Word Nymph's Point of View

Monica Welch runs a wonderful blog "Word Nymph" where among other subjects she raises language issues. Being a keen observer, Monica never leaves any ambiguous or difficult word matters that come her way without investigating into them. The results of her thorough analyses are enjoyed and discussed by her blog readers. Being one of them, I found myself interested in what stands behind the blog and asked Monica for an interview.

Olga: When I came across your blog, it made me really happy. The thing is I couldn’t even imagine someone running a blog about language issues. Reading your blog might be extremely useful and interesting for language learners. Could you tell me in a bit more detail in which ways your job is connected with words and what sort of language issues you raise in your blog?

Monica: Almost every job I’ve had has required skillful use of words. Currently I am a communications consultant who helps clients communicate with their clients and customers, their governments, the media and other audiences.

My clients are experts in their fields. They know what they want to say but not always how to say it in the most appropriate manner. What is appropriate? Generally it means putting information in plain language rather than technical jargon, so that people who aren’t experts understand it. It means saying things clearly and concisely. It often means speaking or writing in as few words as possible, to address the needs of audiences who will only listen for three minutes or read one paragraph. It means choosing words and putting them together in a way that paints a vivid picture or evokes an emotion. Finally, it means using correct grammar and punctuation and pronouncing words correctly.

Not everyone has the interest or the time or the patience to do this. I do. As a builder loves putting materials together to create a house, I love the limitless ways words can be used to express ideas.

I started my blog for three primary reasons. One, people often ask me about grammar and punctuation when they can’t remember a particular rule. I also notice commonly made language mistakes. So my blog is an attempt to help people understand the complexities and nuances of English (AND American, as the two are different in many ways) in a way that engages my readers in conversation. Two, the blog is a place where I can discuss writing, including books, magazine articles, song lyrics and humor. Three, my blog is a place where I can practice writing in a setting that allows me more creative freedom than the writing I do for clients. I do this by telling stories – about my family and friends, about my childhood and about the clumsy mistakes I make as I stumble down life’s path.

What sorts of language issues do I raise in the blog? There is a wide range. Since I began writing the blog, my eyes and ears have become more attuned to matters of language. One day it might be hearing a word misused on television or reading a mistake in the newspaper. Another day I might notice a pattern in the way expressions or idioms are emerging among young people. Some days I just get a bee in my bonnet (one of my favorite expressions) about how little others care about my favorite subject.

Thanks for asking.

Olga: I see, Monica. Discovering your blog might be a real treat for non-native speakers of English. Being one of them myself, I’d like to ask you about lots of things.

I’ve heard more than once that when Russians arrive abroad and start airing their knowledge of English, they just can’t be understood. And it is not because we make mistakes – the truth is many of us do our best to eliminate all the mistakes from our speech. The thing is we are said to speak so-called “Queen’s English” no one in English-speaking countries speaks. I’d be very much interested in your opinion on this matter. Do you believe it is true? And if so, what are the differences between the two variants of English?

Monica: I’m no expert but, in my observation, the two primary differences between traditional English and Americanized English are spelling and vocabulary. Certainly there are some subtle differences in pronunciation and usage as well.

Just as there are differences between Spanish spoken in Spain and Spanish spoken in Latin America, there are some notable vocabulary differences between the English that is spoken in England and what is spoken in the United States. English is taught in so many countries around the world, and I suspect what most non-native speakers learn is English, versus American. For example, in England, one would “let a flat,” whereas U.S. residents would “rent an apartment.” I was going out with a British colleague once, who told me she was going to the loo and would meet me at the lift. It took a moment for me to realize that she was going to the restroom and would meet me at the elevator.

Speaking of “realizing,” one difference in spellings is that the English use an “s” in many places that Americans would use a “z,” such as in “realise” and “realize.” They also use a “u” with an “o” when preceding an “r,” such as in “colour” and “favour.”

With regard to pronunciation, I’ve noticed that the British often make our short vowel sounds long. Or is it we who are making their long vowels short? In the United States, the word “project” would be pronounced, “PRAH-ject,” whereas in the United Kingdom, it would be pronounced “PRO-ject.”

Finally, there are some differences in the order of words. Here, we might say, “next Sunday” or last Sunday.” On the other side of the Atlantic, it might be “Sunday next” or “Sunday last.”

These differences might or might not vary in various territories or countries where English is spoken. Either way, I find it fun and interesting to observe.

What are your impressions?

Olga: Monica, if I got you right you don’t believe there are any other variants of English besides British and American. Such a thing as Russian (or foreign) English just doesn’t exist, does it?

Monica: Not that I am aware of, but there might be.

Within the United States there are numerous variations on American language, evident in pronunciation, vocabulary and expressions. The number of examples is endless, and differences are so extreme that they can sound like completely different languages. A non-native English speaker – or anyone, for that matter – would hear start contrasts between Mississippi and Maine, for example.

