Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Words, words, words.


Last December, I did one of the relaxing, pleasurable things connected with writing; I read through and signed a contract. And, since the first draft of the book to which it relates has already been written, it means I can sit back, cash the advance (no, it isn’t enough to get a Ferrari or even solve the debt problem of a small uninhabited island but it’s money), and await further instructions.

As I was reading through it, though, it did occur to me that it had probably taken the lawyers a day or so, three at the most, to draw it up and, on a purely word-count basis, their remuneration would be significantly higher than mine. Fine, they studied for their degrees, worked as juniors (or however the system operates today) and, if anything nasty hits the fan, they’ll have to clean it up, so good luck to them.

It is, though, rather ironic that, whereas we (usually anyway) work to make our meanings clear, their technique is to multiply the ‘howevers’, ‘notwithstandings’, ‘heretofores’ and let clauses be as promiscuous as they like and reproduce themselves inside swelling paragraphs which are desperate for the relief/release of a full stop. Different worlds, different words.

Then, when I went to post the signed contract, I stood in the long Christmas queue at the counter and more words jumped out at me. I’ve tried to avoid saying too much here about writers who fail to distinguish between ‘your’ and ‘you’re’, ‘there’, ‘their’ and ‘they’re’, ‘its’ and ‘it’s’ and all the rest of them. I’ve come to accept it in general but writers ought to be more respectful of their medium. It’s fine to break the rules of grammar but only if it’s for a purpose and only if you know them in the first place.

But I thought these other two examples were interesting in their different ways. First, a woman with a quite refined English accent (I’m in Scotland, remember) said to the server ‘May I purchase this calendar?’

Now there are all sorts of things that could be said about such a request. The calendar was hanging on a hook, with a very evident price tag on it, so the betting was that, yes, she probably would be allowed to buy it. There was the tiniest stress on the word ‘I’ so did she think it was only for sale to a chosen few customers?

But it was the word ‘purchase’ that struck me. Why not ‘buy’? Does she go home to her husband, partner, elderly aunt, or whoever she shares a house with and say ‘I purchased a calendar today, darling/sweetie/Aunt Murgatroyd/whoever’? If she does, it’s delightful to imagine the ensuing conversation, which would be full of:
‘Was the vendor helpful?’
‘Indeed, most accommodating.’
‘Will you be imbibing any wine this evening?’
‘Copious amounts, but first I must micturate.’
I’m not being nasty or superior, I love it that we have these different registers and that people actually use them, but that word ‘purchase’ seemed so incongruous in a shop full of people stressed out with Christmas shopping and having to wait to buy a couple of stamps. But the woman duly purchased her calendar and went home content.

The other example is again grammar-related but interesting in a different way. A young man with a strong Indian accent was posting bundles of cards to places in the UK, France, Canada and Australia. I’ve had one to one sessions with students brought up in India and they speak a much more correct form of English (if slightly outdated) than the majority of British people. One card in each of the bundles had to be weighed to determine the cost of the postage and, at first, through no fault of his own, the man wasn’t doing it right. The reason was that the man serving him was an Aberdonian and spoke in the local vernacular. On this occasion it wasn’t that the accent was distorting the actual sounds (although that happens very often) but he was making a familiar ‘mistake’ by saying ‘Put one of that cards on the scale’. We all know that, technically, it should be ‘those cards’ – and that’s what the Indian man had been taught, so the mixture of singular and plural had him baffled momentarily. (Another blatant example is the use of the past tense where it should be the past participle – ‘I’d ran to the bus stop’, ‘He’s gave her a present’, etc.) But I’m definitely not mocking either man. There are many such grammatical ‘mistakes’ that are accepted currency and some of them are perpetrated by characters in my books. If they didn’t speak that way, they wouldn’t be authentic. The important thing is to be understood. I suppose I only noticed it this time because of my struggle with lawyer-speak and the woman’s use of ‘purchase’.

Language is wonderful.

7 comments:

Earl Staggs said...

Good points, Bill. Word choice and usage, right and wrong, are important keys to characterization.

Ben Small said...

As someone who used to write contracts, I can attest that legal writing is entirely different from other forms. And contracts for the sale of goods are governed by the UCC or its international equivalent. The law is based on precedents, and contracts tend to use words that have been defined by such. The codes use the term "purchase," so contracts that will be enforced by them tend to use that term also. That, or maybe the lawyer was paid by letter count, in which case, he probably made a bundle. :-)

Bill Kirton said...

Thanks, Earl. And Ben, lawyers making a lot of money? I find that hard to believe.

Jaden Terrell said...

Sometimes I think legal contracts are written with the express purpose of avoiding clarity at all costs. But that's probably just because my eyes glaze over when I try to read them.

Remember that "Far Side" cartoon about what dogs hear ("Blah blah, Ginger, blah blah blah, Ginger")? That's me, trying to read lawyer-ese.

Bill Kirton said...

I'm with you on that, Beth.

Chester Campbell said...

I have a degree in journalism and I've worked as a copy editor on a daily newspaper, where I had to correct other people's grammar and spelling. But I'm a bit of a chameleon when it comes to speaking. My wife is a country girl who dropped out of high school to marry her first husband. She later got her GED but never mastered the king's English. She uses past tense when it should be present (I done that) and other such miscues. When I talk with her, I tend to mimic her style. But when I'm in a group who speak correctly, I do also. At least she gets the idea across, correctly or not.

Bill Kirton said...

I have similar experiences with friends and family, Chester. My 'home' accent (English west country)is full of 'you was going' 'we'm (i.e. we am) staying', etc. I like it, it's colourful and gives the language character and sometimes attractive flaws. I only start moaning about such things when they're perpetrated by people who claim to be writers and who are doing it from ignorance rather than as a deliberate way of creating character and so on.