An Irrational Rant about Cloud Atlas and the Use of Accents and Dialects in Books

I recently read Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, and whilst I thought it was an excellently written book, and I generally enjoyed it, I found the middle section a bit of a drag. After some consideration I’ve realised why. I simply don’t like it when authors write in an accent or dialect.

In fact, the more I thought about it, the more this realisation rang true, and I began to remember other examples. I have never really loved Wuthering Heights (gasp!). This is primarily because it was sold to me as a tragic, timeless romance and I discovered it to be a book full of pathetic, bitter and petty characters that don’t have a single redeeming quality between them. However, my dislike of the book was deepened by Joseph, the disagreeable servant who speaks in an unintelligible Yorkshire dialect throughout the whole novel. Also he’s miserable and irritating, and generally (in my opinion) superfluous to the plot, although I’m sure I once said how his character is an example of the hardened labouring classes of nineteenth-century rural Yorkshire or some such claptrap when I studied the book at school. My point is, any book that contains the below speech is just asking to be thrown at a wall in exasperation.

            We’s hae a Crahnr’s ‘quest enah, at ahr folks. One on ’em’s a’most getten his finger cut off wi’ hauding t’other froo’ sticking hisseln loike a cawlk. That’s maisterm yah knaw, ut’s soa up uh going tuh t’grand ‘sizes.

Back to Cloud Atlas. It isn’t half as bad as Wuthering Heights, but it still got to me a bit. The middle section is set an indeterminable amount of years in the future after the collapse of civilisation. The story is narrated by a man living on an island inhabited by several tribes who live without electricity, technology or any of the “Smart” of the “Old’uns”. It starts:

Old Georgie’s path an’ mine crossed more times’n I’m comfy mem’ryin, an’ after I’m died, no sayin’ what that fangy devil won’t try an’ do to me

Upon reading this first sentence my heart sank. Yes, I know it’s not that different to “normal” writing, and it’s definitely easier to understand than Joseph but I couldn’t bear the thought of a whole chunk of this novel being written like this. In my experience writing in an accent makes it awkward for the reader, constantly trying to sound out the words in their head, and it usually ends up ruining the flow of the prose.

It’s not that I don’t see where David Mitchell is coming from; it makes perfect sense to write the middle section like this as it is an oral account, not a written one, and therefore it wouldn’t make sense to be overly formal. I totally understand why he felt the need for a dialect. I also think it’s perfectly reasonable to imagine that countless years in the future after the collapse of civilisation language won’t be the same as it is now. Hell, I know that language is evolving every day and if my Victorian/Edwardian/until 10 years ago ancestors read this they would be horrified and perplexed by my informal, scatterbrained writing. I think it’s actually extremely clever of Mitchell to have written the book like this, with each section written believably in the language of its setting. The middle section is meant to be a narrated story, not a written journal or tale like the other sections, and as such it fits in with the rest of the book nicely. And the rest of the sections are also cleverly written. The proper and precise language of Adam Ewing’s Journal  in the nineteenth century seems entirely credible, as are the funny, flowery and verbose letters from the 1930s.

However, it’s not the language I have a problem with, it’s phonetic writing. Even though writing in an accent like this is the best way for Mitchell to convey that a) it’s an oral account and b) language has changed in this future setting, I still don’t like it. Phonetic writing slows the reader down because you have to translate the words in your head (internally you go, “oh I see, by “an'” he means “and”). I don’t really want to have to translate what I’m reading. In fact, if I wanted to do that, I’d have bought a book in Italian and spent a month trying to decipher it. What I really wanted was a novel written in my own language that I could lose myself in. It’s made even worse by the fact that English is the least phonetic language in the world (it feels like it anyway). We’re just not used to reading like this! We carefully learn how to spell and say every word properly when we’re really young and then we stick to it. Stubbornly.

I’m only picking on Cloud Atlas because it is fresh in my mind. Please understand that I thought that it was a great book, and the language thing was really only a minor irritation. I’m just using it as an example of a bigger issue I have had for years. I also had similar troubles with Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, and even though it was a good book, I struggled through it because of the phonetically written speech. I think that generally, I have a pretty good idea of what most accents sound like in English, and if an author was to write that a character spoke in a Scottish/Irish/German/Whatever accent I would be able to hear it in my mind all on my own, without any help from the author. Sometimes it feels like writers just like showing off.

So there you have it. I reeeeaally don’t like accents and dialects in writing. In my opinion they’re unnecessary and awkward to read. Rant over.

