Rules for Writers

Over the last few years there have been many posts on this subject. Usually, the emphasis is on what to avoid. For example, the aspiring writer should avoid adjectives, adverbs, verbs ending in ‘ing’ and the passive voice. It has also been suggested that question marks should be avoided, so presumably questions should too. Not so helpful when your detective is interrogating a suspect.

In some cases, writers are pulling our legs with their suggestions. For example, Margaret Atwood tells us not to take a pen on a plane because it might leak. So we should take a pencil. Which she then qualifies by saying we should take two in case the first one breaks. Mildly witty, but not so helpful. Stephen King’s advice to writers is well known and easily found online, so let us consider instead what Elmore Leonard has to say on the subject.

His first rule is never to open a book with weather. This may be well advised since the weather, in daily life, is often relegated to small talk. Those with nothing else to say, comment on the wind and rain.

His second rule is to avoid prologues. Some prologues are clearly designed as hooks to lure the reader in, but Leonard would probably say ‘just get on with it.’ There will be exceptions, but this advice is probably good.

His next rule concerns the handling of dialogue. ‘Never use a verb other than said to carry dialogue.’ There is something to be said for this one too if it discourages us from using verbs at one remove. ‘I give up,’ she sighed. Maybe she did sigh but she definitely spoke.

Next, on an associated topic, he advises us never to use an adverb to modify the verb said. ‘I’m cashing in my chips,’ Victor said vehemently. Leonard would strike the ‘vehemently’. You can too if you like. One group of people who have taken this advice to heart, though in the worst possible way, is tennis players who, when interviewed, often state their intention to ‘play aggressive.’ This habit of reducing adverbs to adjectives is never recommended in indirect speech, though it might occasionally happen that one of your less-well-educated characters speaks in this way. Tennis, anyone?

His next rules deal with excessive use of exclamation marks, avoidance of words such as ‘suddenly’, and limiting the use of regional dialects. Then we have his injunction to avoid detailed descriptions of characters, places and things. Why? Well, we don’t want so much detail that the narrative flow grinds to a halt. On the other hand, some writers (not very many) are masters of descriptive writing, so if you are in this select group you might water down this advice.

Referring to the essay in which he expounded these rules Leonard said: “My most important rule is one that sums up the 10: If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” Note that he said ‘sounds’ like writing, not ‘reads’ like writing. This is important for two reasons. The first is that what we write should read well. If you have trouble reading out loud a passage you have written there is more work to be done. If you are aiming for an audio book as well this is even more important.

The second reason why this matters is punctuation. There is a set of conventions governing punctuation of the written word, but I have usually found it helpful to mark up scripts for reading aloud, and as often as not these punctuation points diverge from the convention. For example, my version of Word often tells me that a comma isn’t needed at a certain place. Well, strictly speaking it may not be, but if it helps the talent reading it to the mic it can save several takes.

Another habit your software may have is pointing out that a certain phrase might be more succinct: where you have used five words three would be enough. And this may be the case, but your slighter longer expression might carry an emphasis which the shorter version lacks. And then there is the question of rhythm. The shorter version may lack the rhythm of your original. Ultimately, these are questions of style and are, or should be, under the control of the author rather than software.

How relevant are rules for a writer hoping to be published? While some might cite the old adage that rules are there to be broken, this would not be safe at the outset of a writer’s career. Keeping to reasonable rules is more likely to result in a marketable product. No publisher would consider a book which shows a lack of competence in, and respect for, basic writing skills.

But, as was pointed out at the beginning of this post, rules for writers are forever telling you what you should avoid. What they never tell you is what you should actually do. The truth is, we must all work this out for ourselves.

She’s Standing Outside

Kate is a TV reporter who confirms that she is standing outside Windsor Castle. And it’s true. Yes, we can see that, but what we can’t see is why she’s doing it. Is the castle about to make a Major Statement? Unlikely. Will a member of the royal family pop out to offer privileged insights into the current state of play regarding Harry and Meghan, Queen Camilla, or that revered scion of the royal establishment, Andrew Albert Christian Edward? Just as unlikely.

We frequently find reporters outside buildings including, Buckingham Palace, 10 Downing Street, New Scotland Yard, the Ministry of Defence and Stormont Castle, where the Legislative Assembly is seldom to be found in session these days. What lies behind this behaviour?

