July 2019 – a little history of English.

It is probably of no surprise that a proofreader has an interest in language. What interests me the most is the origin of words and how a language can reflect the history of its speakers. English, particularly, has absorbed or borrowed words from a whole host of languages, sometimes absorbing the grammar as well, sometimes anglicising. This has led to inconsistencies in the language and confusion amongst its users.

I’ll start with this cartoon – it always reminds me of the quote attributed to Gugulethu Mhlungu, “English is not a language, it’s three languages wearing a trench coat, pretending to be one.”

And it is true: English is Germanic in origin, brought to these shores by Saxons, Jutes and Angles in the 5th century, but, as mentioned above, over time it has absorbed words and characteristics from other languages, reflecting the history of its homeland. Words have been derived from Norse, French, Hindi and Arabic, to name but a few.

It is often said to be one of the hardest languages to learn for a non-native speaker, even though some of the complex rules present in other languages are not found in modern English.

For example, gender: English no longer bothers with assigning a gender to nouns, which affects their spelling. Hlaford, meaning lord, is a masculine noun from Old English (or Anglo-Saxon English). It can take the form hlaford, hlafordas, hlafordes, hlaforda, hlaforde, and hlafordum, depending on the nature of the sentence. In modern English we get by with lord, lords, lord’s and lords’.

Cwene, meaning queen, is a feminine noun and takes the forms cwene, cwenan, cwenena, cwenum. Fewer endings to deal with but different to those used for the masculine. In modern English it would be the same rule as lord: queen, queens, etc.

Another example is conjugations with verbs taking various forms.

For example, the verb ‘to have’, in modern English follows this pattern: I have, you have, it has, we have, I had, you had, it had, we had.

In Old English: ic hæbbeðu hæfst (*), hit hæfð, we habbað, ic hæfde, ðu hæfdest, hit hæfde, we hæfdon. Eight different spellings, when in modern English we manage with just three.

To my mind, one of the issues is its vast vocabulary. English is said to have more words than, say French or German, and this is considered a consequence of the merger of languages that occurred between the 11th and 14th centuries.

But English has been absorbing words since before then. Perhaps it is because England has often been more than just one society.

One could argue the original North/South divide was that of the Danelaw to the north and east and the Saxon lands to the south and west. To this day Danish (or Viking or Norse) influences remain in place names of that area (for example, Grimsby and Derby indicate a Viking heritage, with the -by suffix denoting a village).

This is also why one can be ‘ill’ (a Viking term) and ‘sick’ (Saxon) simultaneously, ‘wish’ (Saxon) and ‘want’ (Viking) for something and one can buy a ‘leg’ (Viking) of lamb as well as a lamb ‘shank’ (Saxon) and have the same cut of meat.

Then, post 1066, there was the elite or establishment that spoke Norman French while the Church used Latin, both causing many words to be adopted. It was the Normans that were in control and their language became that of government etc (**).

Shires (scir) made way for counties, linked to the French title count. This ranked equal to the title earl and hence the wife of an earl is a countess. Lord (as seen above) and king (cyning) existed but we gained duke and duchy (French duc), prince and principality (from Latin via French, linked to primus). Note, we have kingdoms but not dukedoms and princedoms.

We gained legal, even though we had the word lawful meaning the same thing (lawful being a mix of Viking (law) and Saxon (-ful). There is literally no difference between illegal and unlawful – but does allow a great pun (***).

The English (ie the everyday folk) reared the animal (cow or cu) but the Normans (the elite) ate the meat (beef or boef – note bovine derived from Latin). This is probably why chicken (cicen) is chicken – reared and eaten by the same people.

Over time, English found its way back into government, yet this was not the English that had been spoken prior to 1066 but a merger of both the courtly and the vernacular. And, whilst English was spoken, the records of government were maintained in Latin, which continued to be the scholarly and Church language of choice. So, English continued to be influenced by a foreign tongue and words continued to be absorbed, even those that had already been absorbed from French.

For example, frail came to English from French but was originally from Latin; later fragile came direct from Latin. Frail and fragile are fairly synonymous in English and are both derived, ultimately, from the same original Latin word, fragilis.