N.B. I allow only one exception: I don’t really mind Hagrid’s slight accent in the Harry Potter books as it’s very easy to understand, doesn’t interrupt the flow of the writing and accounts for such a small part of the series. But as a Potter geek I’m probably a bit biased.

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The Abuse of Absolute Adjectives

Ever since I blogged about The 5 Most Annoying Grammar Mistakes people keep mentioning other common errors which bug them. This post is a request from my mother, whose pet peeve is the commonly abused absolute adjective. When a TV presenter describes something as “very unique” she loses it! But as we’ll see, this problem is a simple matter of people not thinking about what they’re saying.

So, absolute adjectives are words such as unique, full, empty, excellent, complete, impossible, dead. Most normal adjectives can be compared and intensified, for example, red, redder, reddest or good, better, best. Adverbs such as very, more, less, most, best, almost, etc. are also used to compare and intensify adjectives, for example  “the sky is very dark tonight”. However, the special and surprising thing about absolute adjectives is that they’re absolute and they cannot be compared or intensified at all because it wouldn’t make any sense. There isn’t a big list of absolute adjectives that you can consult when in doubt (well I’m sure there probably is one somewhere but that’s not the point) because it’s usually logical and obvious whether you can apply very or most to an adjective. The best example of this is dead. You can’t really say something’s very dead or that someone is deader than someone else (unless you’ve been watching too many vampire programs, in which case this probably wasn’t the best example for me to choose). 

However, despite the remarkable amount of words in the English language, people still struggle to express themselves properly, which is where we fall into bad habits. People use the same words again and again, when really they should be consulting a thesaurus more regularly, or just putting more thought into what they really mean. Instead of choosing the word unique, you might think of opting for something else which fits the description better, say extraordinary or marvellous. If we widened our vocabulary a little, we wouldn’t be using all the same words again and again and therefore wouldn’t feel the need to intensify or compare things quite so much. If you keep using the word unique for everything, you start to feel the need to say that the most recent unique thing you’ve found is more or less so than the previous thing. So generally, I would recommend trying to use a greater variety of words to avoid falling into this sort of a trap.

Also, I think we’re quite enthusiastic these days, we just LOVE to say how GREAT or AWFUL everything is! Using one adjective on its own in a sentence without ten adverbs makes things sound boring and bland: “How was the show, dear?” “It was good”… See? Bland. You’re more likely to say, “It was REALLY THE BEST MOST EXCITING THING I’VE EVER SEEN EVER”. That’s more like it.

With these two elements in mind, we get people saying things like “that’s the most impossible challenge  yet” or “his voice is very unique”. It doesn’t really make sense when you think about it, how can something that’s one of a kind be very one of a kind? It’s surely beyond comparison, as there is nothing to compare it to. And similarly if something simply cannot be done, you cannot say that it is less or more cannot-be-done-able. It just doesn’t work, and in comes my mother, shouting at the TV again (“idiots”).

The worst thing about issues like this is that they’re often actively encouraged or left uncorrected by people who should know better. Wikipedia very helpfully states that although grading and comparing absolutes is discouraged in formal writing,

“such words are routinely and frequently qualified in contemporary speech and writing…Internet searches for “more complete” or “most complete” establish the frequency of this usage with millions of examples”

This is a completely pointless thing to say (here’s the link); just because lots of people do it doesn’t make it right! People frequently put your instead of you’re as well, but that doesn’t mean the English language is suddenly going to abandon you’re. I hope not anyway. I think I’m reading too much into this Wikipedia page, but they could have just said it was incorrect and left it at that!

So, on behalf of my mother, I would maybe ask that people in general put a little extra thought into what they really mean. She doesn’t really like shouting at the TV, she just feels a bit strongly about this particular point. There are SOOOOOO many words in the English language, let’s try and use some different ones eh? And for God’s sake, THINK about what you’re saying!

If you’re interested in learning more about this general subject it might be worth checking out comparative adverbs/adjectives and superlatives. They’re awesome.

Does anyone else have a pet peeve? I’d love to hear about it if you do! 🙂


Typos Are Taking Over The World!