Well, it wouldn’t happen in radio, but I assume this habit is to show television viewers that the reporters of Sky, the BBC and so on, are always on the spot – the spot being where the action is or, more frequently, where it is not. So forget about the wasted time and effort and admire the visual credentials of the broadcast media.

However, as misreported by those same media, Downing Street, unlike Windsor Castle, actually does make statements. This is a way of avoiding the attribution of the statements in question to actual people and saving them having to defend them. It’s gone on for so many years now that most of us take it for granted, According to Downing Street . . . But it’s an evasion. I have examined several pictures of 10 Downing Street and there is no sign of a mouth on any of them.

There is one major exception where standing outside makes sense. Reporters often gather outside courts of law where a judgement is expected. This is especially true in contentious cases where litigants and lawyers will spill outside onto the pavement after the conclusion of a trial to read  prepared statements and sometimes answer questions. Despite the verdict of the court, Captain Sparrow stoutly asseverates his innocence of the charges and intends to lodge an appeal at the earliest opportunity. We’ve never Heard the like.

The saying a picture is worth a thousand words is as popular as it is untrue. Leaving aside the fact that that it has never been easier to doctor visual images than it is now, engaging in a discussion involving concepts can be accomplished elegantly with words – not so easily with oil on canvas. Take death. An artist or photographer can show us one or more dead bodies, the result of death. But what of death itself, death as a concept? To take but one example, how do we define death when it comes to deciding when to switch off the ventilator? To deal with such questions only words will do.

I could easily have sprinkled throughout this post images of Windsor Castle, 10 Down Street and New Scotland Yard, not to mention mugshots of Prince Edward (is that really his hand?) and Johnny Depp. but since they would have added nothing at all to the meaning, chose not to do so.

Despite the fact that they are often subverted by politicians and cheating partners, words remain the best medium of communication we have. But I would say that, wouldn’t I.


Words Have Meanings

This may seem obvious, but there are occasions when some people wilfully ignore them.

I have a book coming out soon, the title is Interleaved Lives, and while I have complete control of the text, this is not the case with the cover design. Though I can’t draw to save myself, I did have a visual image in mind. So in an attempt to cover this angle, I sought a cover designer and supplied her with the following brief.

Hi. I am looking for a cover for a novel: ebook and paperback. The title is Interleaved lives. I can’t draw, but have an image in my mind consisting of three pages of a book, caught in the act of being leafed through, though without visible sign of the person doing the leafing. The spine of the book is to the viewer’s left. Each page would have an image of a different character. The cover would not be very colourful, largely monochrome with tasteful blue tint. Are you OK with this? Feel free to say no.

The artist I approached did not say no, from which I assumed she was happy with the brief. In due course she supplied the following cover.

Cover Design 1

Well, correct me if I’m wrong, but I can see no point of contact between the brief and this cover. However, I was reassured to learn that she regarded it as some of her best work. Seldom has my gas been so flabbered!

Nothing daunted I tried a second time: same brief, different designer. And after making some points about what I had in mind, he came up with this.


For him, the words of the brief had meaning. I liked his work a lot and told him so.


I have written many reviews over the years and always found it demanding. To begin with, if I read a book and really don’t like it then I won’t review it. No point putting an author off after publication. Some might argue that comments concerning a certain category of book (let’s call it Book Number 1 in the Inspector Torcuil McSporran series) might have a beneficial knock-on effect in Book Number 2. But who is to say there will be a follow-up?

Reviewing has also caused me to change my reading habits. In the past (when I was younger than I am today, in every way, oh yeah, oh no) I would read physical copies. I still do, but if I intend to review a book now I will buy a eBook edition. The reason for this is an ingrained belief that it is not enough to make an assertion of the sort This book is absolute drivel OR This book is a work of genius. Assertions should be supported a) by reasoning and b) by evidence.

In the case of a book, evidence can only take the form of quotations from the text. To which end I used to sit in front of a screen typing with one hand while holding the book open at the relevant page with the other. This was a slow and inefficient process leading to strain of the left thumb. Then I discovered, late in the day, that by using an eBook I could highlight noteworthy sections then – sheer bliss! – copy them at will into a review.

Having just read two reviews of my recent title, I have been struck by how inadequate some reviews can be.