Another example is real, royal and regal. All mean the same, although real in this context has fallen out of use. Real relates to royalty, note the word realm. Real came via Norman French. Royal came from French at a later date and then regal from Latin. But all three derive from the same Latin word regalis.

And then, in the Renaissance and later the Industrial Revolution, it was Greek and Latin that were used to form new words for new tools, instruments, discoveries etc.

This is why we have television (****) (tele – Greek for distant; vision – Latin for the act of seeing), telephone (phone – Greek for voice/sound) and not something like “farseer” and “farspeaker” like the German fernseher and fernsprecher (although due to the influence of English they are just as likely to say ‘television’ and ‘telefon’).

It never really stopped: with the empire and a more global society, English continued to absorb words from elsewhere, such as pundit, punch (the drink) and thug from India. Today, it is just as influenced by American English.

As the words were absorbed, so too were some of their rules, making it a bit of mess, with rules that seem more honoured in the breach than the observation, or a different meaning to what we might expect due to the derivation of the word.

For example, inflammable means flammable rather than non-flammable, which a lot of people think. Inflammable comes from the Latin inflammare, it is not the use of the prefix in- such as in insane (ie not sane) or inactive (not active). This misunderstanding could have dire consequences! Indeed, in my lifetime, I have seen aerosol cans change from warning of the inflammability to the flammability of their contents.

Pluralising seems an interesting one.

Criteria is plural but pizzeria and cafeteria are singular. Criteria is the plural of criterion, absorbed from Greek, whilst pizzeria and cafeteria derive from Italian and American Spanish respectively. So why didn’t criterion get pluralised as criterions, as is usual in English?

The plural of gateau is gateaux. Absorbed from French in the 19th century, gâteau means cake, yet in English it tends to be a richer cake with cream etc, but in any event, why is the plural not gateaus?

Panini is the plural of panino from Italian, yet we use panini as singular; however, cappuccino came through as singular and we say cappuccinos rather than cappuccini.

Media is the plural of medium. We use media for TV, newspapers etc in general. Yet, when it is a fortune teller or clairvoyant, we say mediums.

Why does goose become geese and tooth become teeth, but moose does not become meese? All because of when the word entered English. Goose and tooth go back a long way. Moose was absorbed in the 1700s as the English settled in North America. Again, all down to the timing.

Despite all this, the bulk of what is said can be traced back to Old English. Key words such as I, you, me, mother, father, brother, daughter, son, sister, north, south, east, west, man, wife, day, night, king, queen, house, why, what, who, beer, ale and wine all derive from Old English.

Absorption isn’t a problem per se, English did not need a word for kangaroo until Europeans landed in Australia, and why make up one when the aboriginal word would do? And many words survive, despite an alternative being absorbed (such as ill and sick, lawful and legal as mentioned previously). They continue to be used, creating a language with a large vocabulary of synonymous words.

It is debatable if this is good or bad. Languages change: if they didn’t, most of Europe and Asia would still be speaking the Proto-Indo-European language from which all this derives.

With English having a rich history, reflecting that of its homeland and drawing on lots of other languages, it is no wonder that people have trouble with certain aspects of the language. As a proofreader, I can help individuals and organisations navigate these inconsistencies to help ensure their writing is accurate and consistent.

Notes and other worthy comments.

(*) Note the letters æ and ð. These represented the modern -ae- and -th- sounds but died out over time. The letter ð lives on in Icelandic.

(**) Indeed, an aspect of it remains. When Royal Assent is given to Parliamentary Bills the statement is made in Norman French.

(***) What is the difference between unlawful and illegal? One is against the law, the other is a sick bird.

(****) CP Scott, the then editor of The Guardian, is famed for the quote: “Television? The word is half Greek and half Latin. No good will come of it.”

This blog draws together a lot of knowledge from various sources read over time. Bryan Evans in Plain English A Wealth of Words gives a great summary of the history of English; some of the information in this blog is derived from this book and was the starting point of further research into specific words. The histories of words have been found in Cassell’s Dictionary of Word Histories. Steve Pollington’s First Steps in Old English is a comfortable introduction to the language and Old English Translator has been useful in checking spellings of various Old English words.