There is also a phenomenon that occurs when speakers blend English with their native languages. I’ve heard children of immigrants, when they speak to their parents, blend English with Greek or English with Spanish. “Spanglish” is a word I hear used to describe that.

Olga: I bet all that makes a teacher’s job in the US really demanding. It is not an easy task to be able to tell mistakes from the variations within the norm, is it?

Monica, as far as I know, although you are not a teacher, you also keep your ears open for any mistakes you can overhear. Does it often happen that native English speakers make mistakes and what sort of mistakes are these?

Monica: Native English speakers are definitely prone to making grammatical mistakes, sometimes more so than those who have learned English as a second language. Perhaps this is because non-native speakers of English learned the language more recently and made an effort to study it, while than those who learned it from birth simply picked it up as they grew. We learn to speak from birth, but we don’t always learn the rules.

A mother who says things like “That ain’t right” and “Don’t do that no more” are teaching their children improper English from birth. You might say that poor English can be passed from one generation to another. I once worked as a communications director for a corporate site of 600 employees, about half of whom were not native English speakers. My observation was that, while pronunciation varied, the non-natives used better grammar than many of those whose primary language was English. The non-natives also understood many English idioms and expressions very well.

You ask what kinds if mistakes native English speakers make. I’d say more than half of my blog posts address such mistakes. Subject-verb agreement is an area in which many mistakes occur. Objective versus subjective pronouns often pose problems. Word choices are difficult: “less” versus “fewer,” “that” versus “which” and so many more. One of the reasons I write my blog is that, as you say, my ears are attuned to picking up errors. Because English is difficult and there are a lot of rules, some of which I have difficulty remembering, I enjoy reviewing the rules and coming up with easy and interesting ways to remember them.

Olga: It was very unexpected, Monica! Now I am going to keep in mind that native speakers also make mistakes and it’ll help me feel more relaxed using English.

As to grammar rules and word choice, I think it all can be learned if one chooses to. What presents a real difficulty for me is English punctuation. It is the area that is left out almost completely while learning and teaching English as a second language. No books on it are easily available in my region, the book “Eats, Shoots and Leaves” by Lynne Truss you recommended me not being an exception. Moreover, I’ve seen very few rules concerning it on the Internet. To tell you the truth, I’m beginning to doubt that any punctuation rules apply in English. Am I right here?

Monica: Punctuation can be very confusing. However, I never considered that punctuation would be something that varies by language. Other than accent marks and dots over letters, I would have thought the rules would be the same.

One exception of which I am aware, though, is where punctuation, such as periods and commas, appear when quotation marks are used. In England, commas and periods are placed after the closing quotation marks whereas, in the United States, they go inside. Clearly this is one of those variations you raised early in our conversation. Just today I read an article, see www.slate.com, in which the writer points out that the British way makes more sense.

You are probably correct that there aren’t many sources for rules of punctuation, at least that I know of. Danish humorist Victor Borge had an entertaining way of helping people understand how various forms of punctuation are used and how they would sound if there were pronounced.

Olga: Thank you, Monica. It is entertaining. A sort of international humour, very kind.

There is one more thing I would like to ask you. I believe it would be interesting for any non-native speaker to know how his English is evaluated by such a professional person as you. Doing this interview, I just can’t afford to miss such an opportunity. I’m aware that I’m understood by native speakers but I can’t be sure how English I really sound. Would you give me feedback on that, please?

Monica: Olga, I have never heard you speak, but I have read your writing. What I read is impeccable English. I imagine you have a Russian accent, which I find beautiful in Russian speakers of English. I applaud anyone who attempts to learn English, let alone masters it. I can’t imagine myself even attempting to learn Russian, even though some of my ancestors were from that region of the world. Your English is excellent and I trust your teaching skills are as well.

Olga: Thank you very much for your high appraisal, Monica. It means a lot to me. Speaking about learning Russian, I believe it takes much more courage, time and effort than learning English.

Monica, I’m very grateful that you agreed to spend some of your precious time answering my questions. Our conversation was both interesting and useful for me.

Beverley аватар

A thoroughly interesting post. I have noticed with blogging and also through sites like Twitter etc that it is something which needs to be taken into account now – that of the variety in spelling.

Marina at My Busy Children аватар

Russian is definitely much much harder than English. This is one of the reason my kids prefer to speak English instead of Russian

It is interesting that I did not notice dialects in America when I spoke “good English”. Once my knowledge improved and I became fluent, I can differentiate different dialects (I can tell a New-Yorker from a Southener now)

admin Olga-ekb аватар

My daughter prefers Russian. I think it depends on where you live.

Marina, reading your blog I can feel that you’re completely at home with English.