Yesterday, “Bandersnatch Cummerbund” was trending on Twitter. A Journalist writing for The Washington Post had obviously fallen foul of spellcheck, misspelling Benedict Cumberbatch much to everyone’s amusement. In fact, this had me in stitches! However, this is typical of a more worrying trend seen in the media. It seems to me that more mistakes are being made more often. Everything I read (especially in online newspapers, blogs and magazines) is littered with typos, grammatical errors, spelling mistakes; bad writing habits and shoddy proofreading are evident EVERYWHERE. I find this faintly hilarious given the amount of sub-editor jobs around and the amount of “experience” you have to have in order to get such a prestigious job (surely a test would suffice?!). Not that I’m bitter or anything!

Now before I go on I want to make a few things clear. I totally understand that people make mistakes. Everyone does. I know I do. Even the most meticulous proofreader will occasionally miss the odd comma. I recognise that it’s the mistakes that people notice; it’s rare these days for people to compliment rather than complain, which is a bit sad. I also understand that people read more online now than they ever have done before. The number of blogs and online magazines and newspapers has increased dramatically over the last few years, with sites publishing new articles and posts every couple of hours. Therefore you could argue that life these days is more demanding as a writer/sub-editor as there is a lot more content to write and check, and it has to be done so quickly. I will also admit that this increase in free online articles probably means that I read a lot more non-fiction on a daily basis now, so I might just notice mistakes which are common in the press.

However, here’s the thing: I hardly ever, ever, go one day without seeing a blindingly obvious mistake in an online article. Clearly people have not been following my obvious tips for writing! How do these mistakes keep slipping through the net? Are sub-editors failing or is it the editors themselves? It just makes me wonder sometimes: is writing correctly less important to writers/editors than it used to be? Have people stopped taking pride in their writing? Am I making a fuss over nothing? Am I officially turning into an angry old person? I obviously don’t have answers to these questions, but I would love to hear from anyone who does.

Here are a couple of examples I have found online in the past week. I didn’t even have to look hard. The very first article I read after thinking about this contained a giant error in it. Believe me, there are lots more out there!

1.The Huffington Post.

Nick Watts, writing about anorexia says, “Put all the facts together and it is almost like we are glamourising a serious medical condition, in fact were not almost doing it, we are doing it”. The apostrophe missed out of “were” renders this sentence useless. Although I’m not a big fan of this sentence generally, as it reads awkwardly. However, the article itself was actually quite interesting (I almost feel mean slagging it off), here’s the link to it.

2.The Daily Telegraph

See below where missing speech marks make it confusing about what is tattooed on a man’s head!

This is made more comically confusing by the fact that the tattoo is awful and you can barely read it! Ok it’s not that hard to work out what it says but you get my point. Missing punctuation!

3. Sky TV

This was on my TV so technically not found online but it’s still wrong! I read this through a few times before I came to the conclusion that no, it doesn’t make any sense.

4. The guardian

When I first read this I worried that “an nose” was a racing term I’d never heard of, sort of like how some people say “an historian”.

5. The Sun

 This little caption clearly wasn’t checked by anyone before it went up on the Sun website last week, such a lazy, basic error (and a ridiculous comment anyway).

 The list goes on and on and on. Please people in the media, can you just try to either be better at proofreading or hire me to help you? I’m tired of all the mistakes, they’re wearing me out.


5 Ultimate Fool-Proof Ways to Improve Your Writing*

*in my humble opinion.

Hello! I’m going to kick WCBH Version 2.0 off with a list! I just love lists, me. This post isn’t really aimed at those established novelists or academics out there, but more at people who might want to improve their everyday writing. If I do happen to help any professional writers though, that would be awesome! These are really simple things which have helped me enormously, and still do every time I think about writing (which is more than you might have thought given how few and far between my blog posts have been). I’m sorry if I lapse into bossiness below, I can’t help it. It’s for your own good anyway.

1. Read more, read everything!

I accept this to be an extremely obvious point but it has to be said. Reading is one of the best ways to help
your writing; it will help spelling, vocabulary, style, tone, grammar, the list goes on. However, my advice to everyone is don’t limit yourself to one genre; just reading OK! magazine or the Twilight Saga (sorry Meyer) isn’t going to help you that much. Similarly, sticking to the classics probably won’t help if you’re the kind of person who likes laid-back informal writing. Mix it up! Read a bit of everything: modern fiction, classics, sci fi, fantasy, romance, crime, magazines, newspapers, online articles, blogs, etc. Yes, you’re going to have favourites, but branching out and finding new stuff is exciting and enlightening. You’ll develop a good feel for style and flow in your writing and you’ll probably expand your general knowledge in the process as well.