This topic was also the basis of a presentation to Southend Peers.

Kindly proofread by Janice Gilbert, WordperfectVA.

 

Why is my blog proofread?

My wife once asked me why I get my blog proofread. Surely, I can spot any mistakes I make?

Well, one would hope so; but having written it and read it a few times, one’s own writing can become familiar and one may not spot things.

I proofread my own blog but there are always one or two little typos in there that I haven’t spotted (or deliberately put there to test my proofreader). A fresh pair of eyes is always worth it.

But it isn’t just errors. It’s tone, meaning, phrasing and format. My proofreader (Janice or Annie) will usually suggest a tweaking of a sentence to help with meaning, querying anything that may not be clear or getting me to justify an awful joke etc. Proofreading, ultimately, is part of the editing process and helps turn the blog into a more professional piece of writing.

I have often worked with texts which are just a stream of consciousness – literally the writer just typing what comes to mind. This may be typed beautifully, with no typos, but would still benefit from another set of eyes before publication.

And lastly, it’s about helping another freelancer out there get their name known. Yes, we’re competitors to an extent, but we have different specialisms. If I can’t take on the work, there’s a chance they can.

And, yes, this was proofread by Janice Gilbert of WordperfectVA

June 2019 – marketing.

June’s blog has been a bit of a tricky one for me, trying to find inspiration. Despite having a number of things to talk about later in the year (when the timing is right) I was at a loss for a topic for June.

Then, it hit me: I’ve been struggling with marketing, so why not talk about that?

I’m not a natural salesman and marketing does not come easily to me; however, running your own business requires you to get stuck into things you may not enjoy, unless you’re lucky enough to be so successful that you can employ someone to do it for you – but that’s a bit of a chicken and egg predicament – you need to be able to afford to employ someone at an early stage in order to have a chance of better sales.

Speaking to other freelancers, and reading up at the SfEP, it seems different things have worked for different people. Some insist they haven’t had to do any marketing – their first few jobs came via word of mouth and it just snowballed; others have insisted social media is the only way to go; others insist printed media is still king. These approaches have all worked for them, so which is right for me?

When I first started, I did some “cold-emailing”, i.e. getting email addresses for publishers etc. and making contact. I struck lucky in that I caught one publisher just as they were working on a couple of financial texts so had a steady stream of work from them. This was a double-edged sword in some ways: I put any further marketing on the back burner, since I had the work to keep me busy.

Then that work came to an end… and I had none lined up because I hadn’t been marketing and had all my eggs in one basket. So, I started again to look into it. I found this article useful and it made me think about what I was selling and to whom.

  • What’s my product?
    • Proofreading, though not exclusively that, as my earlier blogs in February and April discuss, but clearly, I had to market one thing at a time. I’m here to help people get their written material (leaflets, reports, essays, webpages, whatever) accurate and consistent. I’m your final pair of eyes!
  • What’s my target market?
    • For proofreading this could be publishers, organisations and individuals – anyone with some written material that’s going public. Again, I felt I had to target one area at a time.
  • What’s my competition?
    • There are plenty of proofreaders out there, more established and more experienced – so what would attract someone to me? That leads nicely to the next bit really.
  • What’s my niche?
    • This is where, perhaps, I can start to get somewhere. I have a mathematical and financial background. So, publishers of content in those areas would be my niche market, plus some of those lovely students nearby, studying for their degree in such subjects. I can combine my specialist knowledge with a proofread so that any glitches in the technical and specialist areas can be looked over as well.
  • How shall I develop awareness?
    • Well, this blog, as introduced in January, is one approach. I’m on all the major social media and have had articles in some local publications. I’m also networking, something I never thought I’d be doing! I’ve done some good-old-fashioned leafleting as well – seeking out as many community boards as I could, many of which are to be found in coffee shops
  • From where do I gain credibility?
    • Here I fall back on my years in finance and my career record, but then as I work with clients and produce good work, I hope this develops my credibility and reputation.
  • How do I maintain consistency?
    • This is branding – across everything: logos, style etc. I’ve been lucky to have great help from Greenlight in this area. My social media sites are consistent but there’s still work to be done…
  • How do I maintain focus?
    • This is the tricky part – it becomes a job in itself. Doing the occasional post on Facebook is one thing but a sustained campaign on one, or across social media is another. One approach is to outsource – but this has to be worth it with any resulting work covering the cost of doing so. And it isn’t just the initial posts, it is the follow-up of any “likes” or other contact. It’s effectively another email address to monitor.