Review 1

Here are a couple of plums. Firstly, about the cover:

It is nice designed in the color and in the design itself.


The author succeeds in writing very detailing about the scenery

To judge by the syntax errors, English was not the reviewer’s first language. Is this is a concern? Yes, though only if the reviewer’s command of the language in which the book is written is an obstacle to him/her in properly getting to grips with it.

In this case, the reviewer liked the book but in terms so general anyone reading the review would learn nothing at all about it. For example, wouldn’t we want to know what the book was about?

To quote from the site the review was posted on (here I am quoting again, I just can’t help myself), the site “helps readers of influence discover and recommend new books to their audiences”.

Review 2

This was an interesting one but in a different way.

Hart’s characters are complex and without any definite shade of black or white except for Klein Pearson , who as the sole antagonist comes out as a vile, hateful character.

This would be a telling point against the said Klein Pearson if there was any such character in the book. Unfortunately, there is not. The reviewer has conflated two very different characters, Dieter Klein and Adalbert Pearson. Worrying, right?




A Tale of Two Professors

There is a science festival taking place where I live right now. I had tickets for two events. The first concerned cyber security and the various scams designed to part us from our money. The second was an introduction to viruses.

The professor occupying the cyber security slot had ninety minutes to cover the subject. He showed signs of knowing what he was talking about, including footage of himself addressing a parliamentary committee examining the subject, and further footage of Amber Rudd, who plainly hadn’t a clue. (For anyone outwith these shores, Ms Rudd is Her Brittanic Majesty’s Home Secretary.)

The trouble with the professor’s presentation was that he flitted like a butterfly from one blossom to another and so achieved a remarkable degree of incoherence. He also fancied himself as a stand-up comedian, which didn’t improve things at all. Despite his best efforts, I did pick up the odd nugget, such as how easily passwords can be cracked in these digital times and how quickly this can be done.

When I was younger than I am today, which wouldn’t be difficult, I was sometimes confronted by on-screen messages accusing me of having made a syntax error. Well, this particular professor is no stranger to syntax errors either, of the order ‘I had went.’ And despite having ninety minutes, he left no time for questions. Too bad. Given the chaotic nature of his talk there must have been many.

So I attended the second presentation with some anxiety, but it was everything the first was not. Professor Dorothy H Crawford was introducing us to viruses – in more ways than one as she was suffering from laryngitis at the time. The lecture was given in the old anatomy lecture theatre in the building which housed our vet school before the new one was built; hard wooden seating raked to a vertiginous degree but intimate withal.

She was coherent and lucid, with a wonderful command of clear expression.  Though having thirty minutes less than the cyber security expert, she left fifteen minutes for questions. These were many and she answered them equally clearly. Dorothy Crawford is the author of several books on this subject, including Viruses: A Very Short Introduction. I now have a copy of this book, which is excellent, expressed in the same clear language as the lecture. Having said that, many sections will repay repeated reading, as can happen with prose when hardly a word is wasted – doubtless a function of her remit to keep the book ‘very short’.

Below is a link to her Author Page.

In the old days, and maybe it still happens now, students were asked ‘to compare and contrast.’ This I have done.


Rules for Writers

Over the last few years I have come across several posts on this subject. Very often, the emphasis has been on what to avoid. For example, the aspiring writer should avoid adjectives, adverbs, verbs ending in ‘ing’ and the passive voice. My most recent discovery was that question marks should be also avoided – from which I inferred that questions should too. This post concerns one of these only, adjectives.

So adjectives should be used sparingly and, if at all, in a striking manmer. If a given adjective is only to be expected then replace it with something more arresting. This advice will certainly be beneficial to some. These papers first came into my hands a few weeks ago and this is how they began.

‘When the comets with their milky tails race in the inky dome of the sky and Aurora laces her silky skeins over the Ladder Hills, where the stags are roaring and the red grouse call ‘Go back’ warning of danger, just as they had in Jacobite times; when the Cambus Burn runs sweet and cold into ‘The Cardinal’s Pool’, it is hard to think that this peaceful, unpretentious old house sited in its own leafy water meadow, now guarded only by swallows, curlews and peewits, is the same as . . .’

And so it continues. Even allowing for the writer’s old-fashioned cast of mind, it won’t do. When I pointed this out the author admitted to a weakness for ‘purple prose’. At which point, just to keep the pot on the boil and with no serious intent, we take issue with the adjective ‘purple’.

