Choking on ire

I am indignant. I am fuming. I had a blog post scheduled for this morning, but it has been obscured by the deep red anger that is clouding my vision.

Are any of you, my lovely readers, speakers of English as a second language? Because if you are, you’ll no doubt agree than the opening paragraph above is fairly inaccessible. Until you’re truly fluent – and even after you have become so – the nuances of English can be hard to grasp.

This fact seems to have slipped, unnoticed, past Roger Ebert, writing for the Chicago Sun-Times, as he lambastes our Macmillan Graded Reader rewrite of The Great Gatsby.

Let us put aside the fact that, as an experienced journalist, Ebert should first and foremost have done enough research to realise that the Macmillan Graded Readers are not for native-English-speaking American or English students. Let us chalk that down to the eternal tendency journalists seem to have to ignore the full facts of any situation if they might obstruct a good story. (But may I suggest, with his talent for stirring up the angry mob via half-truths, Ebert might consider writing for The Daily Mail?)

You all know how I feel about reading. You all know how I feel about the abysmal state of grammar and punctuation as applied by otherwise intelligent adults across the UK. You all know how much I love books, how much I loved working at the Centre for Children’s Books in Newcastle, at Waterstone’s as a Children’s and YA specialising bookseller, as a volunteer at a local school in Leamington listening to young readers who struggled with their words. I am passionate about reading. Much of my life is spent in discussing books, and much of my income on buying them. I am that Aunt – the one who eschews toys and games in favour of books every birthday and Christmas.

And yes, I do judge people by what they read. I did used to clock the women who came into Waterstones to purchase Katie Price’s “novels”. I would steer Dan Brown aficionados away from the ill-written popularist fiction under B and towards Foucault’s Pendulum by Eco instead. And I would laughingly tell the 30-something woman buying Twilight that no, she wasn’t alone, yes, I too had stayed up into the small hours hooked on the saga, and yes, I did judge both her and myself for it. (I still maintain that Meyer’s novels are absolutely appalling – but there is no denying their addiction factor!)

But sometimes judgement is not an option. Sometimes we have to accept that sharing the canon is about the culture more than the literature. Sometimes we need to hook people in to the story in order to allow them access to the words.

No-one would deny the link between booksales and television or film adaptations. After Channel 4’s Pillars of the Earth last autumn, we sold Ken Follet’s masterpiece by the crateload. Following last winter’s BBC adaption of Small Island, we received and sold more Andrea Levy books than our pyramids could hold. And don’t make me return to the Twilight saga, and the effect Robert Pattinson has had on Dark Fiction across the YA genre.

Yet no-one slates movies for oversimplifying the story. No-one identifies that film adaptations of The Lord of the Rings fail to include the songs and poetry for which Tolkein’s novels are often discussed. It is accepted that films are about telling great tales – and about converting some small percentage of the audience into readers, who’ll go out and either devour the original classic with joy and delight, or persevere with the language of the original because they already know it’s worth it.

The Macmillan Readers are about the story. They’re about allowing an audience with a limited vocabulary – and a limited understanding of the huge complexities the native-speaker can apply to English sentence structure – access to an important aspect of our culture. They’re about opening doors to conversation with natives on intellectual topics. And, as one commenter explains, they’re about encouraging learners to persevere with their studies:

I teach English as a foreign language in Japan , mostly to adults. I give my students these type of novels by MacMillan and other publishers.
Why? Because most of them will never achieve the level of English ability to read the original, but mainly, for the hope that one or two may be motivated to work hard enough and long enough to read the original.

The skill that goes into condensing a classic into an enormously limiting vocabulary of only 1,600 words (there are recognised to be over 1.2 million words in the English language and 8,500 new words added every year. The average person has an active vocabulary set of approx 50,000 words, a college graduate of about 75,000. This 911 word blog post alone employs 471 unique words.) is beyond extraordinary. I urge anyone who doubts that fact to try converting just one chapter of a canon classic into the Intermediate level 1,600 vocabulary set – Fitzgerald, Conrad, Hemingway – their language range is frankly humongous.

