Monthly Archives: July 2013

O, Canada (Part 1)

When I emigrated from the United States to Canada a number of years ago, I gave little thought to the potential language differences I might encounter. After all, I had a new marriage to build, a job hunt to conduct and new friends to make. New words were low on my list of concerns.

In fact, I had visited relatives in Canada many times as a child and didn’t remember hearing anything unusual, other than the accent with which my cousins spoke. As I prepared to make the move north, my friends said to me, jokingly, “Well, at least you won’t have to learn a new language.” 

How surprised they would be to realize that while, yes, citizens of both countries speak English, there are many words and phrases that they would find mystifying here in the Great White North, as we lovingly call it. If Americans think about Canada, they generally picture it as their friendly neighbour to the north and leave it at that. Those who don’t live in border states generally give little thought to the idea that Canada is a country with a different culture, other traditions and words that would be as foreign to them as Australian slang. 

It’s easy to pick a Canadian out at a restaurant or a highway rest stop. He or she is the one inquiring about the location of the washroom. Not the toilet or the restroom: the washroom. Euphemistic perhaps, but in keeping with the Canadian tradition of politeness.

And Canadians buying food or drink in the same locales will pay for them at the cash, not the cash register.

I loved discovering these differences as I settled into life in Canada, and I still maintain a mental catalogue. Thanksgiving, for instance, is a statutory – not a public – holiday, referring to the fact that it was established by provincial or federal statute. Hydro refers to (hydro) electricity, not to water; I receive my monthly hydro bill in the mail. 

If I choose to stay home from work due to illness, I book off sick, and if I’m laid off from my job and obtain unemployment insurance, I’m on the pogey. This might depress me so much that I eat too many squares – or bar cookies, as they’re known in the U.S. – or drown my sorrows with a two-four, a case of beer with, count ‘em, 24 bottles.

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Each time I come across a new Canadianism, it delights me. Why shouldn’t language be rich and diverse and reflect the place where it’s put into practice? Such words are hallmarks of a distinct culture and a reminder not to lump all English-speaking countries together. As the French say – in another context, of course – Vive la difference!

 

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Spelling: It’s so last year – or isn’t it?

An elementary school teacher confided in me recently that he encouraged his first graders not to worry about spelling.

“Just get the idea down,” he urges them when they are blocked by uncertainty about how to spell a particular word. “Your ideas are what are most important. No one ever reads the work of a famous writer to enjoy the good grammar and spelling.”

True, and perhaps suitable in Grade One, but I wouldn’t support such a strategy for too much longer. Spelling may seem irrelevant in the world of ideas and creativity, but in the cold, cruel adult world, correct spelling is also an indicator of education and, by extension, of social class. As harsh as it may seem, strangers will judge you based on your written words, as well as your speech. Poor spelling marks you, rightly or wrongly, as sloppy or uneducated; even worse, you may be condemned as unintelligent. It’s not the impression you wish to make on a prospective employer.

Good spelling habits are often just that: habits. If children are required to learn correct spelling at an early age and are forced to correct mistakes, it is to be hoped that they are sensitive to the need to spell correctly throughout their lives. Practice makes perfect, too. The spelling bee was undoubtedly created to encourage youngsters to make a game of learning to spell properly. (“Language. That’s L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E. Language.”)

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Spelling is a challenge, especially in this age of technology and texting. It may appear to be a useless skill when one can simply run a document through the computer’s spell checker or send a text message that pares words to bare essentials: How r u? Those of us who insist on precision may appear uptight and unnecessarily rule-bound. So be it 

As informal as our world can be, formal language still has its place. And unfortunately for those who denigrate spelling prowess, correct language is often necessary when there is a lot on the line, such as a potential job or a chance to impress a supervisor with a well-written proposal or presentation.

Don’t encourage children get off to a poor start with incorrect spelling. Creativity is wonderful and laudable, but rules exist to help us all get along. For those who want to succeed, spelling rules are worth mastering.

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Painful contractions (No pregnancy involved!)

As a writer, language is the currency of my daily life, but as an editor, it is the correct use of that language that is of the utmost importance.

One of the most common mistakes seen in blogs, letters, advertising and – gasp – even in books, involves a contraction: it’s. For those non-grammarians among us, a contraction is a shortened form of a pair of words that uses an apostrophe to replace the missing letters. We all use them in our writing and our speaking – they are the perfect language constructs for the hectic pace of 21st century life and our Twitter/texting-filled world. So, let’s* get them right!

It’s* easy – or it should be.  It’s is the shortened version of it is. Subject (it) and verb (is) are wrapped up into one small package. No need for four letters when three will do: time’s a-wasting. Get out the carving knife and chop that offending extra letter out of there!

Done.  But now comes the tricky part: using the contraction correctly. Unfortunately for the writer, our contraction has a fraternal twin: the possessive pronoun its.

They sound alike and their spelling is similar, but not identical, and that’s* where the grammarian’s frustration begins. The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation (Jane Straus, Jossey-Bass) calls it the #1 grammar error, and my own experience bears out the truth of that assertion. Its – the error’s –appearances are legion.

Its, the unassuming possessive pronoun, modifies – or refers back to — a noun. For example, in the sentenceImage The subway rumbled along on its tracks, its refers to the subway. Now, try substituting its fraternal twin, it’s, and you have a sentence that says The subway rumbled along on it is tracks. Does that make sense? Of course not! Yet, it’s surprising how often otherwise intelligent, educated people make this mistake in their writing.

Don’t* add your voice to this off-key chorus! Believe me, editors, recruiters and colleagues will notice and will judge you harshly, generally at a time when that all-important good first impression is needed. You can blame it on your spell-checker, but you may not get the chance. So, think when you write and proofread your copy before you hit the Send button.

Try replacing its or it’s with it is and see if it makes sense, then adjust accordingly. You’ll save yourself from appearing ignorant and you’ll save us editors a great deal of aggravation. In fact, I can feel my blood pressure dropping already!

P.S.  Feel free to share some of the real life examples you see in the news or in advertisements!

*Contraction

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A blog appears

 

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It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s the SuperGrammarian! 

Welcome to my blog.

Following Superman’s example, I hope to keep the world of words safe for lovers of language by fighting common usage errors, shining a spotlight on bad grammar and generally musing about language.

We natives of planet Earth often find the language used by our fellow Earthlings as incomprehensible as if they hailed from Krypton. Simply because two people speak English, there is no guarantee they’ll understand each other. Slang, usage or regional accents may get in the way. 

It’s my mission – yes, I choose to accept it – to look at the highs and lows of language: eloquent speech, bad grammar, poor usage and newly minted expressions, hoping these ramblings will remind you to think before you speak  or hit your email Send button. 

What calls me to this venture? As someone who has made her living by writing in one style or another for a couple of decades, I spend a lot of time with the mysteries, annoyances and delights of the English language – more than, for example, an accountant would. As Milton beautifully states in Paradise Regained:

 “If I would delight my private hours
With music or with poem, where so soon
As in our native language can I find
That solace?”

As an avid reader, as well as a writer, I am well aware of the versatility of the English language, its richness and its variety.  I love to come across new and unfamiliar words – or old-fashioned ones that have fallen out of favour. They all have stories to tell.

Each language has its own quirks, its peculiar strengths and weaknesses. English has been often touted as a very difficult language to learn because it often defies logical explanation, both grammatically and in terms of pronunciation. (Think red and read, for example!) As I share my observations with you through this blog, I hope you’ll begin to look with new eyes at English words, their use and the tales they have to tell.

Stay tuned — or watch the skies!

 

 

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