The Queen’s English

The Queen’s English

There are over fifty countries where English is the official language. That’s out of about 196. In other words, over 25%. There are many more where English is commonly spoken. That makes it far reaching and diverse, and more confusing than ever (link to a Wiki article on what countries speak English HERE).

*For details on how the list was created and what the allocated points mean, click HERE.

As a writer, I constantly struggle with what English to use, and writing Jane Austen Fan Fiction adds a whole additional layer of confusion. Do I dedicate myself to reconstructing the language used by the peerage in England in the early 1800s? Do I scour manuals and the internet for correct English? Or, do I write how I and people I know talk, meaning American spoken English.

The answer, for me, is to compromise. For example, I try not to sound too American. From some of our reviews, I’m pretty sure I get a fail on that one. I also try not to sound too modern, but can’t bring myself to attempt actual replication of Miss Austen’s wording and style. This is because I would likely fail at that as well, creating some demented, awkward rendition of English that would leave both Jane Austen and modern readers cringing.

But what about the rules? Those pesky, pesky rules, both official and unofficial. One, for example, is not to start a sentence with a coordinating conjunction (i.e. and, or, but). A little research, however, find this to be a grammatical myth. Technically, it’s perfectly correct to begin a sentence this way. Practically, we’ve all been told not to and doing so may make some people look down on our work. Other people, of course, won’t notice.

The example that brings me nearest to madness (not toward anger, because mad and angry are not actually synonymous . . . ) is the subjunctive mood.

Some examples include:

If I were you, I would build a house made completely of chocolate.

I wish I were ten time taller than the tallest tippy tree.

The trouble is, correct doesn’t always look and sound correct. My ongoing question is, what do I do? When I write it correctly, I feel as if many readers think it’s an error because no one speaks that way. If I write it incorrectly, but how many people think it should be, people who know better may turn up their noses at my poor grammar. It leaves me wondering if maybe I shouldn’t have learned the rules at all, so I could live in blissful ignorance.

Because I really want to know, here are some questions on the topic of English:

  1. As a writer, do you try to follow all of the rules, or do you write colloquially?
  2. As a reader, how much do you care if you agree with the grammatical choices the author made?
  3. Also, what are some of your pet peeve errors? For example, people not knowing the difference between further and farther bugs me, or less and fewer.
  4. Lastly, do you have any pet peeves with English itself? I do! Sometimes English seems designed specifically to torment. For example: meddle medal metal mettle or mantel mantle or rain reign rein . . . basically any homophone, though I can understand how they came to be (link to a homophone site HERE).

 

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25 Responses to The Queen’s English

  1. I read a lot, at least a book a day and write a little… To me it always the story that counts. It actually annoys me when someone signed “English teacher”, butcher a lovely story on Kindle because? of a few misspelled words… I make it my mission to read an leave a positive review when it’s earned. I would rather read a book from a fantastic storyteller than a boring book in flawless English. English is not my native language but the subject I am rather passionate about. Regarding mixing in some modern language, I don’t usually have a problem with that either, until someone makes Elizabeth answer a question with “yeah”, that’s my limit…

  2. I am “only” a reader. I know I would fail to follow the rules in writing BUT I do wish someone would give me a list of what publishers want vs. what is correct. I find that there are fewer commas than I was taught. I recently asked an elementary school principal if the rule about possessive nouns has changed for more than one owner. I write, “Sue’s and Jim’s house” and am told it is correct BUT books today seem to almost all write, “Sue and Jim’s house”. That gets on my nerves. Then there is the comma needed when addressing a person, “Where are you going, Jane?” becomes “Where are you going Jane” in books. Do publishers change the rules to makes printing more economical and thus ignore the rules? I can’t believe a principal does not know of what she speaks. So give me a list so I am not grinding my teeth at broken rules. I don’t mind modern language but don’t use slang, i.e., kids, in a Regency story or modern clichés. Please. I was corrected when I thought saloon was wrong in speaking about a drawing room/living room rather than salon. But as a reader how does one know when such it used correctly when modern dictionaries don’t tell you it is the Regency word for “drawing room”. Or don’t use it if you know it will confuse the reader, authors.

  3. As long as there are enough COMMAS, and they are placed correctly, and use the Oxford Comma convention, then I am happy. I hate to read stories where a few extra commas would make the English correct, or make the sentence clearer.