Lessons learnt?

Marketing is more than just getting an advert in the paper or a presence on Facebook. It is something one has to set aside time to actively do, whatever the approach. It is not an overnight thing – the work has to be put in knowing it may be months until something comes of it (indeed, one response to my paper adverts came a few months after publication).

I could liken it to having children (or incubating eggs). They need consistent nurturing and it’s a long-term commitment. Why do chickens lay eggs? Because if they dropped them, they’d break.

And, it is never quite finished. This website is up and running but needs some work to polish it off and get it in line with social media and I’ve little presence on LinkedIn (for now).

It’s all part of the rich tapestry of running your own business!

Kindly proofread by Janice Gilbert, WordperfectVA

 

 

May 2019 – coffee shops, hot-desking and “not-desking”.

It is with a certain level of irony that I sit in a coffee shop writing this.

It seems beyond doubt that there is a modern trend for people to leave their office in favour of sitting in a coffee shop to work, with around 80 per cent  of those surveyed having done so at some point and 13 per cent admitting to doing so daily. The trend could even cause the end of the office as we know it and researchers are looking into the phenomenon.

From my own experiences, I used to find this odd but others sold its virtues: “It gives me an hour between the commute and arriving at the office to clear my head and emails in relative peace”; “It gets me out of the house for a bit”; “I’m focussed more”; and “I have bad news to give a member of staff and want to do it on neutral ground with public witnesses”.

In my working life I have seen the trend moving from a fixed desk to hot-desking and then to agile working. In the old days (not that old since all this has happened during my working life), we had an office, a fixed desk that was ours. It was our space. When we’re at the desk, we’re working (or a close approximation); when we’re not there, we’re not working.

Today, with the right and reliable tech, anywhere can be your office, even a toilet. I think we underestimate how wonderous this is and how much flexibility or fluidity it gives us over work. Want to soak up the sun and still get work done? No problem. Need to take a few hours out of the day to see your kid’s school production? No problem – or you need to come up with a better excuse than “I have to work”!

The flip side is that it’s easy to allow work to take over, even more so if you’re a freelancer. In an age of constant connectedness via smartphones, it can be stressful  and difficult to get away from things. I have friends that take their phone with them on their annual holiday to keep on top of work emails and others whose Sunday evenings are lost to checking emails so there are “no surprises” Monday morning (but then doesn’t it just make it a surprise Sunday night when you can’t do much about it?). I have one old friend who works for a US-based company whose mornings are quiet but evenings full of calls since they don’t consider the time difference between GMT and ET.

Once I started working for myself, it was a joy to be at home: no commute, everything to hand and so on. But I quickly found being at home all day became counter-productive. There was always something there distracting me – a chore or TV – and, more importantly, I didn’t get a feeling of the working day ending the same way one does when coming away from the office and so never quite switched off.

So, I decided to break the day up by going to my favourite coffee shop to work, rather than stay at home all day. It was productive – but then the same feeling I had at home set in. I realised I had taken a place of relaxation and turned it into a work place.  I tried a different coffee shop but in vain. One particularly bad day, I found I had simply worked my way down almost every coffee shop in town, working north to south down the High Street!

So now I have one for work (which just happens to be a rather “well known coffee chain” at the end of my road and I’m fairly sure I am one of the reasons it remains financially viable) and one for relaxation (the rather splendid Utopia).

I still work from home but if I have a task that must be done, I go to my “well known coffee chain” (as I am now), get focussed and get it done; when I’m at the other, I sink into their comfy chairs, forget about work and stare at the crossword.