But adjectives are necessary and desirable, Imagine writing a pen portrait of a person or a place with none at your disposal. And who has written pen portaits of this type? (Excuse the question mark.) Many writers have but, the one who stands out for me is Ivan Turgenev.

Clearly (I had to sneak in an adverb) there are many pen portraits in Sketches from a Hunter’s Notebook. Two of the most memorable are his description of lying on his back looking up at the sky through the trees, and his description of making his way through the countryside at night when he has lost his way. But both of these are long. The following combines description with the author’s satircal streak, something which got him into trouble with the authorities. (Yes, I know, I could have said ‘deep trouble’ but held back).

‘TikhonIvanovich willed his estate, as could have been expected, to his most honoured benefactor and magnanimous patron ‘Pantaley Yeremeich Chertopkhanov’. But it brought no great benefit to the most honoured benefactor because it was quickly sold by public auction – partly in order to cover the costs of a monument over the grave, a statue which Chertopkhanov (evidently his father’s blood still ran in his veins!) wanted to erect over the ashes of his friend. He ordered the statue, which should have been that of an angel in prayer, from Moscow, but the man recommended to him to commission it, aware that in the provinces there are few sculpture experts, sent instead of an angel a goddess Flora which had for many years decorated one of the overgrown suburban parks of Catherine the Great’s time. This statue, exceedingly elegant, certainly, in rococo style, with chubby little hands, fluffy curls, a garland of roses on her naked bosom and a noticeably curved waist, was obtained by the commissioner for nothing. So it is that to this very day there stands above TikhonIvanovich’s grave a mythological goddess with one foot graciously raised who looks with truly aristocratic disdain at the calves and sheep strolling round about her, those devoted visitors to our countrygraveyards.’

Turgenev’s most famous book is the novel Fathers and Sons. The translator of my edition has studied the orginal manuscripts and discovered how much trouble Turgenev took with adjectives.

‘Most of all, of course, the working autograph manuscript reveals the struggle of the author to establish and refine the detail. The ‘realism’ of the work can literally be sensed in the minute changes, the finessing process of introducing the right descriptive adjectives into depictions of landscape or clothing or facial appearance, whereas for the greater part the dialogue (except in some of the polemical passages) received far less revision and can therefore be supposed to have formed the voiced or dramatized structure of the fiction, its inner core, the characters themselves being often signalled by no more than initials.’  Richard Freeborn

There are many descriptions in this book.

‘Arkady looked round and saw a tall woman in a black dress who had stopped in the doorway of the ballroom. She stunned him by the dignity of her bearing. Her bare arms lay beautifully against her elegant waist and fine sprays of fuchsia drooped beautifully from her brilliant hair on to her sloping shoulders. Her bright eyes shone calmly and intelligently—calmly, it has to be said, and not pensively—from beneath her slightly pronounced white temples and her lips smiled a scarcely discernible smile. Her face shone with a kind of soft and alluring strength.’

So now we can visualise Anna Sergeevna Odintsova very well, but I hear the objection – you can’t get away with this sort of thing these days. And you probably can’t, which tells us something not only about the use of adjectives but also about ‘these days’.

To conclude, an instance of Turgenev pinning someone down in a few words.

‘His mother, from the Kolyazin family, known as Agathe before marriage but as Agafokleya Kuzminishna Kirsanov in her capacity as a general’s wife, belonged to the tribe of ‘matriarchal battleaxes’ and wore sumptuous bonnets and noisy silk dresses, was always the first in church to go up to kiss the cross, talked loudly and a great deal, permitted her children to kiss her hand each morning and gave them her blessing each night—in short, lived her life to her heart’s content.’

Author Bios

I have some trouble with these. They are usually in the third person, yet we know they have been written by the author. It feels a bit false to me, writing about yourself as if a third party is doing it,

Why is this a concern?  I’m putting the finishing touches to a crime novel and realized my previous bio wouldn’t do. I have drafted a new one in the first person. Can I get away with this, or is the word on the literary street that I should  convert to the third?

Just wondering.


I have traveled through Afghanistan, made bubble gum in Philadelphia and published poetry, some of it anthologized. Several years ago I turned to fiction, finding it a natural fit for a comic sense of life. I live with my wife in a old farmhouse gradually being surrounded by developers who take no account of the needs of wildlife. Since that includes me, I’ve turned to crime.

