Recently in Language Category

Good English: Commas at Christmas

It should come as no surprise that punctuation is used differently in different languages. German, for example, has strict rules governing the use of commas. English also has rules for commas but arguably these can be interpreted with a degree of flexibility.

There are some schools of grammatical thought that scoff at the idea of a comma before "and" in a list of items. For example, is it correct to write "I bought apples, oranges, bananas and plums" or "I bought apples, oranges, bananas, and plums"?

I would favour the first version unless there were a good reason for adding the comma in the second version. One such good reason can be illustrated by the following seasonal sentence:

"So they [the shepherds] hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger." Luke 2:16

If there were no comma between 'Joseph' and 'and' the sentence could read as if all three members of the Holy Family were lying in the manger. In this list, a comma clarifies the situation and helps the reader/listener understand more accurately.

If you attend a carol service this weekend, or watch or listen to one on the television or radio, listen carefully to see if the reader makes a little pause at the right point when reading this passage. 

Another traditional reading is from Isaiah. chapter 9 starting from verse 6. "For unto us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end." [New International Version].

Many readers of this passage fall into the temptation of putting a comma (or breath) in between 'wonderful' and 'counsellor'. It is possible that 'wonderful' is acting as a noun and not an adjective but I suspect it was meant to be the latter. (If 'wonderful' is a noun, then arguably one should also treat 'mighty' and 'everlasting' as nouns as well and the reader should read the passage to reflect this). I suspect that many people have been influenced by Handel's Messiah where there is a rest for the singers between 'wonderful' and 'counsellor'. Handel (or Händel as he should be... but the British deprived him of his Umlaut) was one of the best musicians of his day but he was not known for his mastery of the English language and so there are several places in Messiah where emphases come in awkward places.

Like all punctuation, which is relatively modern, (the original Biblical texts did not use it), the function of a comma is to aid communication and understanding. Used incorrectly they can impede the sense of a phrase.

Good English: spelling

Spelling English words correctly is the bane of many people's lives. I once read that a Frenchman said he would rather spend six months doing hard labour than try to learn how to spell in English.  German looks to be difficult to the untutored eye because the words can be so long. But, in fact, what you say is what you write. There are no silent letters such as in 'knife' or 'gnat' or confusions with pronunciation caused by words that look similar such as 'laughter' and 'daughter'.

There was an article in the Guardian recently discussing the length of German words and how practical they are - until you come across such gems as Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz which almost made me laugh when I was once confronted with it. Long as it is, it is easy to spell as every letter is pronounced:  Rindfleisch etikettierungs überwachungs aufgaben übertragungs gesetz.

As part of Topping's Autumn Book Festival in Bath, David Crystal, the well-known linguist, academic and author, will be speaking about spelling. On a journey from sixth century monks to the language of text messaging, he will explain why certain words are spelled the way they are and, with a bit of luck, help us with remembering how to spell the words that catch us all out.

The event will take place on 26 November.

Good English. Using the apostrophe

I have been asked to write a few words on the correct use of the apostrophe. I am only too pleased to do so!

The apostrophe seems to cause endless problems for many people. So much so, that one type of incorrect usage has even acquired its own nickname: the greengrocer's apostrophe.

The apostrophe is used to denote possession, amongst other functions.  We could say, 'the dog of my sister is brown' or 'the dog belonging to my sister is brown'. It is very common to say 'my sister's dog is brown'. Here we use an apostrophe to show the possessive. In languages such as German, Latin, Russian it is known as the 'genitive case'.

If I had two sisters who both owned the same dog, how would this be expressed? Answer: 'My sisters' dog is brown'. By putting the apostrophe after the plural of 'sister', we can see that the dog belongs to both sisters. In speech this idea is not clear because the two sentences ('my sister's dog is brown' and 'my sisters' dog is brown') sound the same.

Correct usage is vital when documents are to be translated. It might not be very important to know how many sisters own the dog (apart from to the sisters themselves) but consider the implications for the following sentences:  'the sum of the company director's bonus is £10,000' and 'the sum of the company directors' bonus is £10,000'. A misplaced apostrophe could be considered to be crucial!

Correct English grammar is vital to your company's image. If you would like further information about apostrophes (including why greengrocers have one of their own) or you would prefer me to do your proofreading, 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.

If there is an area of English grammar that you find confusing, let me know via the comments section and I'll consider writing a blog post about it.

Next time, find out why less is more...

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.

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!


All images copyright of owners.

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!

Learning languages

The summer season is here - even if the weather associated with it is not - and so many evening activities have ceased before re-starting in the autumn. It is an ideal time to think about doing something different and taking a class in a summer school. I have taken the opportunity to learn some New Testament Greek taught by an enterprising Oxford University Theology undergraduate during her long vacation.

The process of learning a new language is a challenge. Many non-linguists seem to think that acquiring a new language is something you "pick up". Indeed, arguably, babies do "pick up" a language because they hear it spoken and they imitate the sounds and use the individual words most pertinent to their situation such as "drink", "more", "no".  The more sophisticated the command of our first language, the more structured our learning process of another language has to be. Everyone has to apply themselves to a bit of homework - in this case, initially learning a new alphabet and then the rules of grammar.

For linguists, the nuts and bolts of a new language, such as the terminology of grammar (nouns, verbs, genitive case, gerund, etc), are familiar, but the challenge comes in remembering where the rules differ. A verb may be weak in one language and strong in another, a noun may be feminine in one language and masculine in another, and prepositions were invented to catch us all out!

The whole process is fascinating, I think, and so far I am enjoying spelling out words in the as-yet unfamiliar alphabet and finding links with my native language (Claire, our tutor, is letting us in gently, I think!) but I am reminded that learning a new language requires application and dedication. It is thoroughly enjoyable and fascinating, too!

Unlike New Testament Greek, which is a dead language, and cannot be practised in conversation, members of the Weston French Connection group are reminded that we will continue to meet throughout the summer on the fourth Thursday of the month in the Old Crown to ensure our French conversation skills have an occasional airing!

Where words come from

Purists of certain languages deplore the infiltration of their language by words of English origin. Although now widely used, some French speakers dislike "le weekend" and "le selfservice"; native German speakers may frown on "downloaden" or "Computer". And they have a point. These languages have perfectly good words of their own to express these concepts.

This article from the BBC website explains how the English language has adopted words of Asian origin into common usage. Stemming from the era of British rule in India, many words are now part and parcel of the language to such an extent that many people may not notice their foreignness, such as "chutney", "pyjamas" and "veranda".  The French have embraced the word "shampoo" with such enthusiasm that they have given it the English suffix of "-ing" (to create a noun, not a verb) - perhaps to show its origins. But the suffix is only half the story.

A radio programme exploring this subject further will be broadcast on Friday 13 July on Radio 4 at 11.00 BST.