Wednesday, 30 January 2008

On visiting Colombia

'So how was it?' asked several people, on our return from Colombia yesterday.

I had been invited to give some talks at the Hay Festival in Cartagena - one of the innovative and imaginative extensions of the British Hay Festival - now in its third year. The visit was preceded by a few days in Bogotá, where I talked to ELT groups and helped launch a new Masters course in English didactics at the University of La Sabana. The British Council made it all possible and looked after us extremely well.

Before we went, our friends and colleagues expressed the hope that we would not be kidnapped. That is the bad image which Colombia still has, even though it's largely based on events that took place years ago. Problems there still are, of course, down in the south, and there are still some no-go areas in the cities. But these are city problems, not Colombia problems, applicable as much to London and Liverpool as to anywhere else. Be sensible, follow local advice, and you'll be fine - as indeed we were.

More than fine. We had a great time, Hilary and I. Colombia is a truly beautiful country. Bogotá, at 10,000 feet, nestles at the foot of a swathe of hills covered with luxuriant vegetation. From the top of one of these, you can see the whole city below you - a rare sight, in my experience. This was Monserrate, a pilgrimage church which we reached by a funicular railway. Thousands of people make a visit, especially on a Sunday, and - as pretty distinctive-looking tourists - we were noticed and warmly welcomed. I received a new identity there too (see below). Cartagena, on the Caribbean coast, is a walled city - the largest former military emplacement in the Americas, the guidebooks say. It's a splendid location for a Hay-type festival, with several fine large old buildings acting as venues for talks and gatherings. Enthusiastic audiences, as always at Hay. And the massive walls give the place an intimacy not too far removed from that which you get at the festival site in Wales. It's slightly warmer than the average Welsh day, though, it has to be said - around 30 degrees, more or less.

We were only in the country a week, but we managed - thanks to our various hosts - to visit many of the major tourist locations, such as the extraordinary Salt Cathedral 50 km north-west of Bogotá (a church, chapels, and conference centre deep within a salt mine). We walked around La Candelaría in Bogotá, the oldest part of the city, and all around Cartagena. There was a great deal of security about, but we never felt threatened. And that is the main purpose of this post: don't be put off by the bad press. Colombia is well worth a visit. And the news is slowly getting out. Indeed, on our first day in Cartagena, we found ourselves in the midst of crowds of visitors from three cruise ships which were visiting the city - the first such ships for some time.

A statistic: the daily newspaper El Tiempo carried a report while we were there that some 880,000 people in the country now speak English. That's about two per cent only, but a huge increase on a decade ago. When I first went west of the Andes (in Peru), a few years ago, I was struck by the relative lack of an English language 'presence' compared to Brazil and Argentina. It's very different now. And there is huge interest in learning English - hence the new course at La Sabana (itself, incidentally, one of the most beautiful campuses I have seen, a modern and tasteful development of an old hacienda estate).

And my new identity? We were waiting in a zig-zag queue for the funicular on the way down. A girl of about 4 years old was being carried by her mother just ahead of us. As she passed me she couldn't take her eyes off my beard (which, for those of you who do not follow the lookalike competitions on YouTube, Facebook, and the like, is longish and white - well, silvery, as an Aussie journalist once put it!). As she went past a second time, she said to her mum, 'Papa Noel'! I gave her a wave. The third time (it was a long queue), she told her little brother that Papa Noel was here. Within a few minutes, the news had travelled around the funicular. It was true. Papa Noel was in Monserrate. It was a miracle! The answer to a (child's) prayer. At the foot of the funicular, the little girl stroked my beard, and went away very happy. As did I.

Monday, 14 January 2008

On style(s)

An A-level student writes to say that his class has been told by their tutor that if they want to be good writers they need to 'write with style' - but in the absence of a definition of what style is (and especially what good style is), he remains confused. 'After all,' he adds, 'everybody has a writing style, though I guess some are better than others.' So he asks: 'What do you think makes a good writing style? And which writers are the best stylists?'

There are hundreds of definitions and characterizations of style. I collected a few dozen for a book of language quotations a few years ago (Words on Words, chapter 47). They range from such views as Samuel Wesley's 'Style is the dress of thought', Flaubert's 'Style is life!', and Gibbon's 'Style is the image of character' to the more down-to-earth views of Emerson ('Use what language you will, you can never say anything but what you are') and Oscar Wilde ('there is no such thing as style; there are merely styles, that is all'). Matthew Arnold said: 'People think that I can teach them style. What stuff it is! Have something to say, and say it as clearly as you can. That is the only secret of style.'

