Friday, February 27, 2015

On grammar, punctuation, style, and versions of English

Readers may remember my occasionally writing about issues of grammar, punctuation, and style (see, for example, my posts of 10/16/10, 3/11/12, and 3/19/13). These are interests of mine, not only because I love to read, and read widely, but also because much of my professional/academic work is in language and linguistics. Two recent articles on related topics caught my eye. Mary Norris’s New Yorker article in the February 23 and March 2, 2015 issue, “Holy Writ,” is “personal history” about her years as copy editor for that magazine. Her first sentence, “I didn’t set out to be a comma queen,” caught my attention, and I was thoroughly drawn in by her story of her intertwined loves for New York City, The New Yorker, and grammar and style. She goes into particular detail about the role of commas, which to me is always a fascinating topic. (I am also way too fascinated by semi-colons. Am I a punctuation nerd?) The second article, a briefer one, is “Mind the Gap,” by Sophie Gilbert, in the March 2015 issue of The Atlantic. This piece explores the decisions that magazines and newspapers with international editions and readerships are having to make regarding which brand of English to use: American or British. (I won't go into this now, but this dual choice begs the question of other versions of English around the world, known in my field as World Englishes.) The author starts by reminding us of various vocabulary terms that differ in these two versions of English, including some that can be embarrassing if used in contexts where others don’t understand them. One newspaper struggling with these differences is the Guardian, a (terrific, in my opinion, based on occasional reading it online, especially their literature pages) British newspaper that started an online version called Guardian US. Should editors enforce an “all British English” policy, or an “all American English” policy? Or neither? After much discussion, they chose to let American writers use American English, and British writers use British English, with exceptions for spellings of proper nouns, which must reflect the locale being written about (so, “no more Lincoln Centre or Labour Day”). The British magazine The Economist made a different decision. Although 52 percent of its circulation is American (a fact that surprised me), the magazine preserves all British spelling and usage, noting that American readers seem to enjoy that British quality in the magazine. I enjoyed hearing this latter detail, because it speaks to the existence of many American Anglophiles such as myself. (I come to my love of most things English – although I also have conflicted feelings about it because of colonial history – by way of my being born Canadian, growing up in barely postcolonial India, and reading scores of British novels over the years.) This issue of “which English” to use in international media is a perhaps small but certainly telling issue in the increasingly global world of many publications.
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