Showing posts with label spelling. Show all posts
Showing posts with label spelling. Show all posts

19 September 2021

How to Speak American


This one’s for you, Anne!

When our Dutch colleague Anne van Doorn visited SleuthSayers, we discussed English competency in general, and American English in particular. Following is my own contribution, but I’ll mention Wikipedia contains a surprisingly good article on the topic.

Grammar

The primary thing that’s driven me mad is the concept of mass versus collective nouns and subject-verb agreement. For example:

  • US: “Tottenham FC is expected to win.”
  • UK: “Tottenham FC are expected to win.”

When I asked a British instructor to explain, all he imparted was, “You aren’t wrong.” If you figure this one out, let me know. (Wikipedia makes a decent stab of kinda, sorta explaining it.)

In parts of Britain, articles (a, an, the) seem to disappear. In Yorkshire you might hear a construct something like, “She dropped pudding on floor.” The tendency appears occasionally in phrases such as, “I took her to hospital,” where an American would say, “I took her to the hospital.”

For some reason, North Americans don’t have a similar problem with school: “I went to school today.” To be clear, that means attending classes, whereas, “I went to the school today,” more likely implies visiting the campus or schoolhouse. We might say, “I attended college,” but also confusingly say, “I attended the university.”

fanny covering (girl in shorts)
fanny
covering
fanny covering (girl in shorts)
also fanny
covering

In the US, bath is strictly a noun and bathe is the corresponding verb. In the UK, bath can be both. My ears still aren’t used to someone saying, “I’ll bath this evening,” (where it’s pronounced bawth). When I try to say it, I sound like a smartass. Er, smartarse.

Meaning

Thanks to internationalism, Americanisms have filtered into the UK and vice versa. However, a few words differ in meaning.

In North America, corn means a particular type of maize. The British use a broader sense of a cereal crop including oats, wheat, and barley.

North Americans tend to use the adjective ‘mad’ when they mean angry. The British limit the word to mean insane.

How do I put this delicately: Never, ever, pat an Englishwoman on the fanny. Bad enough in America, but just… don’t… do it. In the UK, it’s probably not what you think it is.

And…

We come to one of my least favorite (least favourite) words. Feel free to skip to the next topic. I wouldn’t go into this at all, except the English insist upon inserting some derivation of the word piss in every third paragraph– more often if they’re watching a football match in their local pub. North Americans lean toward two meanings, urinate and anger, but the British have come up with many, many more, confusing us poor Americans. These include:

Someone who’s ‘on the piss’ is engaging in a heavy drinking bout until they’re thoroughly ‘pissed’, i.e, drunk. ‘Taking a piss’ can refer to misleading someone, but ‘taking the piss out of’ someone is mocking them. A ‘piece of piss’ refers to something easy to do. A ‘pisser’ is someone or something funny. Telling someone to ‘piss off’ means leave immediately. ‘Piss about’ is to waste time and resources on something foolish. ‘Piss up’ means to ruin something, but plain ‘piss’ means something that tastes bad. Finally the English exploit the word’s versatility with ‘piss on’ implying great contempt and ‘piss in one’s pocket’ meaning virtually its opposite, to ingratiate oneself.

I’m convinced a writer could invent his or her own combination in the form of piss+preposition, and people on that side of the English Channel would intuit exactly what was meant. A wiser choice might be to avoid it altogether. Now excuse me whilst I bath.

French Influence

Despite time and distance, some French spellings and pronunciations have survived in the US. When I was a child, my mother pronounced pot-pourri the French way, ‘POH-puhREE’, but thanks to dumbing down by television and radio, the pronunciation is shifting to ‘pot-porry’. Ugh.

We still pronounce filet mignon as ‘FEElay MIN-yon’ whereas the British say fillet (‘fill-it’) steak. We retain other words the French either seldom use (derrière, double entendre) or the meaning has altered (brassiere). In some cases, North Americans have retained French spelling, such as valor versus valour.

maths symbols

baseball, soccer ball, basketball, football

tyre by the kerb, tire by the curb

Canadians still use serviette but Americans seem to be losing this elegant and useful word in favor (favour) of table napkin.

Spelling

Math in the US, maths in the UK. Sports in the US, sport in the UK. Consistent, right? And of course US soccer = UK football.

British contrast certain nouns ending in -ce with their corresponding verb forms ending in -se. For example: licence/license, practice/practise. Americans (but less so Canadians) often narrow the spelling of noun and verb to -ce endings. Outside US borders, my memory aid associates the ‘c’ ending with ‘concrete noun’.

Then we have variant spellings: kerb/curb, tyre/tire, gaol/jail. If I could get away with it, I’d use kerb and tyre, being unambiguous with their homonyms. We see a precedent in the word clew that retains its spelling for maritime use, but evolved to clue in the crime and mystery world.

