On Learning About Language, A Story and A Tip
Warning: this ended up being a very long post, so this is where I make an insincere apology and recommend you hit pause and go and make a cup of tea.
Also, it is about grammar. Eventually.
'nuff said. Proceed at your own risk.
As a writer, words are my tools of trade, but I have a terrible confession to make.
I’m dreadful at learning languages!
On Failing at French
In fact, when I stopped doing French at university, I’m pretty sure there was a collective sigh of relief from the whole department.
But, you say, with a puzzled look on your face, you got as far as doing French at uni.
Well, not really. I spent two years doing Introductory French, which was supposed to be a one year course that bridged into actually studying French. I failed the first time, and scraped in by the skin of my teeth the second time through.
When I said that I didn’t plan to continue, my Parisian teacher told me it was a wise decision and the lovely person from Brittany simply hugged me with tears (most probably of joy) in her eyes and ran out of the room fanning herself with her handkerchief.
Remember, only a short time previously, I had done terrible things to their beloved language as I struggled through my oral exam, where they had questioned me on two very French concepts – movies and fashion – about which I could probably not have held a conversation in English, let alone French.
I recall two dreadful moments in the exam (although there were undoubtedly more), one where I was asked if there were many movie theatres in my home town – my answer was that there were none, but there were – wow! – two in Wollongong, the nearest city to my little coastal town.
Apparently, there were 200 in Paris (and two taxis for every resident – which I thought was just plain greedy!).
I would have been moderately better off if they had talked to me about food. I was pretty good at food. I’d even practised in real French restaurants, although… not often (remember, I was a student – Impecunious was my middle name).
The other was at the end, when the Parisian told me that I spoke French in a very good English accent.
I said ‘Thank you.’
Probably not the most diplomatic response, but I was under stress.
Weirdly, I had little trouble deciphering other languages in print and got through Medieval Studies reading sections of sources written in Latin (mostly medieval or church Latin rather than classical), Old French, Middle English, and Anglo-Saxon English* with little trouble once I got into the swing of it, but never could make the translation back the other way, and never did learn to hear French unless the speaker took it trés doucement.
* little side note: I read lots of Middle English in my post first year and graduate English studies which were by preference all Shakespeare and earlier, and studied a unit on Anglo-Saxon history, language, and literature with an amazing visiting lecturer from Oxford who had worked on the Sutton Hoo site and had brought some artifacts with him which I still get goosebumps thinking about! Kinda helped a bit.
I have spent the many years since this abortive attempt in my late teens planning to go back and try again – perhaps focusing on conversational French, but, a bit like my plan to learn Latin, it hasn’t happened yet.
At one point, I even held romantic notions of performing my very own reprise of A Year in Provence and learning the language through immersion as I lived in a gorgeous little house in a French village, but that seems an increasingly unlikely scenario (although my uncle did live in Normandy for years and appears to have delighted the local populace by learning to speak French quite well so long as they overlooked his strong Mancunian accent).
Why am I so bad at French? Je ne sais pas. I have wanted to speak French since forever, and even signed up for French in High School where I was told that it was a non-starter because there were only five of us who wanted to take it. In retrospect, I should have tracked down the other four and started a club in one of the library annexes with one of those teach-yourself records, and, maybe, by the time I hit uni at 17, I would have stood half a chance.
Or maybe not. One of my friends at uni was a native French speaker from Canada, and she kept failing, too.
The Language of Language
One of the things, however, that may well have fed into my difficulties with learning French, was that I had never been taught grammar formally. At all.
At that time (a distant last century event), grammar was not taught in primary school in the UK. It had its very own subject once you hit high school where you had lines of English Grammar and English Literature as two very separate areas of study.
Luckily, I was always an avid reader and had a good understanding of how it all hung together thanks to that wonderful process of osmosis.
I was even considered somewhat advanced, because I was experimenting with dialogue in my creative writing. Hilarious by today’s curriculum standards!
So, basically, apart from a rather fuzzy knowledge of the difference between a verb and a noun, and that you started a sentence with a capital letter and finished it off with a full stop (or maybe even a question mark if you were feeling adventurous), I hit my high school years, along with all my contemporaries, with very little idea of the structure of the English language as a concept.
The downside was that I travelled half way around the world in between my primary school years and high school to live in Australia, where, at that point in time, grammar was taught in primary school and high school was all about English Lit.
So, I found myself in my first ever language class at uni with absolutely no understanding of the meta language of language and totally behind the eight ball. In fact, I learned more about grammar in French than I ever had in my life before.
But, French. Not so much.