  4. As a reader, I’m not expecting any of you lovely writers to try to ape Jane Austen’s style and am happy if the language is less formal but sounds as if it might be Regency. Anything too modern really jars though, no matter how good the story, such as “OK” or, this might seem a bit strange, “overstuffed” upholstery.

    My pet peeves regarding Americanisms are “different than”, “gotten”, “pinky” for the little finger, and “fall” instead of autumn. I’ve also noticed that “foyer” is sometimes used instead of entrance hall. Apart from the fact that “foyer” is post-Regency anyway, we Brits usually only use it to refer to the large areas inside the entrances to public buildings. And, (yes, I’m doing that on purpose, too) we never, ever, measure street distances in “blocks”!

    Over the past couple of years, I’ve had the great pleasure to be a British beta for several JAFF authors, for the very reason of my being a Brit. I’m also pretty good at spelling, for the same reason as Glynis – weekly spelling tests at junior school (that’s ages 7 to 11, for my US friends). So, my usual brief is “spot the typos”, “spot the Americanisms”, “spot anything too modern” and “mention anything else you may notice that might need changing”.
    I’ve (almost) become used to Americanised spellings of words such as colour/color, recognise/recognize, theatre/theater etc. and set my word processing program (keep wanting to use programme) to US English whenever I’m proofreading so that I don’t get those annoying, coloured squiggles under words it thinks are misspelled.

    The other thing that’s occurred to me whilst typing this comment, is that do we tend to write more formally than we speak? I know I do, which is why I’d be rubbish at writing dialogue. Actually, I’d be rubbish at writing any sort of fiction!

  5. I write Regency romance other than P&P variations. I found that since I don’t think like Jane Austen, I don’t write like her either. So, I try to give my books a Regency flavor with some of the expressions and terms and try to avoid anachronisms. Unless a book has a huge amount of errors, grammatical, spelling or whatever, if it has a good plot, I’ll still enjoy it. My pet peeve is reigns when a horse’s reins are meant. Enjoyed your thoughts, Summer. Nice article.

  6. I’m a reader and to be honest,( even though I am good at spelling due to weekly spelling tests at junior school) if I am enjoying a story I can ignore wrong spellings or words with different meanings. I also hardly notice Americanisms (probably because I have watched so many U.S. series!) I only notice if the storyline doesn’t grip me either because it is just too implausible or too disjointed. I have so much respect for most of the JAFF authors and know from messaging some of them just how much they check and recheck their work but it is so easy to miss something due to the tendency to read what you expect to rather than what is there (experience speaking here!). I would certainly not mention anything unless the author specifically asked me. So keep up the good work as I hate to think of what I would have missed if I had not discovered JAFF.

    • Hi Glynis,

      That’s very kind of you to say, especially about the Americanisms. I really do try to avoid them. On the other hand, I don’t even know what they are 🙂 It really is difficult to proofread your own work. Your mind tricks your eyes, as you said. I’ve tried reading sentences backward, reading books backward, reading aloud, reading aloud in funny voices . . . anything to slow myself down enough to see what’s really on the page. Unfortunately, my brain knows all of my tricks (it’s like it’s spying on me or something) and still sees what it ‘knows’ is on the page. I doubt we’ll ever have a solution. We just need to do the best we can and keep looking for ways to go better.

      I’m glad you discovered JAFFs as well. Thank you for reading them!

      Summer

  7. As a reader, I don’t care if you write in the Regency style or not, just don’t use modern words and sayings. What I have a problem with is wrong or missing punctuation, (especially commas), and when the wrong word is used. There is a big difference between cavalry and Calvary, etc.

    Ten, 20 or 30 years ago when published books were edited and proofread by professionals, you very rarely found typos, grammar errors, or wrong words. I find it disconcerting to pay as much for an eBook as I did for some paperback books and then finding so many errors in it that I can’t even enjoy the story. They just jump out at me and completely distract me from what I am reading. (Probably because my eyes roll so far back into my head that it takes a while for them to come back.)

    If you ever want someone to proofread your final draft, just let me know. 🙂

    • What a vivid picture! Your eyes rolling back, that is 🙂 That’s very nice of you to offer. I’m a torment to proofreaders. I’m pretty sure I have a special skill for sneaky errors. Like a superpower. An evil, evil superpower.