Postscript

This blog was in process when the birth of Archie Mountbatten-Windsor was announced. I’m always happy to hear about the birth of a baby but this piqued my interest for two other reasons.

Firstly, the pedantic gene in me was overjoyed by people referring to him as a prince and a royal baby when he isn’t, due to the Letters Patent of 1917 defining who gets to use the titles HRH and Prince/ess.

Secondly, because whoever wrote the Royal Family’s official Tweets needed to brush up on the possessive (or the genitive, to be technical).

catastrophe.PNG

To be fair it is, perhaps, obscure and not many noticed it (do you see it?), but it bugged me all day and shows that even the Highest in the Land should take time to double-check what goes out in public (as my February blog highlighted).

Kindly proofread by Janice Gilbert, WordperfectVA

 

April 2019

Happy April everyone, the clocks have moved forward, the evenings are lighter, the weather is warmer and the cricket season is starting. One of the best times of the year!

In my last two blogs, I spent time explaining proofreading. Isthmus Consulting offers other services (as outlined in Jan blog) and I wish to expand on one this time: independent examination.

What is it?

It isn’t an audit, but it is outside scrutiny of charity accounts and assesses whether the charity has kept proper records, that the year end accounts agree to those records and have been produced in accordance with charity law. It isn’t just ticking a box. Trustees should view it as an assurance that they are doing the right thing. However, it is an important point that the trustees are responsible for the production of the accounts: having an independent examination does not absolve them of that responsibility.

This blog gives a good overview.

Why have an independent examiner (IE)?

The answer depends on your circumstances.

Charities with income £25,000 or more must have an IE, if not a full blown audit.

Charities with income below £25,000 need not have an IE but may find it a valuable service, nonetheless. While small, charities may be operated well by a trusted, close-knit group; but as it grows it may become operated by a wider group, in different areas and handle much more money.

It is often as charities grow, particularly quickly, that proper controls are not put in place and issues creep in. Kids Company  grew quickly and never implemented controls resulting in grants being spent inappropriately.

The trustees are ultimately responsible for proper financial controls, recording and production of accounts. There are many common errors made by trustees where proper financial advice has not been sought or followed.

In 2018, the Charity Commission found 25% of charity accounts did not meet acceptable standards and almost 40% of smaller charities provided inaccurate financial information. This meant charity trustees were not meeting their obligations. An IE can provide advice and support to help you, the trustees, meet Charity Commission requirements.

How can I help?

I have over 15 years’ experience of accounting, including the maintaining of financial records and accounts for charities. I am keen to work with those smaller charities, perhaps around that £25,000 threshold, to help them fulfil their requirements under charity law.

My services include: giving simple advice, account preparation and full independent examination. If you are a charity and wanted to discuss how I can help then please get in touch!

Kindly proofread by Annie Deakins at Proofnow.

March 2019, no really…

Firstly, you may be wondering how I claim this to be a March blog post. Well, according to the Julian calendar it is still March and that is good enough for me…

In my February blog I covered proofreading and why it is important. I mentioned an article that 9 out of 10 CVs have an error. Another way of looking at this is that there is 90% chance of your CV containing an error.

There is a 54% chance of losing your job due to a typo and so one could take the same view about CVs. If there is a 54% chance a typo would lose you a job, then it stands to reason there’s a 54% chance of a typo on a CV denying you a job.

So, basically there is a 49% chance of not getting a job offer, simply due to a typo!

And it isn’t just CVs: what about dissertations, theses, essays?

Anything up to 5% of marks can be assigned directly to spelling, punctuation and grammar. That may not seem a lot, but it can take only one mark to turn a fail into a pass and vice versa.

Errors in spelling, punctuation and grammar will also make your document make a little less sense, be harder to mark and could lead to lost marks in other areas.

How can I help?

I offer special student rates for proofreading CVs, essays, PhD theses, dissertations. Let me provide a fresh look with a fresh pair of eyes to your assignments before they’re submitted. I can help ensure your CV is one of the 10% error free!

Kindly proofread by Annie Deakins at Proofnow.

February 2019

Following on from my January blog, introducing myself and some of my services, I thought I would expand on one of them: proofreading. There are some frequently asked questions whenever I talk about proofreading. I’ve addressed a few of them below.