Our Readers are not designed to dumb down America students. They are not designed for American students AT ALL. They are no comment upon, nor indication of, the state of the education system in any native-English speaking country. They are designed to provide ESL learners with a gateway to English’s great, varied and internationally recognised abundance of classic literature.

Should we be criticised for such a thing?

Impact: small and simple

For some time now, we’ve been arriving at work at the simply ridiculous hour of 7.45am, and effectively working an hour’s overtime every day as Clare cannot leave until 4.45pm. The 5.30am starts, as you’re all aware, have been taking their toll. So Clare recently suggested we try a little experiment, testing the traffic half an hour later.

This week I’ve been getting up at 6am. The psycohological impact of this change is vast – while 5.30am seems like an unearthly hour to me, 6am seems almost reasonable. Whilst hitting the M40 at 6.40am seems like we should be heading to the airport, hitting the rush hour traffic at 7.10 just makes me feel like another rodent running the rat race. And whilst I resent being first into the office before 8am AND one of the later to leave at pushing on 5pm, arriving at 8.20 I feel almost late for work. After all, other people are already at their desks by then!

The overall difference this has made to my energy levels has been enormous. I’ve socialised twice already this week, seeing friends who were long overdue on two evenings of the four I have at home each week. And my body hasn’t taken the usual hit such activities provoke – I don’t feel ready to drop like I would have done a couple of weeks back. I actually feel – dare I say it – almost human.

It’s amazing what a difference 30 minutes can make. We often underestimate the power of “small”.

********

Writing this post reminded me of an excellent marketing video I saw recently. Penguin’s marketing team do create some marvellously simple, cheap, but effective campaigns, and this one did the rounds at Macmillan to great acclaim. Sometimes, simplicity is key:

Mind your Metaphors

April is metaphorical English month over on the Macmillan Dictionary blog, and reading James Geary’s post Metaphors in Mind set me thinking about my own application of metaphors and how I use them to manipulate you, my dear readers. Because writing a blog makes manipulation necessary – you’re not gaining anything physical by reading me, per se, and so I need to manipulate the hell out of y’all in order to ensure you come back!

When I tell a story I am conscious of my tendency to drop in a metaphor and then run with it. Let’s take, for e.g.:

I’m not sure where I’m going to take this little epihpany, which dream to chase after first or which path to forge for myself, but I do know that I can’t just let it go. Until now, every aspect of my life, the good the bad and the ugly; the dreams and the nightmares, have been like helium ballons, their strings clutched in my grubby hands. When one wriggled free I just let it go to float into the ether with a shrug of my shoulders – “You win some you lose some – there’s no point fighting with fate…” I need to start weighting those ballons I want to keep, tying them around my wrists – even protecting them from sharp objects! (Have I milked this metaphor enough yet??)…

On routines and the breaking of them, June 2010

(Yes, I know this begins as a simile, but it rapidly turns metaphor to illustrate my point…)

Looking back across secondhandshopper I notice the application of my “grubby little hands” quite often. In fact, there are multiple phrases put to use in metaphors quite frequently to create a certain mucky childishness, to give the impression of a little girl’s voice, but most emphatically not a prissy one. I write quite deliberately in a way that endears me to you.

But my metaphors actually run deeper than that. Whilst they openly employ childlike imagery, they also run to the point of exhaustion. I milk my metaphors, dropping in twists and turns and levels of meaning – all with a knowing nod. Which tells you that I know exactly what I’m doing, that I may be childlike, innocent, unthreatening, but I’m not stupid. What I have to say, well, it might actually be of some interest!

James’ post tells us that “We should mind our metaphors… because metaphors make up our minds.”, and I think as marketers, as bloggers, as representatives of ourselves online, this is well worth consideration. If we are in the blogosphere, like it or not, we are involved in a form of self-promotion. And the way we describe things, the connections we make and the backstories we paint around our anecdotes say more about us than we may at first realise. We should all consider: what sort of self are we trying to promote?