      I look at errors as a percentage. Different proofreaders will catch different percentages. Even the best, I suspect, don’t catch 100%, but rather something more like 95%. So, if I make ten errors a page, every other page will still have an error. Now, I haven’t counted how many errors I generally get onto a page (Why depress myself?), and I have been getting better as I work to educate myself on my common errors, but I know I still make more than most people. What I’m actually a bit more worried about are things that are correct, but sound like errors to readers. I don’t know how to fix that, except, as I said, to try to learn what those things are and word my sentences differently.

  8. To make things more complicated, sometimes Summer and I disagree on language. There was the time when I changed something she wrote, she changed it back, and I changed it to what I thought it should be. She came up with another wording that satisfied both of us and was better than either of our versions.

    Of course, we both “knew” we were right. But fortunately for the sanity of both of us, we don’t often have disagreements of that type.

    • A good point! Actually, when in doubt, I always go to rewording. That goes for doubt about what is correct or about what might sound most correct. If I can’t decide with little thought, I redo the sentence. That goes double for if Renata and I are in disagreement. Definitely time for a new sentence then. For the record, Renata’s spelling is excellent 🙂

  9. I would go with what is grammatically correct even if it doesn’t sound right. Although, I am not bothered by small grammar mistakes especially if the story itself is engaging as that’s what is most important to me. I do tend to notice spelling mistakes though as that is a strength of mine. I guess the only pet peeve that I have is when someone uses the wrong word entirely. In these instances, I usually know which word they meant to use but the one they actually used means something entirely different and doesn’t fit in the context of the sentence.

    • You are very lucky to be a strong speller. I’ve struggled with spelling all of my life. I wonder if it’s just a part of the brain; an inherent lack of skill? I also, for example, can’t hit a tennis ball straight. Of course, I’m not trying to be a tennis player 🙂 Using homophones is what I’m the most guilty of, I think. On the bright side, I usually spell the wrong word right . . . 😉

      Sometimes I think the grammatically correct way sounds more correct, but sometimes it sounds so wrong, I have to look it up to make sure I’m not mistaken. I often wish to just magically know which way readers would prefer to see it. I tend to prioritize a satisfying reading experience or right or wrong, but I don’t always know what will make a better read.

  10. I have a few pet peeves. My mother was an English major and though I have never claimed to be proficient, I got enough of her lectures for some things to bother me prodigiously. I see loose in place of lose much too often, and the made up words and terms: on accident, irregardless, I could care less, supposAbly…I digress. 🙂 As to reading, as long as Darcy isn’t throwing “yeahs” and calling Elizabeth “bae” I’m generally okay with it. We are all humans after all. I did get tickled at the “…pleasing continence.” Oh, that’s just priceless! Have you noticed that quite often our brains will “see” the word as it should be or is that just mine?

    • Hi Stephanie 🙂 You made me laugh with your Darcy calling Elizabeth ‘bae.’ Then she would say, “I can’t even.”

      I suppose there is a place for that, but me trying to write like that would be worse then me trying to sound like a British person! Plus, I wouldn’t know what half the words I was using meant.

      So long as we all do our best, I think we should all be proud (okay, even though I thought I was doing my best, I was not proud of Darcy’s pleasing continence . . . but he should be!) 🙂

      • I completely agree with you on trying to use the slang in context. I’m 43 and raised by an English major. I don’t even use “acceptable” slang such as ain’t and see ya. When my 19 year old goddaughter says something along the lines of “Game to roll! Yolo bae!” into her phone, I stand and stare at her. She explained that she was saying she was interested in going with her friend because you only live once baby. I immediately feel old and stodgy. 🙂

  11. I agree that English is a difficult language because it is not a pure language. It is a melting pot of many languages, as it is full of borrowed words from all over the world. And [I couldn’t help it] with each of those words, you might have a different set of rules that apply to it. I once had a professor announce to the whole class that there was a student who didn’t know the difference between there and they’re. I felt so sorry and embarrassed for that student. Low and behold, when our papers were returned, it was MY paper. I know the difference and, to this day, don’t know how on earth I made such a mistake. Was it auto correct? Did I type it by mistake? It has haunted me that I would turn in such a paper with that obvious a blunder.