2. Learn a foreign language

Now I know this one is hard; I tried suggesting this to a friend once and the idea was instantly poo-pooed. I understand that  it’s not easy to just decide to learn a foreign language overnight, you’d have to think about finding classes or forking out for Rosetta Stone software, but TRUST ME ON THIS ONE, it’ll be worth it.

Native English speakers don’t have to think about speaking English, you just do it. You’ve learnt it by talking it first and it comes naturally to form sentences. However, when writing it, people get mixed up with homophones and make other basic grammatical errors that don’t exist or matter in speech. The best way to correct this is to see English from a different perspective, and learning another language will do this. You have to get to grips with different verb conjugations, pronouns, sentence structure, etc. and your mind will relate it all back to English. For example someone who speaks English as their second language wouldn’t mix up your and you’re, because they will be translating two different things; they’ll know they mean either the possessive pronoun or “you are”.

OK, I know I can’t convince everyone with this one and I’m not even explaining myself very well, but I really think just learning the basics of another language will be an eye-opener; you’ll learn things about English you never expected. You could just learn a few key verbs (to be, to go, to eat etc.) and some really basic vocabulary. Plus, pick the language you’re going to find most useful on future holidays and you can stop shouting slowly at waiters and embarrassing yourself. Just think about it.

3. Read your writing aloud, then get someone else to check it for you

A fairly straight forward tip. Reading your work aloud will help you identify problems in flow and sentence structure. It will also help you pick up on punctuation placement and repetition of certain words. If you’re like me and you would rather not start talking to your computer you can do it all in your head by imagining you are giving a speech. Well, in either case you’ll end up feeling crazy but it will help your writing.

Having someone else read your writing is invaluable as they will always pick up on things you don’t see. Your  eyes will skate over obvious mistakes and typos. I find it hard to keep rereading my own writing anyway, it makes me cringe, so I hastily get someone else to check it for me when I’m finished.

4. Write more!

The more you write, the better you’ll get at it. Fact. It doesn’t really matter what you write, just do a bit more of it. This is something I am aiming to do at the moment. At the top of my list is to blog more often. Number 2 on the list is to write an international best-seller aimed at the teen market which will rival the success of Suzanne Collins, Stephanie Meyer and JK Rowling. It’s all about setting yourself small, realistically achievable goals.

5. CARE MORE!

Today I feel a bit like Captain Obvious but never mind! There is absolutely no way you will be better at writing if you don’t really care about it. It’s simple: if you’re not that bothered, you won’t see any improvements.

This is the hardest thing for me to try to convince people, and I’m just not sure how to get through to people. Think you can do it all perfectly already? That’s fine. Think it’s not important to write correctly? That’s also fine. But don’t complain when people think you’re stupid because your writing is littered with grammatical errors and spelling mistakes. In my opinion you should always want to do better, and to strive to be the best you can be. As it happens, that is my life motto as well.

So there’s another list for you! I’m sure there are lots of other really important writing tips out there, if you could let me know some of them that would be great! 🙂


Coming Soon! Words Can Break Hearts Version 2.0

Hey!

I am very sorry that I’ve neglected the blog for a couple of months. It’s been a bit of a roller coaster, what with me getting addicted to 24 and leaving my job in search of an airy-fairy dream job that probably doesn’t exist. I think I’m having what they call a “quarter life crisis”.

Seriously though, the reason I’ve been a bit quiet on the blog front is because I’ve been having a really long think about which direction to take it in. I have big plans for the future of Words Can Break Hearts, and have been umming and ahhing about how to make it happen. Over the next couple of weeks I’ll be making some changes, and hopefully I’ll be blogging more regularly too. I’ve decided that I will focus a little less on book reviews and a little more on other things, such as grammar, writing tips and me! I love doing book reviews and will continue to do them, but I think I’d like to take the focus of the blog away from them a little bit for now.

So stay tuned! I’ll be back very very shortly with some (hopefully) interesting things to say on grammar, writing, my life, etc.

Here’s a picture of Tallulah being lazy to cheer you up until I’m back:


The 5 Most Annoying Grammar Mistakes

For some reason I found myself trying to work off a bit of excess rage this morning (nothing to do with being single and miserable on Valentine’s Day, honest) so I thought I’d do a rant-y post about how annoying people annoyingly get simple grammar wrong. Also, I love writing lists as they invariably make me feel better and more productive (even if they’re totally pointless like this one). Excuse all the capital letters and the shouty tone below, it’s not really aimed at you, just at people in general.