‘Fraid so

Reads: Nothing more than an abbreviation of the word ‘afraid’.
Most likely uttered by Radio 4 listeners.
Frequently followed by ‘old chap’.

The latest from the Macmillan Dictionary blog team – a Canadian vs British English rap battle featuring Baba Brinkman and Professor Elemental. It’s brilliant. Just sayin’…

Inclusive words

On the phone last night my Mum told me an anecdote. She told me about a “talk” the headmaster had delivered to her class on the subject of choosing and following the right path. Following a long build-up, during which the head explained that choosing to follow one road could lead to certain positive outcomes while the other could net negative results (only in language suited to lower primary children!), he picked out a few children and asked them which road they would be following. Several kids picked the right answer, as you would expect… but then one little girl said something that threw him completely.

“I wouldn’t pick either. I don’t live on those roads.”

English is this little girl’s second language, and as such she was without the cultural understanding of English use to be able to grasp the metaphor. Despite a lengthy set-up, the entire topic had been lost on her.

I started to think about the use of language as an inclusive or exclusive force. When the ex and I broke up, one of the things I lamented most ardently was the loss of our shared vocabulary – the daft words, phrases and structures we employed as a marker of our relationship. Within my friendships, there are certain words and phrases that can convey a particular meaning, or symbolise the closeness of our bond – Nat is always addressed “Hey baby!”, Dapper can collapse into fits of (manly) giggles if I drop “Seriously?” into conversation, and various amongst my uni buddies would gladly “walk blindfolded across the M6” for one another while wondering where exactly the rain comes from… (I love you all!)

And then there’s the language of this blog. Some of it is exclusively British English, as my lovely international readers let me know when they have to look up a particular word or phrase. Some of it is distinctly old-fashioned, words and word orders that have been dropped from common usage. And some of it is deliberately skewed: misused and abused phrases like “all sewed up” (“all sewn up” would be correct) and “nor nuthink” (“or anything”), incorrect spellings (there’s that “nuthink” again), sentences broken up with question marks, for emphasis (I think that one is Amber‘s fault – she uses it to such excellent humourous effect!) and a general disrespect for the grammar for which, as an editor, you’d think I’d be a stickler.

The language of the blogosphere is an interesting beast. Unlike more restrictive social media platforms, blogs allow us room to write correctly. And yet, so often bloggers choose to distort their native tongue, playing with words, making verbs from nouns and messing with tenses, and plain ignoring précis in favour of elaborate prose. Metaphors are stretched to extremes, tested, indeed, until they snap. Pop culture references are rife, particularly if they’re niche-specific.

For my part, I think this rebellion is what makes blogging so spectacular. Every blogger has their own unmistakable voice, every blog its own individual style. The combination of liberation from spacial constraints and the non-restrictive nature of web-based writing creates a vaccuum in which anything goes, and into which creativity can pour without limitation. Those without the necessary understanding to twist and exploit language will continue to write badly, and flounder or improve accordingly. But those with the requisite knowledge and vocabulary are finally given the opportunity to shine.

Call out for word junkies…

You know how much I love you all, my lovely readers… and I know a lot of you are also talented bloggers – international bloggers at that. And you all blog in English, whether UK English, American English, Canadian English or Pidgin speak.

I started in my new role at Macmillan on Monday, and am largely involved in pushing and progressing the social media element of the marketing programme. One of the soc med elements that is currently working particularly well is the Macmillan Dictionary Blog, which looks at English as a language in all its guises, as a language of business, as a language of education, as a media-led means of communication, as military speak, as the language of the internet…. It discusses the linguistic element, the addition of new words to the dictionary and the fluid nature of words and grammar. If, like me, you’re a bit of a word junky, I highly recommend a visit.