Eventually, I became a grammar nerd, but I still feel as though there is so much to learn. About grammar. And yes, that was a sentence fragment (tut, tut), and I did start this sentence with a connective (ooh ah), but one of the joys of learning about language is taking liberties with it afterwards.
Just… not in French.
Okay. We’ve got that out of the way, you say. So what is the point of this ramble, anyway?
The Way My Mind Works... Sometimes
I started writing this post with the intention of talking about languages (at which, I am sure I have established, I am very bad) because I stumbled across a fabulous page on the State Library of Queensland site with a whole heap of greetings in Indigenous languages, and I was excited because it was the kind of thing that, as an EAL/D teacher (now a past life), I would have been jumping up and down about (correct construction: about which I would have been jumping up and down).
Naturally, it is focused on Queensland, but I love finding out about such things – I had great plans to create a welcome banner, at one stage, with a greeting in the language and script of every ethnic group we had represented in our school. It never happened, sadly, and I retired unexpectedly last year in the midst of a year from hell for our family where covid was only the icing on the cake (the straw that broke the camel’s back might, in fact, be a more appropriate metaphor), and gave up on the position which for me was a gift from teacher nerd heaven.
Then I started this post with the words that words were the tools of my trade, and the confession just blurted out.
Lining Up Your Ducks, Linguistically Speaking
Words are the tools of my trade, and yours, too, if you are a writer, and arranging them neatly using a quite complex system of rules is just one of the skills that a good writer makes (makes a good writer, if you are struggling with that particular now-extinct construct).
There are many places online where you can learn about grammar – from checking correct usage and general tips to taking formal(ish) lessons (I've popped some links at the end of this screed). I’ve hooked into quite a few of them over the years in order to pass on my knowledge to my students, and I have been known to quickly google the odd grammatical term or construction in the midst of a writing frenzy because I cannot just go past something that doesn’t sound right (note: I do not actually recommend this).
And that, I think is my tip of the day. Unless you are like me and have to make sure that things are all good on the go, get your story down. Write it. Make sure that the creative is allowed to flow unimpeded by your editor’s brain (mine is a bit of a dictator and often interrupts unasked), but, then, read it back to yourself.
Out loud by preference.
How do your sentences sound?
Use that as your first pass, and fix it up as you go at that point. If you need to – if it doesn’t sound right – check.
Ask an ‘expert’,** as I used to tell the kids, or look in a grammar book or online.
**An expert might be the nearest person you spy and pin down (metaphorically speaking unless you want to get arrested), whereupon you ask, ‘Does this sound right to you?’ – I probably wouldn’t bother if that person was a toddler, but anyone, say, post second grade, should be able to give you a yay or nay. If it’s a nay, they might be able to sort it for you, or, again, you now know you need to find the answer elsewhere.
Of course, ultimately, you will be sending your work to an editor, who should be able to pick things like that up for you, but, be aware, if you leave too many clear errors in your work (ie not purposeful misconstructions for fun) you will be giving them the grinding of teeth and possible nightmares. Editors have sensitive souls and are highly attuned to grammarly aberrations.
I know I probably drive mine mad, as it is, with my tendency to misuse grammar on purpose.
Although, possibly, I also drive them mad with my fanatical adherence to the Oxford Comma, too, which is considered rather infra dig these days.
And ellipses… I use way too many ellipses. Not necessarily correctly.
If you, perchance, send something to me, by the way – although I am not an editor by profession, I do do manuscript assessments – do not, for instance, use the term very fun.
No. Do not.
Lots of fun, or very funny (although fun and funny are two very different things), yes.
But very fun*** is wrong. I don’t care if it is an accepted colloquial construction. Unless you are using it in a clever way inside dialogue to indicate a person’s (mis)use of English, don’t do it. Please…
*** Public Service Announcement: very fun is incorrect because fun is a noun, and an adverb (such as very) cannot describe a noun.
… and don’t get me started on vocab. Vocab is a quite different rant for me. Another time maybe.
In the meantime, do have lots of fun (noun) with your writing, it is a fun (adjective) thing to do!
Some online resources for learning grammar:
Australian Writers' Centre (I particularly like these people because they know where to put an apostrophe, but you will have to pay for their Grammar and Punctuation course)
Some online grammar checkers (with the proviso that you need to know a bit about grammar, anyway, to use these, as they don’t always get it right – and some are better than others):
and the one that I have just started using and am loving:
On the whole, I don’t recommend relying on the in-house checkers with word processing software, but they are a good start.
And, despite my own failings in this regard, I very much suggest that you
grammar check afterwards.