Coming back to the classics

I was tempted into doing this again by two imprints, both new to me, though no doubt they shouldn’t have been. One is Alma Classics, the other Hesperus Classics. In my case the classics I mean are Russian. When I was young, I read War and Peace and Crime and Punishment, but apart from that knew little of Russian literature. In the lean years since I have read quite a few classics, but none of them Russian. This was not a policy, just a thoughtless accident. The only exceptions I can think of are a two works by Gogol: Dead Souls, and The Government Inspector.

This changed a few weeks ago when I walked into my local bookshop and found myself looking at a large display of two imprints, Alma Classics and Hesperus Classics.

Blackwells 2 web

I snapped up six titles:

The Story of a Nobody, by Anton Chekhov, translated by Hugh Aplin  (Alma Classics)

The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov, translated by Hugh Aplin (Alma Classics)

The Tales of Belkin, by Alexander Pushkin, translated by Hugh Aplin (Hesperus Classics)

Two Princesses, by Vladimir Odoevsky, translated by Neil Cornwell (Hesperus Classics)

Oblomov, by Ivan Goncharov, translated by Stephen Pearl (Alma Classics)

Notes From The Underground, by Fyodor Dostoevsky (Translated by Kyril Zinovieff and Jenny Hughes)

All of these books come with what might be called a ‘scholarly apparatus’. But far from making them dry as dust, I have found these additional sections  very helpful. Typically, there is an introduction, notes, life and select bibliography. Some have photographs as well.

To take one book as an example, The Story of a Nobody is beautifully produced. At the front there is a generous selection of photographs and at the end, after the notes, a brief life of Chekhov with a guide to content in the margin. Before reading this book, I didn’t realise how brutally his father, a devout Christian, used to beat up his children. This is the same father who, hearing that the local Greek school had high academic standards, sent his children to it. Not a smart move since they couldn’t speak Greek. I was sad to see that a photograph of this man has survived. And here is Anton himself.

English: Chekhov

English: Chekhov (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The only thing I can’t comment on is the quality of translation. I have spent many an evening listening in dismay as three Russian teachers descended into heated argument over arcane aspects of Russian grammar. One of them, Harry Milne, had been awarded the Pushkin Medal, but even that didn’t save him when he ventured an opinion. The one thing they did agree on was that Russian is a difficult language. So I feel like awarding the Hart Medal (Oak Leaf and Bar) to Stephen Pearl. Translating Oblomov must have been an arduous task. (Pearl contributes a translator’s note to this edition.)

I came across both these classic series (Alma and Hesperus) in my local bookshop, Blackwells .Blackwells have branches in Oxford, Cambridge, London, Edinburgh, and many other places in the UK, usually where there are universities. The Edinburgh shop is on the South Bridge, very central, and its labyrinthine layout adds to the charm, though maybe not for the staff. They have taken the wise precaution of incorporating a Caffe Noir into the building, entered from the bookstore itself or directly from Infirmary Street.

Blackwells 1 web

Smart move. I like this shop a lot, and not just because it stocks my books.

My Titles Blackwells

Here are links to Alma, Hesperus and Blackwells, Edinburgh. In addition to their stores, Blackwells have an excellent website, and if you sign up tempting offers will appear in your inbox. Good reading!

Blackwells 5 webBlackwells 3 webBlackwells 4 web

Learning a second language (2)

So you have decided to learn a second language, either out of interest, because you need it to communicate with your new mail-order husband or wife, or to ward off dementia. What choices are open to you?

You could sign up for a class. If you do, it may well have a textbook. In the deep past these tended to be more formal than they are now, often moving from one point of grammar to the next as you progress through the chapters. In the more recent past the book may well have come with a CD containing dialogues, listening tests and the like. And nowadays the student might find that the textbook is entirely in the new language with not a word of English to be seen. You could call this the immersion approach, but there’s more to it than that. Instead of being a textbook in the new language aimed at English speakers, it is now a textbook aimed at speakers of any language. This broadens the market somewhat and brings a bigger smile to the authors and publishers.