A few authors have proposed we Americans adopt British spellings regarding two ‘writerly’ words. One is cosy (instead of cozy), which one SleuthSayer or another uses. The other is storey (instead of story) when referring to the floor of a building. For example, “She was reading a cosy on her second storey balcony.” Your choice.

Finally, the dot at the end of a sentence… the British refer to it as fullstop whereas Americans usually call it a period. That’s a clue to wrap up.

Good luck, Anne!

28 May 2019

Things You Learn from Editing


As the old saying goes, it's never too late to teach an old dog new tricks. (As a dog owner, I can attest that this is true!) The saying also applies to writers. No matter how much writing experience you have, you still can learn more.
I was reminded of this point recently, as I've been editing a lot of short stories for two upcoming anthologies, one coming out in December, and another coming out next spring. Some of the stories have been written by authors I consider to be short-story experts. Other stories have been written by authors who have had several stories published but who haven't broken out yet, and others still have been penned by authors who are just starting out. And I have learned something from all of them--sometimes simply from reading the stories (even the newest writer can come up with a twist or a turn of phrase that turns my head) and other times from editing them.

It's the editing finds that can lead to especially interesting conversations.

Did you know that SOB is in the dictionary? All caps. No periods. The acronym for son of a bitch is a word all its own, at least according to the online Merriam-Webster dictionary.

Even more surprising (to me at least), mansplain has made the dictionary too. I won't bother to tell you what that words means. I'm sure you know.

Turning to homophones, two-word terms often become single words when slang enters the picture. For instance, a woman might go to the drug store to buy a douche bag, but if her boyfriend is being a jerk, she'd call him a douchebag (one word, no space). And descriptions of animal excrement are usually spelled as two words: horse shit, bull shit, chicken shit. But when you mean "no way" or "a load of not-actual crap" you spell it horseshit and bullshit (again, one word, no space). And when you mean that someone is a coward, you call him a chickenshit--also one word. (Thanks to Michael Bracken for helping me see the horse shit/horseshit distinction recently.) It's interesting that horses, bulls, and chickens have had their excrement turned into slang words, yet dog shit is just that. Two words meaning excrement. As I told a friend, I might start saying "dogshit," when I want to say "no way!" just to see if it catches on.

Keeping with the one-word or two-words questions, do you go into a room or in to a room? This may be an obvious thing for you, but it's one of those little things I find myself double-checking over and over. Same for on to/onto, some time/sometime, and so many more. Each of these words has their proper place, so I like to make sure I use them properly.

Yep, that's a bear on a trampoline.
To answer these questions: you go into a room. Into is the correct word if you are showing motion. The onto/on to question also turns on whether you are showing movement. I jump onto the trampoline. I catch on to my boyfriend's lies. As to sometime or some time, this question turns on whether you are talking about a period of time (writing this blog is taking some time) or if you mean an indefinite date (I'll get back to you sometime next month). Thank goodness for Google, without which I would have to memorize these distinctions. Instead I just get to look them up again and again and again.

Well, I hate to cut this column short, but I'm short on time. (Ha ha!) (And that's two words for ha ha, per our friend Mr. Webster.)

Do you have any interesting word usage issues/spelling knowledge you'd like to share? Please do. I'm always eager to learn something new.

******

Oh, and before I go, two bits of BSP: My story "Bug Appétit" has been nominated for the Anthony Award for best short story! This story was published in the November/December 2018 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and was a finalist earlier this year for the Agatha Award. I'm honored to be an Anthony finalist along with fellow SleuthSayer Art Taylor as well as authors S.A. Cosby, Greg Herren, and Holly West. The winner will be voted on and announced at Bouchercon in November. In the meanwhile, you can read my story here, if you are interested.


And if you're anywhere near Richmond, Virginia, on Saturday, June 8th, I hope you'll come to the launch party for Deadly Southern Charm. This anthology from the Central Virginia chapter of Sisters in Crime includes my newest short story, "The Power Behind the Throne."

The launch party will run from 3 - 5 p.m. at the Libbie Mill - Henrico County Public Library, 2011 Libbie Lake E. St., Richmond, VA. In addition to the usual book launch activities such as book selling and book signing and snack eating, there will be a panel discussion about the pros and cons of writing different lengths of fiction. I'll be on the panel with fellow Deadly Southern Charm author Lynn Cahoon and anthology editor Mary Burton. We hope to see you there!

11 September 2016

Don't Bury that Lede


James Lincoln Warren
James Lincoln Warren
featuring guest star James Lincoln Warren

Today’s article takes an international bent, one at which the British might cock an eyebrow, South Africans pretend not to look superior, Australians mutter, “WTF?” and Canadians cringe. “Oh, not another American diatribe to confuse the issue.” Yes, I’m talking about spelling, but words of particular interest to writers.