So, what is proofreading? 

It is a certainty this question will be asked. Not many, outside publishing, have come across the term, so I have prepared a few words to help.

Essentially, it is a check. A check, not only of spelling, punctuation and grammar, but of consistency and accuracy of the text and its formatting. Traditionally, the proofreader would check the final drafts (proofs) of manuscripts for any typesetting errors, etc. This would be the last chance to spot any errors before publication.

As such, a proofreader is the final pair of eyes before it hits the public domain.

Do I need a proofreader?

In my biased view, yes! It’s not just books – anything written can be proofread. Poor spelling, punctuation and grammar can affect your professional image. The littlest of mistakes can make the headlines(*), or even cost you the chance of a job!

Surely a spellchecker does it all?

Modern online spellcheckers are great but only really check spelling. If the wrong word is in there, but spelt correctly, it won’t get picked up. Form instead of from is a good example; something more extreme can be found here.

MS Word is getting sophisticated, in that it can spot the form/from issue in the context of the sentence. But, what if a word is missing and the sentence still makes sense?

Here’s one example, admittedly, quite an old one, but it demonstrates the impact of missing a word and completely changing the meaning of the sentence! This would not be picked up by a spellchecker: only a human eye could spot that (I presume the 17th century proofreader in this case was executed…).

Another consideration is that modern word-processing software will auto-correct. People often spell definitely as definately (or even defiantly!) but the software changes it and so one does not realise the mistake made. That’s great, isn’t it?

Well, firstly, you never learn you’re making the mistake and it creeps into your handwriting as well; secondly, what if it auto-corrects to something else? (When typing this, it changed a mistyping of throw to through – and this was only spotted when it was proofread by a human being!)

One last point on spellcheckers. They tend to default to US English and so wouldn’t pick up spellings such as realize, obligated and fetus. These spellings are creeping in to UK English as a result.

Why should I punctuate? People will surely know what I mean!

The shame is people won’t. It’s (**) why punctuation was developed. Go back far enough in time and there is no punctuation, but as more people learnt to read and more copies of text were available, writers and printers would add notations to aid the reading. These notations would highlight pauses and help give clarity over meaning.

Here’s a good example (and there are many if you search online):

Charles the First walked and talked half an hour after his head was chopped off

Do we mean he was walking and talking after his decapitation? That seems a nonsense, but it is one way of reading the sentence and, in less enlightened times, could be believed as such. Let’s throw in some punctuation:

Charles the First walked and talked. Half an hour after, his head was chopped off.

Now it is clear what we mean: he walked and talked and then, later, his head was chopped off.

Punctuation’s power is clarity of meaning: something very important if you’re trying to sell something!

Even so, surely it is just publishers that use proofreaders?

Not so, these days.

You may be a charity producing your Trustees’ Annual Report or a brochure to help generate donations; a business wishing to promote itself with leaflets; a financial adviser creating reports on a client’s finances; a student writing an essay, dissertation or thesis; a sport club producing a fixture book; or even a restaurant producing a menu.

And it isn’t just hard copy: websites, blogs, Facebook, Twitter and other social media all promote you and your organisation, so it’s important to ensure that what you practise in hard copy written material transfers to the soft copy online.

And, of course, you may have read it through a few times yourself, but a proofreader provides a fresh, concentrated and independent pair of eyes.

I’m convinced! How can you help me?

A very good and sage question! My services range from a simple check of spelling and punctuation up to suggested edits/rewordings. I can also help you develop a ‘tone of voice’ and house style.

I will help with CVs, menus, essays, reports, leaflets, theses, even Christmas cards! Basically, if you plan to put something in writing in public (be it on paper or online) then I can review it.

Want to know more? Then contact me here.

This blog is based on a presentation made to Southend Peers, the borough’s premier networking group.

(*) There’s a prize (not really) for anyone that spots the errors in the article, criticising the original error…

(**) My spellchecker insisted this should be ‘Its’ until I added this footnote!

Kindly proofread by Janice Gilbert of WordperfectVA.