Classes have advantages. There is the possibility of practising with fellow students and a schedule to keep – especially helpful to those who lack the discipline to study on their own. And the tutor may even be a native speaker. Even if she is not, the tutor should be able to adapt her teaching to the members of her class. But if you don’t go down that route, or there is no intermediate Tagalog class in your town, there are language packages of various types involving CDs, DVDs and interactive websites. How do these work?

It is known that when children come into the world they bring with them a capacity to learn language, but also that as the years pass this natural facility fades and is lost altogether. Adults can still learn a new language, of course, but not in the natural way a young child can. So what are we to make of this example of advertising? The approach to language teaching and learning used by a well-known company is based:

on the core beliefs that learning to speak a language should be a natural and instinctive process, and that interactive technology can activate the language immersion method powerfully for learners of any age.

This implies that an adult can learn a new language in the same way that a child can – the process is ‘natural and instinctive’ – and that well-designed software can make that possible. If the first belief is wrong it’s hard to see how the second can be right. The company may well believe it, but that doesn’t make it true.

It seems there are two main ways of approaching teaching a second language to an adult. At one end of the spectrum openly accounting for grammatical points as they arise, which seems to be old-fashioned now. At the other the use of the ‘immersion’ approach where no direct mention is made of grammar at all but the learner is expected to somehow soak it up or otherwise infer it.

How successful these approaches are will vary with the native ability of the learner but also with the language being learned. All languages tend to be subtle, but in different ways. Spanish seems easy at the outset, though maybe less so when you discover three years on that there are two forms of the imperfect subjunctive, while German may well seem daunting at the outset with all those pesky cases and endings. So many different words for ‘the’ when one would do! Where is this famous German efficiency?

There are many software packages out there, ranging from Rosetta Stone at the expensive end to free apps for your mobile phone or tablet. Given that the adult is no longer a child, how effective are they?

Rosetta Stone, from which the quotation was taken, offer a wide range of languages and one additional feature: you can talk to the software and it will tell you if you are pronouncing words and phrases correctly. I don’t entirely trust this feature. My only experience of Rosetta Stone is Swedish, and I couldn’t help but notice two things. Sometimes the software passed how I spoke even when I was unhappy with it myself. And sometimes it failed me. In most cases I couldn’t figure out why.  Given that I spent the last twenty years of my working life recording and editing words, I should have been able to. On two occasions at least, I got so fed up having my efforts rejected that I actually gave up with the words ‘Oh, for fuck’s sake!’ – at which point the software perked up and passed me on the spot. How can such things be? In a well-ordered world it shouldn’t pay to be rude!

I read a review by another user which also made this point. I shouldn’t mention it but for the fact that it often rejected his girlfriend’s pronunciation and she was Swedish.

In other respects the software works reasonably well, though every now and gain I find myself looking at a fresh screen and wondering what it expects me to do. What the package does not do, however, is tell you anything about Swedish grammar. So if, as an adult, you would like a structure, a grammatical frame of reference, too bad. You have to work it out for yourself.

At the other end of the scale there is Fabulo, a free app for learning Swedish on your tablet or phone. Fabulo have produced apps for several languages, but the only ones I have are for Swedish and German.

Referring only to the Swedish app, I am very impressed. As with Rosetta Stone, grammar is not included, but the user can infer certain grammatical points through the examples. In fact, the examples are plainly designed with this in mind and it is artfully done.


Another problem Swedish packages face is the fact that the Swedish alphabet contains three additional letters which do not appear on the standard keyboard – å,ä, and ö. So what do you do when typing an answer which contains one of these letters? With Fabulo you don’t have to think about it. You type a, a or o, and the special characters miraculously appear above them. (A similar problem occurs in German, which also uses umlauts and always capitalises nouns. Type the correct first letter of a noun and Fabulo supplies the capital.)

The course, for that’s what it is, consists of 47 categories such as ‘Family’, ‘Getting Around’, ‘Structures’, ‘Home electronics’, and a forty-eighth which puts you through your paces on all the other 47. It speaks to you but, unlike Rosetta Stone, you don’t speak to it. (Well you can if you like, but it won’t pay any attention.)

When you come right down to it, though, I feel that an adult learner benefits from some sort of framework or structure and I am not alone in feeling that. Wonderful though Fabulo is, I wouldn’t be getting quite so much out of it had I not had more than a sneak peek at Swedish grammar in the past.