I devote a chapter (49) to style in my How Language Works, so I won't repeat that here. But the essential point about style, to my mind, is that it is a personal selection (conscious or unconscious) from everything that is possible in a language. It is my choice, as opposed to yours, of the options available in sounds, spellings, punctuation, grammar, vocabulary, and so on. I choose the linguistic guise in which I want to appear. You do the same.

'Options available' is important. If there are no options, then there is no possibility of a stylistic choice. Spelling, for instance, allows us very few options in standard English, so it isn't a feature of most people's style. Punctuation is a bit more flexible. Grammar and vocabulary offer us most choices of all.

Why we make the choices we do is often beyond reason. For instance, I never use the word whilst, and always use while instead. Why? I have no idea. I don't object to other people using whilst, and can appreciate a style in which it is used. But I don't like using it myself. What caused this curious dislike I do not know. I may have been taught it, copied it, read it, who knows? All I know now is that it is a feature of my style - one of thousands of linguistic likes and dislikes which I have accumulated over the years. I have done a fair bit of analysis of my own style, and I know I have preferences for certain types of sentence, sentence lengths, sentence constructions, and so on. And I also know that not everyone shares my preferences. For instance, analyse these blogs and you will find lots of sentences beginning with And or But. I like the rhetorical contrasts conveyed in this way. So did Shakespeare. But some prescriptive writers hate sentences that begin with conjunctions and try to ban them.

I mention this because it's important to appreciate that our linguistic choices are judged by society. It's like any other aspect of behaviour. Can I wear anything I like? Up to a point. Society has rules, conventions, and expectations, and I have to follow them or take the consequences. The rules governing language are less obvious (because there are more of them) than those governing how we dress or eat; but they are there nonetheless. So the answer to the question 'what is a good style?' is the same as the answer to the question 'what is a good way to dress?' It is a balance between conforming to what is fashionable and being sufficiently distinctive to stand out from the crowd. And if you are criticised, or feel you're likely to be criticised, you have to decide whether to accept the criticism and change your behaviour or stick to your guns and be different. I think most people are pragmatic, and act both ways, depending on circumstances. I do, anyway.

Oscar Wilde's point is important: we don't have style, but styles. I have several styles, which relate to such variables as mood, audience, content, and circumstance. The style of this blog isn't like anything else I've written. When I wrote Making Sense of English Usage I consciously decided to try out a colloquial style - more colloquial than anything I'd ever used before (or since, for that matter). By Hook or By Crook, which came out last year, was another experiment, more of a stream-of-consciousness style. Whether I'll ever use it again will depend on whether it 'works' - that is, whether people like it, enjoy it, want more of it. If they do, fine. If they don't (and reviewers are always quick to tell you!), I'll drop it.

And in the same way as we copy others, when we dress, so we copy others' use of language. Another answer to the question 'what is a good style?' is: 'the style that the people you respect think is good'. What is felt to be 'good' will change from age to age, as the history of literature repeatedly demonstrates. So - as this is a student correspondent - if you are looking for a style to suit your personality, look around, and read, read, read. Read novels, short stories, newspaper articles, magazines, blogs... and make a note of what impresses you. Experiment with different ways of writing. And welcome the judgements of others willing to devote their time to reading what you write - for they can give you the clues you need as to whether you are being successful. Are you being clear, succinct, persuasive, consistent, interesting, repetitive, ambiguous...? You may think your text is fine - until someone else reads it. And the principle applies as much to emails as to essays.

You're never too old to benefit from feedback. I ask someone to read the manuscript of every book I write - more than one, if I can persuade people to give me the time - and I always benefit from the reactions. In fact, the only time I've never given my stuff to someone else to read first is on this blog.

Friday, 11 January 2008

On commas

A student, writing about punctuation, complains that 'The comma is a particular pain, as there appears to be no definitive rules governing its placement. For example, do you always punctuate adverbials (as one writing guide suggests) or is it a matter of preference (as another suggests)? Is a comma required after and, as in the sentence, Jeremy glanced at the clock and abruptly closing his book leapt up from the sofa, or does it come before and?' And he asks if I can recommend a book...

The reason punctuation presents such a problem is because it is trying to do two very different jobs - one phonetic, the other grammatical. On the one hand, people are using it as a guide to how the rhythm of a sentence should sound (if they were to read it aloud); on the other hand, they are using it as a guide to the grammatical structure of a sentence - to what it means. On top of this, there are graphaesthetic considerations of elegance - wanting to avoid too many marks in a sentence, for example.

The most natural rhythm of the sentence cited breaks it into three parts, and if commas are used to represent the pauses it would be written like this:

(1) Jeremy glanced at the clock, and abruptly closing his book, leapt up from the sofa.

If you decide to use commas to show the grammar of the sentence, it comes out like this:

(2) Jeremy glanced at the clock, and, abruptly closing his book, leapt up from the sofa.