I can forgive anyone a type-o or two. In fact, I’m sure my blog has a few of them (I shudder at the thought). Nobody’s perfect, everyone gets things wrong sometimes. However, there are some offences to the English language which are simply inexcusable! Here are the ones that really get to me:

1. Mixing up simple homophones, particularly “there” “they’re” and “their”, “your” and “you’re”

This is my number one all time annoying mistake. You see it all the time – especially on Facebook statuses and tweets. I feel so passionately about this particular issue that I did two videos on the subject (see previous blog posts Here and Here).

The reason this gets to me so much is because a) I’m a grumpy, pernickety person who doesn’t get out a lot and b) it’s such a simple, basic mistake. To get homophones such as these wrong is to not understand the structure of language, it’s basically like announcing that you are illiterate! Think I’m being a bit harsh? Maybe I am, but let’s all try to make more of an effort shall we? YOUR = something that belongs to you, i.e. YOUR COAT. YOU’RE = YOU + ARE i.e. YOU’RE AN IDIOT IF YOU GET THIS WRONG! THERE is a place, THEIR is possessive, THEY’RE is THEY + ARE. I don’t know why it bothers me so much! It’s all a bit irrational. Just make more effort in future please? It’s easy! I know English is littered with confusing homophones but you must be used to it by now?! You don’t confuse the meaning when you talk the words, so you must know that they’re different? Oh I don’t know. I’ll leave it now.

2. OF IS NOT A VERB!

Just thinking about this annoys me! “should of” “could of” “would of” all these are criminal! Should, would and could all need to be followed by a verb (a DOING word) and therefore OF doesn’t work. Have you ever “of-ed” something? No? Didn’t think so. You really want to say HAVE but you’re just too lazy.

3. Apostrophes in all the wrong places

How can something so small be so misunderstood?

Sometimes people have a tendency to just whack apostrophes into sentences whenever there is an “s” at the end of a word. I think the problem is that people don’t really know where apostrophes belong and they panic if they haven’t thrown a few into a paragraph! Just so we’re clear, you don’t need an apostrophe if you’re just saying more than one of something. So if you have several cats, it is just CATS. Use apostrophes to indicate possession (Anna’s cats) or to shorten two words together (there + is = there’s). There’s the odd exception to these rules but generally it works. When in serious doubt though, just leave the apostrophe out. It’s more annoying when people throw them in randomly than if they miss them out, which could just be a quick mistake or a type-o.

4. Relying on Spellcheck

The pinnacle of laziness. And coming from me that really means something! People just bash out a paragraph, report, email, whatever and they don’t even bother to read it through because they think their computer is clever enough to do it for them. It’s not! Only you know what you’re actually trying to say. Ok, there are probably programs out there that can just write stuff for you but odds are you’re using Microsoft Office. It’s not psychic. Spellcheck won’t actually select the right word for you, you have to read your writing through in order to do this. Just read it quickly to make sure it makes sense. It’s not that hard!

5. Using ridiculously formal language to cover your bad grammar skills

This one is particularly common in offices (in my experience). When people are trying really hard to impress and aren’t totally confident in writing, they fall back on stilted awkwardly formal language that sounds totally comical. My favourite is when people try to avoid any kind of punctuation and only write in short sentences. Or occasionally they go the other way and over-waffle, taking 1000 words to say something simple (such as “this is my new contact number”).

It’s ok to shorten words together like cannot and don’t. And whilst it’s better to retain a professional tone to work-related business, you can mix things up with a few commas and semi colons… nobody likes a robot! It’s always good to appear friendly as well, and overly formal expressions like “at your earliest convenience” make people sound a bit soulless and evil. Well, that’s the impression I get anyway! However, don’t be too tempted to go the other way! I hate it when people I don’t know call me “mate”! It’s all about balance and flow. I know that sounds a bit airy-fairy but I have found generally that practice makes perfect.

Well there you have it: my top five crimes against grammar. I feel better for venting! Sorry for being grumpy, I promise to make my next post more upbeat and down with the kids (less old-man-style ranting). You should just be grateful that it was just my top 5 and not my top 50!


Your and You’re

Do you ever get mixed up between “your” and “you’re” when writing? It’s easily done. Here’s a video I did to clear things up a little. Also see my other post “Let’s get this party started” as it contains a short video on those other easily mixed up homophones “their”, “there” and “they’re”.