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Exploring the quirks of the English language
15 October 2013

You would think that as a communications company, the members of the Cheeky Rooster team would know exactly where to dot the ‘i’s and cross the ‘t’s.  However, this is often not the case!  That’s owing to the quirks of the English language and the reality that perfect prose isn’t always necessary to achieve effective communication. That doesn’t mean we don’t try – and very hard, at that!

But it is a shifting target – and one made harder to hit since,  for the last three generations of New Zealanders, school curriculums seem to have focused more on understanding film themes rather than lessons on grammar and punctuation. Compounding the challenge is the fact that English is a dynamic language, and it will be interesting to watch it continue to evolve, especially as social media and SMS language continue to drive abbreviation to the nth degree. 

On a recent trip to Europe, I came to appreciate being a native English speaker.  I envied those who were multi- or bilingual, but could imagine learning English as a second language would be extremely difficult, considering all the exceptions to the rules.  A French friend, who is fluent in English, still uses endearing turns of phrase.  I didn’t have the heart to tell her that neither ‘clotheses’ nor ‘pantses’ are the plural forms, as I could completely understand why she thought they were.

As a child, I much preferred to stick my nose in a book than climb trees or play hide and seek.  My voracious appetite for reading contributed to my career choice. It also means I know where to put a comma, or how to spell ‘voracious’ (or at least, that I think I do!), but I don’t actually have any technical knowledge about the rules of grammar. And this is not uncommon.

In my last year of high school, the English teacher realised his entire class, almost ready to enter the big, wide world, had barely a rudimentary understanding of basic grammar and punctuation.  Therefore, he set aside one week of lessons to tutor us on the absolute essentials, such as the difference between verbs, adjectives and nouns.  

Fortunately, Cheeky Rooster has the privilege of a ‘safety blanket’ in terms of our copywriter and proofer-extraordinaire, Donovan.  This means anything we write is sent to him to scrutinise and comes back to us with oodles of red scribbles and in the ‘proper England’.  Donovan is also very generous with his knowledge and explains the reasons why a sentence has been re-structured, or why an apostrophe has been moved, in the hope we don’t repeat our errors!

However, rigid styles are giving way to less formal ones (perhaps the effect of the txt-speak most grammarians despise) as rules become more relaxed. The trick, of course, in achieving effective and appropriate communication remains the ability to understand the audience and adjust style and tone appropriately.

Just to get one last idea of the difficulties faced in delivering grammatically suitable communication, some of the choices we face include aligning our New Zealand English with that of British English where we avoid many (most?) of the American conventions towards simplification (US center vs. British centre; color vs. colour). And something as simple as commas requires a selection between the Harvard or the Cambridge systems.

If that’s confusing for native speakers, it must be doubly so for those taking on English as a second language. Luckily, we have modern tools to ‘help’, though even these have some struggles of their own. I had to laugh when hotel management in Italy had obviously used the services of Google Translate to provide a ‘Useful Information’ document in our room. Take a look at the Cheeky Rooster Facebook page and see if you can spot the differences!

 

- ER

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