September 2012 Archives

Good English: punctuation

Well, this is certainly music to my ears!

I see from Jill Sommer's blog that our cousins on the other side of the Pond celebrated National Punctuation Day yesterday (24 September).  Perhaps we Brits should follow suit?

I would caution against following all that the Americans say on this subject because not only do they spell certain words differently from us they also punctuate differently in some cases. (I believe an American would have written the previous sentence using 'differently than'...) Nevertheless, National Punctuation Day sounds like an excellent idea for raising awareness of all those little marks such as ! ? , ' and " . I wonder what we should do to celebrate the day? Have a plate of cakes decorated with punctuation marks and the person providing the best explanation of usage eats the cake, perhaps?

A request has been made for a post on commas. These little marks can be pesky things to get right so a blog post is being drafted on the subject. But hold on to your hats. Before we get to commas we will be considering when to use 'they're' or is it 'there or even 'their'?

Good English grammar: when to use 'I' and 'me'

English grammar appears not to be widely taught in British schools these days. Just because one grows up speaking a language it does not necessarily follow that one grows up speaking it correctly.  It seems to me that the confusion with when to use 'I' and 'me' may stem from a very early age and the confusion is not ironed out at school.

There is a convention in polite society that when talking about oneself and a friend, the friend should be mentioned first. Children often say sentences such as, "Mum, can me and Tommy go swimming?"  Mother then corrects the child to say "Can Tommy and I go swimming?" So far, so good (well, almost. There is another issue here... but let's tackle one thing at a time!). This is correct because if Tommy were not there the child would say "Can I go swimming?" The problem arises when the child, who has had the "Tommy and I" construction drilled into him, needs to use the word 'me'.

In Romance languages, grammatically speaking, 'me' is often referred to as the object of a sentence; in Latin, Greek, German and Russian it is known as the accusative. It's the same thing with a different name.

Here is an example I heard on the radio the other day. A solicitor, so one assumes reasonably well educated, said, "And the insurance broker asked my wife and I about our finances...."


The correct way of expressing this idea would be "And the insurance broker asked my wife and me about our finances..."

You would not say "The insurance broker asked I about my finances". Therefore, irrespective of how many other people are involved, it should be correctly expressed as  "the insurance broker asked me ...." When politely mentioning everyone else first it then becomes "the insurance broker asked John, Susan, Rebecca, Simon, my wife and me about our finances".

In a different situation the solicitor would be perfectly correct in saying "My wife and I are going on holiday to Cornwall this year." Why? Because "my wife is going on holiday to Cornwall" is correct and "I am going on holiday to Cornwall" is also correct. The two together, "my wife and I" is therefore correct. Nobody above the age of three says "Me is going on holiday" !

If in doubt, first construct the sentence in your head without friends and wives, etc. and decide if it should be 'I' or 'me' , then add the others. That way, you should get it right.

I hope this short explanation helps but if you are still unsure about aspects of English grammar, please do not hesitate to contact me through my contact page on the website. I will be pleased to discuss your requirements with you. If you would like your documents proofread, I will be happy to provide this service. Alternatively, I can give lessons to meet your personal needs either in Bath or via Skype.

The next post looks at 'there'... or is it 'their' or 'they're'?

Good English grammar: an introduction

In the final New Testament Greek class, Claire let us loose on translating verses from the Bible. In pairs, we puzzled out all the elements of grammar she had taught us; tenses, genders, cases, exceptions to the rules and so we creaked our way through the actual text rather than the practice sentences that had been used to demonstrate the point we had been learning.

Grammar provides the scaffolding for building sentences. English grammar has its pitfalls - and because I hear so many mistakes made in the British media these days - I am going to write a series of short posts on correct usage. Shockingly, basic mistakes are not only made in speech when one might be forgiven for speaking quickly or forgetting what one has said at the beginning of a long sentence, I see these mistakes in print, too.

The first post to be published shortly will be on when to use 'I' and 'me'.

