I recently came across this article about the English Language Unity Act in the United States. I have to confess that I knew nothing about this before now, but it's fascinating to see the fierce debate that surrounds it when it's hard to imagine the same kind of controversy arising over any effort to make English the official language of the UK (I understand that it doesn't have that status at the moment). I may be wrong, but my guess is that any such move would scarcely be noticed. Perhaps it's because the English language is embedded in our culture in a way that it just isn't in the US. And, although the UK is just as much a cultural and linguistic melting pot as the US, the latter is nevertheless a younger nation, and perhaps the English language hasn't (despite a strong literary tradition) had the time to become part of its very fabric.
I don't want to be a cliché. I have no desire to be a grumpy old man before my time.
But, as I was playing a board game the other day, I came across the following:
1. 'Name someone whose advise you would normally accept.'
2. 'Name something, apart from exersize...'
Perhaps we shouldn't get too wound up about this sort of thing. Perhaps it doesn't really matter.
Personally, though, I think we should, and I think it does matter.
For one thing, this was the type of game that gets played by people of all ages, children included.
A bit of dodgy typesetting is one thing, but 'exersize'?
Anyone who has tried to proofread will know that it's not nearly as easy as you might think.
But these weren't tricky grammatical points, nor were they errors buried in thousands of words of text. These were things that anyone with a basic education should get right or be able to pick up if someone else has made the mistake.
It's all too easy to cut spending on proofreading in an effort to balance the books. After all, nobody really notices the work of a good proofreader.
Bad proofreading, on the other hand, will get your company noticed for all the wrong reasons.
I came across something quite disturbing recently. At least I thought it was disturbing. It was basically a sales pitch for a proofreading book. Nothing wrong with that. No, the bit that I found disturbing was what it had to say about proofreading courses.
Essentially, the implication seemed to be that in proofreading there is always a right or wrong answer. The argument was that there's no point in doing a proofreading course because a book will tell you all you need to know (as long as it contains some model answers to exercises).
Personally, I think this is very wide of the mark. I've been helping students on Proofreading Today (the proofreading course from Editorial Training) for some time now. And I think they know as well as I do that a good proofreader often has to exercise a degree of judgement. Very often, it's far from black and white. The trickiest choices are typically around whether or not making a certain change encroaches on the editor's role. While a proofreader may justifiably correct all the grammatical errors in a scientific journal, how far should they go in a page-turner written in a colloquial style?
So I would say that the level of professional judgement required of a proofreader isn't something you can readily pick up from a book. Guidance on a training course can put you on the right track, and experience, over months and years, will help you develop the expertise you need to become truly proficient.
I was reminded a couple of days ago that I once tried. It was a few years ago now, and I didn't get very far, although it is a fascinating language.
Fascinating and hugely difficult to learn. And that's quite hard to admit when you've always been good at languages. But I think many English speakers face a particular handicap. Those of us who speak with something that at least approximates to 'received pronunciation' are accustomed to a certain kind of intonation. It tends to fall at the end of a sentence, unless that sentence happens to be a question.
So the idea that a rising, falling or steady intonation can actually change the meaning of a word, as it can in Chinese, is especially hard to get to grips with. This made me wonder whether those with certain regional accents (Welsh or Midlands, for example), with rising and falling tones, would fare rather better..?
Publishing in the UK is undoubtedly rather London-centred. Just ask any recent graduate looking for a job in the industry. So sometimes I feel a bit isolated living on the coast. Don't get me wrong – it's very nice here. It's just that attending a publishing event normally means a late-night trip back on the last train from Charing Cross or St Pancras.
I was so pleasantly surprised, then, to be able to go along to a wonderful conference organised by the University Centre Folkestone (UCF) last week. Titled Treasure or Trash? Artistic freedom and quality control in a digital age, it was free to attend and boasted some excellent speakers, including the inspirational Chris Meade from if:book and Danuta Kean, whose insights into copyright certainly made me stop and think. There were also talks from a number of entrepreneurs who are starting to publish in truly innovative ways.
All too often, events such as this fail to live up to expectations. Not this one. Every one of the speakers clearly had a real passion for their work – an infectious enthusiasm that left its mark on me and, I suspect, many other delegates. The organisation was also superb, despite some major problems on the roads that held things up a little at the beginning. All in all, a fabulous event.
Perhaps I don't need to move back to London after all.
In case you don't know, 'sock puppet' is internet slang for someone who assumes a fake identity online, especially with a view to giving extra credibility to something they've written under their real identity.
The phrase has been in the news recently, following the revelation that one particular famous author had been exposed as posting positive reviews of his own books online under different identities, at the same time as posting negative ones about other authors.
Of course, one of the great things about the internet is that it does, within limits, afford a certain degree of anonymity. It makes it easy writers to publish to a mass audience without revealing their true identity (although there's nothing new about the nom de plume). People use fake profiles to say things they would never dream of saying if they thought their true identity might become known.
On the one hand, this can be seen as dangerous. It means that extreme and abhorrent views can gain exposure. But on the other, it surely fosters creativity. It gives writers the chance to explore and try new things. They might get shot down in flames, but it won't matter.
The trouble is that the inevitable abuse of this kind of freedom tends to lead to calls for tighter control. We may find that verified accounts have to be used for people to be able to post reviews on prominent website, for example. I think this would be a step too far – perhaps verification could be used to give some reviews a certain amount of added credibility, but I believe there should always be a place, within certain legal boundaries, for that ultimate freedom of expression that anonymity allows.
Because there's another fascinating phenomenon that could die with growing regulation of the internet. People are complex creatures, and many are using the internet to explore different facets to their personalities, sometimes through the use of avatars in virtual worlds. It is a chance for many to escape the confines of the role that real life circumstances have imposed on them and ask 'what would I be like if...?'. It's a kind of creativity that's almost entirely new: the chance to lead an entirely safe secret double life, and I think it would be a shame if it were lost.
I recently came across the surprising revelation that Google has looked at the quality of spelling and grammar of sites in its index (see http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=qoFf6Kn4K98&gl=GB). This is not to say that poor grammar will directly affect a site's score when it comes to its search engine ranking (at least not yet). Rather, Google has noted a correlation between a site's Pagerank (trustworthiness in Google's eyes) and its spelling and grammar. Of course, as this video makes clear, it would be incredibly difficult for Google to automate the assessment of a page's quality of writing.
Nevertheless, the fact that there is a correlation between spelling and grammar on one hand and Pagerank on the other suggests that users and webmasters might just be making that assessment anyway, and affecting sites' search engine rankings as a result.
Well, your website's Pagerank is affected by the inbound links from other websites. And the higher the Pagerank of those sites, the more likely your own site is to be seen as trustworthy. The correlation between Pagerank and spelling and grammar suggests that webmasters of trusted sites may be more likely to link to sites where the quality of writing is good.
This isn't something that's often addressed by companies looking at search engine optimisation, but it does suggest a need for good proofreaders and editors to work alongside webmasters and marketers.