But the sequence of three commas looks too cluttered for some writers, so they would simplify to:

(3) Jeremy glanced at the clock and, abruptly closing his book, leapt up from the sofa.

This privileges grammar but goes clean against rhythm, for no-one would ever say 'Jeremy glanced at the clock and' as a single rhythmical unit.

There are other ways of avoiding the comma repetitiveness of (2), as in (4):

(4a) Jeremy glanced at the clock, and (abruptly closing his book) leapt up from the sofa.
(4b) Jeremy glanced at the clock, and - abruptly closing his book - leapt up from the sofa.

But the parenthesis and dash have visual connotations that are not present with the comma, so these solutions are not always congenial.

There seem to be two trends in English: some people are over-punctuators (as in (2) above) and some are under-punctuators, as in the following:

(5) Jeremy glanced at the clock and abruptly closing his book leapt up from the sofa.

Under-punctuation can lead to miscues - that is, you think the sentence is going in a particular direction and start to read it that way, then you realize that it doesn't, and have to go back. The miscue in (5) is due to the fact that the word and can link two words in a phrase (as in (6)) or two clauses (as above).

(6) Jeremy glanced at the clock and the picture...

A comma after clock avoids the miscue.

When people write, they sometimes follow the phonetic principle and sometimes the grammatical. A lot depends on other factors, such as the length of the clauses and the rhythmical complexity of the words they contain. The longer that clause abruptly closing his book gets, the more likely it will be given surrounding commas:

(7) Jeremy glanced at the clock and, abruptly closing the book on mathematics that he had been reading casually for two days, leapt up from the sofa.

Another factor is publishing house preference. For example, usage varies between publishers in the use of the so-called 'serial' comma:

(8) A tall, dark (,) and handsome man stood in the corner.

Some publishers insist on including it; others insist on omitting it.

One thing is certain: it is not possible to explain good authorial usage by prescriptively insisting on a single principle and making people feel guilty when they instinctively feel the need to depart from it. That is unfortunately what popular books on punctuation generally try to do - which is why you have to be very cautious when you read them. But Pam Peters has some well-judged observations on punctuation in her Cambridge Guide to English Usage.

Thursday, 10 January 2008

On handwriting loss

A correspondent writes to ask if I think 'communication technology like email and text messaging will lead to the demise of the thoughtful handwritten letter? If so, what will we lose in process? Will this loss also affect the English language?'

I think it's obvious that there has been a decline; but 'demise' is going too far, given the many occasions when a computer (or even an electricity supply) is not available to us. With only a small percentage of the population online in many parts of the globe (Africa, for example), letters are going to be circulating around the world for quite some time. Cost will also be a factor influencing our decisions about which genre to use - of electricity, postal mail, SMS texts, and so on. New technology will also change things: the next generation of computers, according to Bill Gates the other day, is going to be predominantly touch-sensitive. Handwriting on screen could therefore be very different in a few years time to what it is today, and maybe handwritten letters will have an (electronically mediated) resurgence. It might be cool to screen-handwrite, one day.

In the meantime, it is very important that teachers ensure kids are aware of the relative strengths and weaknesses of the various media (including handwriting). What sorts of content suit handwriting and don't suit email (eg letters of condolence)? What sort of thing can you do with email that you can't do with handwriting (eg cutting and pasting)? There is all too often a knee-jerk reaction against new media. For example, myths abound about the supposed harm that texting does, whereas all the evidence suggests the opposite (the more you text, the better your literacy). I have a book out in June (Txtng: the Gr8 Db8, to be published by OUP) which develops this view. And there is no doubt that blogging is inculcating a 'thoughtful' approach to diary-writing online, which is currently having something of a renaissance. It is almost as if people have sensed the lack of a thoughtful personalized graphic medium and have seized on the new technology to make up for it.

I don't see any obvious connection between the loss of the handwritten letter and the formal state of a language, as seen in such areas as vocabulary and grammar. I can't think of any major effect on the English language caused by the development of this genre, so I can't think that its departure would have a major effect either. The issues raised by the potential disappearance of the handwritten letter seem to be more psychological and social than linguistic. Having just conducted a straw poll around my office, people stressed the significance they attached to the personal effort involved in handwriting a letter, the pleasure they got from its graphaesthetics (handwriting style, paper choice, etc), the information they could deduce from it (about personality, state of mind, etc), and the importance of this information to those concerned with graphological analysis (literary critics, historians, psychiatrists, forensic scientists, etc). These are all factors that young people need to know about, as they learn to manage their communicative energies.

Tuesday, 1 January 2008

On learning English

A correspondent from the Czech Republic asks a powerful question: 'How would you encourage English language learners at secondary and postsecondary schools; what do they have to be careful about and what joys can they expect when dealing with a language of some 2 billion speakers worldwide?'