One of the projects the Dictionary blog is undertaking this year explores English as a language on an international level. They are putting a call out for writers and non-writers to create guest blog entries discussing their own English. This is about celebrating your own brand of the language, your nation’s English, local dialects, even invented words. But here I’ll lift directly from Laine’s brief, as she phrases it so much better than I can:

So we’d like to hear about American English and Canadian English, Welsh English and Cornish English, Japanese English, Chinese English, Mexican English, Brazilian English, Scottish English, Franglish, Spanglish, ‘Stralian… we’d like to hear about Texan talk and the Queens dialect, about Geordie and Scouse, about Glaswegian vs Aberdonian, and about the words that you’ve only ever heard down your local. Whether you’ve got a story or anecdote to tell, an idea to discuss or a point to make, we want to hear about it.

If you think you might be interested and could help me out with a little (or long) post, please leave me a comment and I’ll email through the full brief. So many of you who read and comment regularly have such wonderful and varied ways with words, I just know you must have some interesting ideas about language usage. We won’t necessarily be able to publish every post we receive, but I’ll certainly be fascinated to read your opinions – and grateful to you all for helping me to impress!!

Thanks in advance, my lovely readers – I really look forward to your responses!

Social Media Scene: why is the UK so far behind?

As a blogger or blog reader, everyone here is involved in social media. If you check out my Google Profile you’ll see an almost full list of the social media sites I’m (semi-)active in – Twitter, Dyalogues, LinkedIn, GoodReads, IFB, Blippr… though I do keep some (my Facebook and my no-longer-active MySpace account) private (not to mention the many forgotten!). I have posted at length about the joys of twitter and online personal branding – I believe in social media as a force for information management and knowledge sharing.

If you’re in a position to share knowledge and information with the wider world it seems logical to do so. If your company needs to increase awareness of its place and role in the market, social media provides an excellent platform on which to build. So why are so many companies in the UK proving so slow to make their presence known? Why are we Brits so very far behind the webiverse?

Once you begin to get interested in social media progression you start to realise just how quickly it moves. Sites like Mashable and Tech Crunch are churning out piles of content every day – because there’s a call for it – people want and need to stay ahead of the curve.

Practically none of these social media stories come from the UK. When the Travelling Geeks (funnily enough from San Francisco) came over this month they apparently had a brilliant time, but nothing our cutting edge technology companies unveiled to them could be deemed groundbreaking. We’re simply not particularly advanced in the web science world.

There have been two, completely different and completely unrelated occasions recently on which I have offered to write relevant blog posts to help re-brand and market an organisation. One I offered for free (it’s for charidee!), the other in my effectively free time at present. Neither offer has been taken up.

The reason seems to be fear. The internet is a scary place where identities get stolen and credit cards get cleared. It swallows up hours of your time in one sitting. (Btw, this I am most definitely not disputing – the internet is one of the greatest timewasters ever invented. However, if your virtual life is as disaggregated across websites as mine, you tend to develop very effective time-management skills, very very quickly!) It’s essentially a black hole in which your personality, cash and spare time get lost for all eternity…

We need to address this. We need to educate organisations on the power of the internet. We need company bosses to communicate with their younger/more technologically involved staff members and actually put their skills to use – stop being afraid to take 20 minutes out of their busy schedules to address the online world and say “Hi! Yup, we’re still here! And wow – look what we’re doing!” – to get out there and make an audience happen.

This can’t be a rush job. We’re talking about a presence built on trust – and its a sad but true cliche that trust has to be earned. So to begin at ground level, your foundations should be laid in visibility – not necessarily transparency, but a sense of open access – and reliability – a regular and knowledgeable presence. Tweet tips, blog news, leave comments – etsablish your company as an industry insider. And don’t be put off if your audience are slow to arrive, just keep plugging away…

If you build it, they will come.

********

UPDATED:

An example of social media, specifically twitter, done well? I tweeted about Lucky Voice karaoke bar before I left work today. By the time I got home 15 minutes later I had been retweeted:

Lucky Voice