If you require personal tuition or help in the area of English grammar, please do not hesitate to contact me through my contact page on the website. I will be pleased to discuss your requirements with you. Lessons can be provided in Bath or via Skype.

Bath German Society on the web

Bath German Society now has a Facebook page!

Please "like" it (who decided that the word "like" would be a good way of showing one's approval? It is so inelegant....) and keep up to date with the Society's programme.  Announcements of events concerning German/Austrian/Swiss culture taking place in Bath will also be posted there.

Click here for the link.

The Society's website is here.

Bath German Society's first meeting of the season takes place tomorrow, 20 September. Film licensing laws do not permit advertising so I'm not allowed to divulge the name of the film - but it is in German by a German director with German actors and deals with facing the end of life. I think it is more upbeat than I have made it sound!

A busy time of year for networking

The beginning of autumn always seems to be a busy time of year for networking, updating skills, becoming acquainted with what's new in the world of languages and generally getting more involved.

I am very much looking forward to the BDÜ's 2012 conference "Interpreting the Future" from 28-30 September. If the conference three years ago is anything to go by, it will be a wonderfully enriching experience. Contact me in advance if you are going too and we'll meet up for a coffee!

And if you can't attend this event....BDUe_Konferenz_2012_Plakat_DE_RGB_oR.jpg...then perhaps the Proz virtual conference will be easier to attend from your desk or laptop...

There is a week of events for freelance translators from 24-28 September. Check out the details here.

The next event is for all those interested in languages: teachers, tourists, students as well as translators and interpreters.  The Language Show Live is making its annual appearance at Olympia, London from 19-21 October. It is always packed with interesting stands, engaging seminars and presentations and fascinating languages for people at all levels of ability. The Institute of Translating and Interpreting (ITI) will be running a seminar on The Day in the Life of a Translator. I must say, I'm intrigued!


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The minefield that is language

Anyone who has attempted to learn a foreign language will be at once fascinated and daunted. Fascinated - by the new vistas, culture and ways of thinking that open up and daunted by the cultural pitfalls, faux pas and general misunderstandings that can ensue.

Even those who have a solid grip on a foreign language or two can be tripped up by unspoken cultural norms lurking in the background of the simplest of greetings.  I have been reminded of this by this article recently published by the BBC.

Most European languages - English of course being the exception - have an informal and formal version of the word 'you'. Informal usage is restricted to family, children, animals and very close friends. The formal usage is for everyone else - neighbours, colleagues, strangers, and so on. For example, informal versions are "tu" (French) "Du" (German), "tu" (Spanish) and formal versions are "vous", "Sie" and "usted".

At one time, the conventions were very clear and there was not any confusion about when to use the different versions. Nowadays, society has become more relaxed and the lines have become blurred. Some people do not mind a bit of informality and others do - so quite a lot of second-guessing is required.

Some years ago, when I worked for a German company, we simply followed the adage "when in Rome...". In Germany, I would address my colleagues as Herr X and Frau Y and use the 'Sie' form of the verb. When they visited the British office, the same people would be addressed by their first names and addressed as "you". All very clear. Some people may think it odd that we would start a conversation off in one language and end up speaking in the other. We would move from informality to formality (and perhaps back again) in the space of five minutes but it felt entirely natural.

If in doubt, I tend to err on the side of caution and use the formal version which in German is the same as the infinitive so there is the added advantage of less conjugating being required.

In English, the conventions can be more difficult to navigate as a foreign speaker may think that if he is addressing a colleague by his first name, then the tone and register can be relaxed as well. For colleagues who know each other well and are friends outside of work, this is often the case. But for those who interact solely in a work environment there may be a level of formality that is conveyed in other ways. This is where one has to be culturally aware as well as linguistically aware. Even native speakers can sometimes misread a situation and misinterpret it. The topic of the BBC article discusses the issues of people communicating using Twitter where informality is perhaps expected in such short messages but even so offence can easily be caused if these unwritten conventions are contravened.

Language is wonderful but it can also be a minefield!