Learning a second language (1)

[When you get older you know you have less time so you cut corners. In this case, the corner being cut is any attempt to follow up assertions with references. For the record, there are several articles on this subject in back-numbers of New Scientist, as there will be in several other journals.]

It seems to me that language is more essential for mental development than is sometimes recognised. For example, can concepts exist without language? We can see a dead body, if we are unlucky we can smell it too, but we cannot see death. Death is a concept. Without language it could not exist. This concept is not one likely to trouble the young child as she develops, but how about this one heard recently in a café? Sit nicely, Stephanie! What will young Stephanie make of that? Should she take the cake out of her ear?

If we compare the development of a child born deaf to one born blind we find that the deaf child develops more slowly as measured by the tests used in education. While the blind child will have certain limitations – colour words being an obvious example – he will otherwise pick up language in the normal way from his parents. This will not be the case with the deaf child who is born to hearing parents.

[A deaf child  born to deaf parents may well learn ASL or BSL which, though non-verbal, are clearly languages in their own right. The main disadvantage of this comes when dealing with the hearing, very few of whom have any knowledge these languages.]

And the hearing child can learn a second language, or a third. I have seen it suggested that this may cause confusion, but the evidence seems to indicate otherwise. If I could go back in time many years and choose to grow up in a bilingual household, that is what I would do. And not just because two languages are potentially more useful than one.

I would argue that the structures and vocabulary of a given language provide a frame of reference for understanding the world. The French speaker has one frame, the German speaker another. The bilingual person can try the picture out with one frame but replace it with another if she finds the world looks better on the wall. Or that the world appears to make better sense. And we take ourselves too seriously anyway: take away the frame and the world still exists.

Can being bi-lingual really change our perception? That well-known language scholar George W Bush certainly thought so when he astutely observed that the problem with the French was that they did not have a word for entrepreneur!

Or take this simple indication. Two groups of people were asked whether certain statements were grammatically correct or not. For example:

Apples grow on noses

People from both groups thought that this sentence was not grammatically correct, but fewer people in the bi-lingual group made this mistake. The fact that the sentence is nonsensical does not mean its grammar is wrong. (Think politicians.) With their experience of two grammars, bilinguals took more account of the structure of the sentence than their single-language counterparts.

There will no doubt be Inuit who have ninety-seven different words for snow. But leaving that to one side, here are some examples I have been faced with by others, three from German, one from Swedish.

I have heard it said that the German word ‘schadenfreude’ tells us something about the German character. In English we don’t have a word describing the joy we take in the misfortune of others but the Germans do. Fine, but while this may tell us a little about the German character it does not account for the Third Reich. After all, the same idea could be expressed in English using a phrase.

Which brings me to Adolf Hitler. My German teacher revealed to us, his long-suffering class, the secret of Hitler’s success. In German the custom is to put verbs at the end of the sentence. So when Hitler was addressing the massed ranks they had to listen all the way through each sentence because, if they didn’t, they wouldn’t know what the verb or verbs at the end referred to. German grammar assured him of an attentive audience. Is there any substance to this? I have no idea, and can see no way of putting it to the test.

On the off-chance a German reader chances on this post, here is a more positive example. In English we have the word ‘collapsible.’ This is not always a good quality in an object. Depending on where your arms are at the time, sitting in a deck chair when it collapses can be a painful experience. Our German friends, on the other hand, express the same concept from the other direction. For them the deck chair is zusammenlegbar – ‘put-togetherable’. Does that not indicate a better way of looking at it? Our German friends are so keen to put things together they keep making Volkswagens, Mercedes and BMWs.

Moving on to Swedish, perhaps my most provocative example. Look away if you are likely to be offended or, alternatively, switch off your set. In English we might say ‘The woman kissed her husband’, and listeners would be suffused with a warm glow at the thought. Nice woman. Friendly woman. Matrimony. Nothing to beat it it. The Swedes, however, realise that there might be a problem here. ‘The woman kissed her husband’ does not tell us whether she kissed her own husband or someone else’s. (For further compromising details, refer to volume three of my autobiography, I Married A Swedish Masseuse.)

So these cunning Swedes have two ways of expressing this:                                          Hon kysste sin man –  She kissed her husband (her own husband)                                 Hon kysste hennes man – She kissed her husband ((some other woman’s husband)

It is always good to be precise, don’t you think? For the avoidance of confusion.