I would say to them...

In a way, the question answers itself. English enables you to communicate with a third of the world's population, and that has to be a plus on the agenda of anyone with an international outlook. That third, moreover, is hugely diverse. English is present, as a first, second, or foreign language, in every country in the world. So, in using it as a tool, you have an unparallelled opportunity to explore the individuality of nations and peoples.

The metaphor of the tool is important. English is not a prism, through which you see others. It is a tool which enables you to have a close encounter with others. Culture is not wholly dependent on language, but it does need language to explain its uniqueness - an experience all travellers have had, as they watch, say, a local folkdance and wonder what it is all about.

However, the metaphor of the tool only goes so far, because you can change the character of the tool to suit your purposes. If you have adopted English as one of your languages, then you are able to adapt it - to take personal ownership of it. One of the great joys of making headway in a new language is that you can use it to talk about what you want to talk about - and if that means inventing new words, to express your local experience, then do not hesitate to invent them. Just translating the culture of your school and town into English - such as the names of localities and personalities - will immediately add dozens of new expressions. Don't restrict yourself to the words that are already in the dictionaries. English is yours now. The words and expressions you and your fellows invent today might be in the dictionaries of tomorrow, if they catch on.

You're doing nothing that hasn't already been done thousands of times before. New words were added to English within days of the first settlers arriving in America from Britain, and the same pattern has been observed in all countries where a community of users has evolved. What you find yourselves doing you will see being done elsewhere. So - to adopt the motto of the scouting movement - be prepared. Be prepared for linguistic diversity, change, playfulness, and creativity wherever you listen and look - on radio and television, in the press, literature, film, pop music, the internet... Develop a sense of the kind of English that is appropriate to particular circumstances - American, British, Australian..., informal, formal, literary..., scientific, religious, journalistic..., emails, chatrooms, blogs.... And make it your major aim to be so in control of your own English that you can vary it to suit the circumstances in which you find yourself. Your goal is not to learn English, but Englishes. The same principle applies to any language, of course, but it is particularly important in the case of English because of its global reach.

And use English in another way - as a means of appreciating the uniqueness and richness of your own language(s). The critic George Steiner once said, 'Is it not the duty of the critic to avail himself, in some imperfect measure at least, of another language - if only to experience the defining contours of his own?' I think that is exactly right. Each new language-learning experience tells us something about our own linguistic identity.

You ask if there is anything to be careful about. There is one big thing: to remember that a language spoken by 2 people is just as wonderful a creation as a language spoken by 2 billion. Never let your love-affair with English make you dismissive of your own language, lessen your concern for minority and endangered languages, or forget the extraordinary richness of the human linguistic tool-cupboard.

On cultur(e/ally)-related

An L2 correspondent writes to ask about the difference between culturally-related and culture-related. He used Google to count the number of hits, getting 8,810 for culturally-related and 20,100 for culture-related, and adds: 'This lets me feel at ease with culture-related. However, I found culturally-related used in an academic document. Are both constructions equally possible - although they aren't in terms of frequency of usage?'

Both constructions are possible, indeed - but the devil lies in the word 'equally'. There is a great deal of collocational variation between the two usages. Using the Google technique, I tried a few searches, and got these results:

A culture related courses: 2310
B culturally related courses: 96
A/B = 4%

A culture related factors: 1450
B culturally related factors: 385
A/B = 26%

A culture related differences: 1210
B culturally related differences: 397
A/B = 33%

A culture related issues: 3640
B culturally related issues: 1490
A/B = 41%

A culture related activities: 3330
B culturally related activities: 1460
A/B = 44%

Culture is the dominant usage each time, as my correspondent found, but there are huge differences in the extent of the dominance, as the percentages illustrate. On the other hand, we also find this:

A culture related anxiety: 3
B culturally related anxiety: 125

So the matter is not straightforward.

Are these differences just collocational preferences or is there any difference in meaning? It's possible to get a feel for this if we reduce the constructions to a basic contrast:

(1) This is a culture issue.
(2) This is a cultural issue.

I can think of several contexts where they would mean exactly the same thing. But I can also imagine a context, where I have a specific culture or cultures in mind, where I would prefer (1) because it is somewhat more focused, more specific. By contrast, I can imagine a context where I would prefer (2) because the implication is more general, related to some broader notion that transcends individual cultures.

There is also a stylistic point: culture is more succinct. And there is a phonaesthetic point in relation to my correspondent's query: culture-related has a rhythm of strong-weak-weak-strong-weak whereas culturally related has strong-weak-weak-weak-weak-strong-weak. The first rhythm falls well within English rhythmical norms (a dactyl), whereas a sequence of four unstressed syllables does not. Many users will avoid culturally for that reason alone.