I keep reading manuscripts with sentences that read as follows: “His answers were not as acceptable as what his are.” This passed muster. Really, why? Should it not read, “his answers were not as acceptable as his”? End of story, or to use the vernacular ‘finish en klaar’. And then I see an advert pasted bold as Donald Trump’s exhorts to reach out for feline euphemisms - “I am a English editor”. I stared at that line, and stared. The next paragraph explained that said editor was also an Afrikaans editor. Never would have guessed. Would I trust an ‘editor’ who fails to use ‘an’ rather than ‘a’ in front of a vowel sound? No, decidedly not. But, it’s becoming common practice to just sommer write English, warts and all, then hand it to someone equally unversed to ‘clean it up’. I’ve had my corrections incorrectly corrected - “three rooms were on on offer”, to now read “three room’s was on offer”. I’m sorry, but, WTF?
Yes, we all know that social media is rife with no punctuation, limited grammar, and incorrectly chosen homophones. Don't know about you, but there are an awful lot of people who are ‘exited’ out there. Probably after there/they’re amazing ‘desert’.
But I’m talking about people who claim themselves to be ‘writers’, ‘authors’, ‘wordsmiths’, even ‘editors’ and ‘publishers’. In English.
Does standard English matter?
There are any number of erudite English second or third language speakers who put native warblers to shame. What about everybody else? If you’re going to publish in English, particularly to an international audience, and let’s face it, that’s where you’re going to want to be marketing your books, then your English best be ‘standardised’. That means, in lay terms, that an English speaker in Sydney, Cornwall, Paris and Tokyo can understand, thanks to the rules of grammar and syntax, what it is you’re trying to say. As simply as possible.
Yes, but we speak Seffrican English
Ja, we do. When it comes to dialogue, well, there’s an opportunity to go wild with your South African dialect. Gooi in as many jas and ag nee mans as you like. We go kueir in our bakkies, stopping at robots on the way to have a quick dop or two. Is it? S’truth. We’re gonna be there just now, just now, hey?. It’s English, ja, but like the way Souff Efffrikens speak it. Flet eksent and all. But, shit me, can the rest of the sentence be grammatically sound? Go read some Lauren Beukes Zoo City…did you spot the grammatical eff-ups in the prose? Me neither.
That’s what editors are for…
Sure, you’re a writer not an editor. But as a writer, don't you want to get the most out of your basic building blocks? Words, sentences, paragraphs? How they use rhythm and rhyme to create pace?
And yet, I’ve read author bios, blurbs, web copy, and extracts from self-published works that are riddled in errors. Riddled. “She rattled off two bullets in quick concession.” FML. A chronic case of grammaritis. And I’m not talking innocent typos here. Heck, those happen to all of us. Yes, I know some people don't mind, they’re more interested in the ‘story’. But I think it smacks of a certain arrogance to not bother. To consider yourself above the rules of the language. Particularly when the carelessness displayed is not confused with a clever adaption of the language. It’s just sheer shoddiness. Sure, lots of your readers won’t care, lots will though…
But English keeps changing…
So the question I posed my BEd students was: which is more important - conforming to a set of rules about the English language or accommodating pupils who come from a varied language background that doesn't include English as a first language. Both. Hence the reason that particular course was compulsory. The sad reality is that English is widely-spoken, seen as the language of commerce and science, and so long as that American juggernaut Hollywood exists (amongst other economic and social drivers), English will continue to be a language that is thought to promise access to upward mobility. That thinking in English is not the same as thinking in French or German or Swahili is more of an education debate/concern and is not going to be discussed here. Being able to write and speak English, good English, is important at this moment of writing. Yes, dialects absorb regional influences on the language, and in spoken English, these changes are noticeable. But written? Some of those rules haven't changed in a long while. If you're a writer, best you’re slightly familiar.
What’s wrong with writing in your first language anyway?
I speak three languages. I write in one of them. I could start a romance novel in French…but why the hell would I? If I wanted a novel in French, I’d take one of my English novels, save up a small fortune, and have the thing translated. Eh, voila! Pas d’embarassement (pretty sure I got the grammar wrong there). Truth of the matter is, you think in, and are most expressive in, your first language. That mother tongue. So why the hell would you write, and charge money for, something not written in the language you’re most fluent?