Thinking about English

Translation is as much about writing in your own language as understanding a foreign language. A translator has to convey the meaning of the source test accurately and unambiguously in the target language. Sometimes my own writing style is heavily influenced by a concern not to upset the purists. I am thinking of the split infinitive question. Generally it is possible to avoid splitting an infinitive by arranging the sentence in a different way but at other times splitting is unavoidable because the alternative would be unnatural or result in the adverb qualifying the wrong verb. Personally I have no problem with split infinitives and would not hesitate to use them in my own writing should the occasion arise but I am aware that some people consider it to be incorrect. I was listening to a radio programme yesterday in which Jeremy Butterfield, writer of “Oxford A-Z of English Usage” said that the prohibition on the split infinitive was a “superstition”. It came about because people had based their knowledge of English grammar on Latin grammar even though there is no logical reason for this. I also checked this out with a copy of “How to Write, Think and Speak Correctly”. Annoyingly, my copy is undated but the first edition was written in 1939. This book considers that splitting or not splitting is a matter of personal taste.

Spelling can sometimes be a problem area, especially when the client requests British or American spellings. Generally I will use British English spellings because that is what I am used to. But it is not always that simple, because spelling rules have changed over the years. There are  some words for which the dictionaries offer two spellings, both of which are acceptable. When I was at school in the 60s and 70s we were taught to use -ize endings. Recently I have been told that this is American English and that I must write -ise, which apparently is British English. News to me! In fact, if I read a text with -ize or -ise I would not immediately think American or British English. Checking with “How to Write, Think and Speak Correctly” I found that apart from a short list of words that were always spelt with -ise (advertise(ment), chastise, comprise, despise, devise etc.) the rest were usually spelt with -ize. It then goes on to say that there is a growing practice of doing away with the -ize altogether and replacing it with -ise. So this trend seems to have taken hold in the intervening period, but some of us who were taught by those who were themselves educated pre-1950, are rather more flexible about our use of -ize and -ise endings, having chosen one or the other as a matter of preference. My 1979 Collins English Dictionary lists the -ize endings first with the -ise as the alternative. The British English spell checker doesn’t correct -ize either. I rather object to being told by a non-native speaker that -ize is not British English, because it certainly used to be. I can’t believe I am the only Brit who has been happily using -ize endings for the last 50 odd years.  I consider it to be an either or situation and so I am happy to use -ise endings if that is what the client wants, although I might continue to use -ize in private correspondence.


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