I’ve lived and worked in the UK so I’m a bit schizophrenic about the topic. On good days I might give myself an A- but other days barely a B. When it comes to those plural-singular collective noun & verb combinations, I want to shoot myself, e.g, “Manchester are a great team.” Manchester what? Even Liverpool and Leeds disagree… for different reasons, but do they say Manchester suck or sucks? No… yes… maybe… I’m off on an unwinnable rant.

We can blame the devil in Noah Webster for part of our dilemma, but no one ever credited natural language with logic. It’s up to us poor writers to struggle against the darkness. And the not so poor– Stephen King reportedly insists upon certain ‘international’ spellings. Double points to him because he provides a web page so readers can report typos and other errors.

Story v Storey

Our steadfast friend, James Lincoln Warren, has previously suggested we should use ‘storey’ to refer to a floor within a building and ’story’ for literary uses. JLW writes:

The reason I prefer “storey” to “story” when describing a level of a building above the ground floor is because it is more specific. “Story” can mean several things, but “storey” means only one thing.

For whatever it’s worth, etymologically, both words derive from the same origin, Latin historia. In medieval “Anglo-Latin”, historia was used in both senses as with “story”, i.e., “narrative” and “floor”. The Oxford English Dictionary therefore considers “storey” a variant spelling of “story”, and doesn’t show an example of the spelling with the “e” until Dickens, which suggests to me that the inclusion of the “e” in the architectural spelling is quite recent.

Brilliant and simple, right? So if we use story and storey, why not further distinguish other words the same way?

Cosy v Cozy

We North Americans recognize (or recognise– more on that later) two great British inventions, the cosy and the, er, cosy. One popularly keeps tea warm and the other warms readers of golden age mysteries.

Some American authors happily use this spelling, but exceptions abound including our own Fran Rizer, and why not? She writes Southern cozies with a ‘z’, thank you very much.

I like cosy as a noun, but when it comes to verbs and adjectives, my senseless sensibilities kick in. “She cosied up to him,” seems wrong, like she quoted Agatha Christie while serving him a pot of tea.

But if we expand our North American use of cosy with an ’s’, I suggest we negotiate ‘-ize’ endings. The poor zee (or zed) sees so little use, why not allow it to participate in ‘authorize’ and ‘pressurize’ and ‘legitimize’?

Celebrate, crossword puzzlers, celebrate!

Lede v Lead

The first time I came across ‘lede’, I had to look it up to make certain I wasn’t misreading it. The use of ‘lede’ as a variant of ‘lead’ is even newer than storey, dating back to the late 1950s or early 1960s.

Lede has been used to mean a headline, but more precisely refers to the opening paragraph of an article or story that summarizes (not summarises) the content following. Waffling Wikipedia suggests lede/lead combines the headline and first paragraph, but the ever precise Grammarist narrows its definition:

Strictly speaking, the lede is the first sentence or short portion of an article that gives the gist of the story and contains the most important points readers need to know… allowing readers who are not interested in the details to feel sufficiently informed.

In more dramatic forms, the lede can compare with a hook, but perhaps less obviously in, say, legal and technical writing. Professional journalism practices say a lede must provide the main points of a story, interest the reader in the story, and accomplish those goals as briefly as possible.

Newspapers used to be set in hot and cold lead (molten metal, Pb), so the lede of a hot lead could be cast in cold lead. As an interesting footnote, the American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language comments upon lede:

Obsolete spelling of lead, revived in modern journalism to distinguish the word from its homograph lead, strip of metal separating lines of type.

Bury the lede” uses only the lede spelling. It’s sometimes misunderstood as burying a lead article within a newspaper, but it more narrowly means to begin an article with unessentials and postpone revealing salient points or facts until deeper in the body. For example, an editor might bury the lede for popular or political reasons.

Kerb – Curb, Tyre – Tire

If we succeed in making the spelling choices in the English language smaller while making the meanings more exact, why stop with these words? Why not use certain British nouns in exchange for North American verbs? “I tired of the tyre against the kerb, which curbed my enthusiasm.” Yeah, that works.

The words clew/clue seem to have sorted themselves out, although an author like  James Lincoln Warren might employ ‘clew’ in nautical and historical writings.

Back to crime writing, what the hell do we do about ‘gaol’, an unholy Norman abomination that dismays even the Welsh? We turn to James once more:

Interestingly, in Samuel Johnson’s definition of GAOL in his dictionary, he writes, “It is always pronounced and too often written jail, and sometimes goal.” He does, however, also list JAIL under the letter “I”. (There is no "J" section).

Publishing News

Congratulations to James for two stories soon to appear in Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazines. Tip your boater to him at the New Orleans Bouchercon.