves is words like "gonna," "shoulda," and "wanna" in printed text (interesting to note that my spell check did not pick up on gonna and wanna, so apparently they are spelled correctly!!).  I know these types of words are (usually) used in dialogue to create a feel for the character, but they absolutely drive me crazy.  I am finding them in a huge number of books lately, so maybe it is just something I will have to get used to.

I wholeheartedly agree that language can and should change.   We need this evolution and it can be fun and creative.  I love making up words and encourage my kids to do so  - it is great to play with language.  Maybe there are just a lot of changes going on right now and it is hard to keep up as things take time to for our ears to get used to.  It seems to me that kids are hard wired to accept these changes in their stride, and maybe it is just older people with their ideas and rules more ingrained that care so much.  Ultimately, I agree with Stephen Fry, old habits die hard, but I can try to be more open.  However, I think that it is a shame when bad grammer gets in the way of interesting ideas and clarity, so there will always be a place for good editing.

This is just my personal rambling on language.  I would love to hear what other people have to say.  Does anyone have and favourite, beautiful writing they can recommend?  Off the top of my head, I can think of Canadian author Richard Wagamesse, I am reading his One Native Life and the language is wonderful.  A couple of years ago I read Sebastian Barry's The Secret Scripture, and his use of language is stunning and has stayed with me.


  1. Thanks for this. I thought it was very interesting. We all have our pet peeves about language -- one of mine is "affect" vs. "effect" - that mistake always causes sirens to go off in my head! I don't know if I can get over it, but I'll try....

  2. Hum. Interesting post! As an English teacher, grammar's a hard thing, since my students prefer to write things their own way, rather than the "proper" way. *sigh*
    And, truly, I can't stand people who don't know how to use: there, their & they're; to & too; or put apostrophes in random places. Drives me insane.
    Mary @ Book Swarm


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