    I will say this…I am learning a lot by reading reviews. I see those mistakes pointed out and… [hate to admit this] I make a list of words that give me trouble. Yeah, those homophones are a bare bear… you know what I mean. To me the greatest problem with reading is those blatant “rush to publish” authors who, it appears, doesn’t even look at their work. Those are the ones who get under my skin. It is impossible to catch all the errors, but the work should look as if an effort was made to correct. I have looked over my own work a dozen times and thought it was OK. Then, when I looked at it later…errors, I no longer saw, jump out at me. Ex: pique peak, canter cantor, dammed damned, accept except, affect effect, who whom, then than, a while awhile, assure insure ensure, these are a few on my list.

    You guys do an excellent job and I know it is hard work to try and walk that fine line. I appreciate your effort and try to read as many of your books as I can. You have always been high stars for me. Thanks for this insightful post. I added a few new words to my list.

    • I feel your pain! I’ve definitely done pique/peek/peak . . . and I do know the difference, I swear. Those are the ones that hurt the most, when I really do know, but somehow didn’t put the right word. How does that happen? It makes me crazy. How can you read a line ten times and not see that you used peeked instead of piqued? It’s like magic, but in a bad way 🙂 I have a list too, a long one, and all of the ones you mentioned are on it 🙂 Manner and manor. Current and currant. So very many more. I am pretty sure, if there is a way to spell a word wrong and have it spell check, I will find it. Sometimes, I wonder what put this notion I should write in my head (right, it was reading books growing up . . . I knew reading was bad for you! :-p ).

      Yes, reviewers can be good at letting us know what we’re doing wrong. It’s a little evil, though, when they say something like, ‘I did find two mistakes, but otherwise . . .’ Then I’m standing in front of my computer saying, ‘What two?’ Still, it’s nice of them to write reviews, because reviews are good to get, so I’m happy 🙂

    • Thank you.

      I understand the rush to publish. I’m always eager to publish. One advantage of having two authors is that I can’t work on something when Summer has it. I usually go and work on something else. When I get a manuscript back, I’ve had a break from it and am more willing to proofread it one more time. Unfortunately, I should probably proofread it several more times.

      Full disclosure: in writing this I had to look up “proofread” since I wasn’t certain if it was one word or two.

  12. I rarely have pet peeves with English itself, for I spent 39 years of my life teaching it. I also taught Advanced Placement English Language (not the literature course).
    I admit that I become irritated with those who repeatedly misuse “then” and “than” (and I am not speaking of the occasional typo).
    Another complaint is “different from” should be used, not “different than.” Being from West Virginia, I am sensitive to split infinitives. They sound natural to me, so I must look carefully for them in my work, and I am afraid I do so in others’.
    One has difficulty determining usage as most language came into speech first before it shows up in the written language. A good rule of thumb is 10 years prior to what the dictionary gives as the origin of a word. In the beginning of my writing career, I used “scenario” quite often in my stories and the characters’ dialogue. Then one day I realized it sounded too modern. When I looked it up, I found it was mid 1800s (although I could have argued it came from “scenes” and Latin roots).
    The problem many of us find nowadays is the lovely autocorrect attempting to assist with the unusual spellings. For example, my autocorrect keeps turning “Longbourn” into “Longhorn.” Twice that mistake made it into print. It also likes to turn Mr. Bingley into Mr. Bungled, which is probably a better name for his personality. LOL!

    • Hi Regina,

      I have to admit, I’m not great with split infinitives. I don’t know if I use them or not, which can’t be good! I think I’ve gotten better at misplaced modifiers over the years, though. I can hardly stand to listen to the news, where they use them so much it seems like it’s on purpose.

      Auto correct is my enemy as well! On the other hand, I could turn it off, yet find it so useful I don’t. My worst auto correct error is ‘countenance.’ However I type it when I’m typing quickly, my auto correct decides I mean ‘continence,’ which can lead to some pretty terrible sentences! Although, as I’ve managed to put in a book, we all know, “Women love a man with a pleasing continence.” 🙂

  13. Lol. Definitely a conundrum. I think I’m with you and like alittle of both. When reading Jane Austen’s originals I know exactly what I’m reading and expect it though the first time I had a hard time reconciling it. I personally don’t like modern language for regency novels. But a little of both does make it easier to read.

    Excellent question to ponder!

    • Yes, it’s difficult to decide how modern to make language. You want ease of reading so your story can be enjoyed, but you don’t want to compromise the qualities that contribute to people’s love of the era. Of course, taking Jane Austen characters into a different time period creates a new aspect to the quandary. All I know for sure if that I can’t capture Jane Austen’s original use of language, or sound like a British person, and faking either would be a disaster!

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