Author: Karen

The age-old question: John and “I” or John and “me”?

delicate grammar points

Mondays can be a delicate time for our grey cells as they gear up for the week ahead, so here’s a little “gramm-ercise” to ease us in gently…

“John and I…” or “John and me…”? Well, it all depends on whether John and you are the subject or the object of the clause or sentence. Here are a couple of examples to help you decide next time you’re torn.

John and I are going to eat fish pie at home this evening.”

Using “I” is perfectly correct here, as John and I are the people who “are going to eat” – in other words, we are the subjects of the sentence.

It would not, however, be correct to say, “John and me are going to eat fish pie at home this evening”.

And why is that?

Simple: because “me” is the pronoun that we use when the “I” (whoever “I” may be) is not the subject of the sentence, i.e. not the person who is (in this case) going to eat the fish pie. Let’s look at an example where “me” would be correct:

“My aunt is not a kind person. She and my uncle do not like my brother and me.”

Here “me” is the right choice – not “I” – as the people doing the liking (i.e. the subjects of the sentence) are “She (aka my aunt) and my uncle”, whereas the writer’s brother and the writer are the people who are on the receiving end of the dislike (so they are the objects of the sentence).

One quick way to check whether you should use “I” or “me” in a sentence is to remove the other person from the equation. Let’s try that with the first example. If we were to tell John to leave the house and were planning to eat on our own, we’d say, “I am going to eat alone.”

If English is our mother tongue, we would somehow know instinctively not to say “Me am going to eat alone.” Of course, you could still use that version if you wished, but there’s a distinct risk you might sound like a two-year-old… You’d know it sounded better to say “I” when you are the subject of the sentence, and you are still a subject of that sentence if we add John back into the equation – hence “John and I are going to eat…”

Next, let’s try the same technique with the second example. If the writer didn’t have a brother, with the result that the aunt and uncle had only one person to dislike, it would sound rather odd for the writer to claim, “She and my uncle do not like I” – we would instinctively know to use “me”. So all we need to remember is that we still need to use “me” if our brother is also one of the objects of the sentence – hence “(they) do not like my brother and me”!

A new addition vs a new edition

photo of ewe nuzzling new lamb

Put simply: one bleats and the other is published

When I’m wearing my private tutor’s hat, I always advise my pupils that if they hear a word they don’t know the meaning of three times within a week, it’s definitely time to look it up. My theory is that if they’ve heard a word that frequently, it could easily rise spectre-like from a Higher English close reading paper to haunt them.

Being a consistent soul, I feel duty-bound to extend my vocabulary rule of thumb to editing advice as well, and that’s what has prompted this quick “heads-up” post. The phrase I’ve seen used incorrectly three times in the past week is “a new edition to the family”, whereas what the writer almost certainly meant was “a new addition to the family” (i.e. a baby or a pet).

So I thought it might be helpful to clarify the difference between these two, albeit similar-sounding, words…

Addition (noun): The act or process of adding OR something that has been added to something else, e.g. The black  lamb was a new ADDITION to our flock.

Not to be confused with…

Edition (noun): a specific form or version of a published text, e.g. I prefer the previous EDITION of this book.

Dictionary in library

Spellcheckers – the proofreader’s friend or foe?

Find and replace editing icons

You may not be a trained writer, but you’ve still laboured valiantly to the end of a marathon 26-page marketing report for an important client – an epic feat of writing endeavour, which has caused you to sacrifice numerous social engagements (not to mention the odd rainforest…).

At this point, the perfect scenario would be for you to send your lovingly crafted document off to a professional proofreader or editor and await their corrected version, before firing it off through cyberspace to your client’s waiting inbox…

Realistically, however, companies may not have a budget for professional proofreading or editing, so it’s far more likely that you’ll skim through the document on screen (a method, by the way, that has been proven to be significantly less accurate) and then take a few minutes to run a final “spellcheck”.

At this point, you would be well advised to exercise more than a smidgen of caution. Spellcheckers are not always the most reliable of assistants, so it’s dangerous – verging on syntactically suicidal – to blithely “accept” every suggestion that your friendly spellchecker proffers.

Certain typos still count as recognised English words, which means they will not necessarily show up as errors. Let’s look at just a few examples:

  • Form – instead of “from”, or vice versa.
  • Out – instead of “our”, or vice versa.
  • Assess – instead of “access”, or vice versa.
  • Of – instead of “or”, or vice versa.
  • If – instead of “is”, or vice versa.
  • Lead – instead of “led” (the former is part of the present tense of the verb “to lead” or is a noun that denotes a heavy metal; the second is the past participle of the verb “to lead”, e.g. “I have led”).
  • Manger – instead of “manager”.
  • Change – instead of “chance”, or vice versa.

Likewise, never do a blanket “find and replace” unless you are 100% certain that there is no margin for error.

For example, if you want to change the word “rot” to “rota”, unless you ensured that you entered a space before and after “rot” in the “search” box, you could end up changing phrases such as “he wrote” and “it was a really grotty day” to “he wrotae” and “it was a really grotaty day.”

Similarly, if you want to change the word “son” to “daughter” and to apply this change blanket-fashion, watch out! This could lead to a phrase such as “his impersonations…” becoming “his imperdaughterations”…. Which is a very good reason indeed for remembering to run a “final final spellcheck after you’ve executed any “find and replace” operation. Of course, a spellchecker should then pick this up, but you don’t want to take any risks!

Another risk with a “blanket” find and replace comes if you’ve been writing about a company called “Derek Smith Limited” and you find that they’ve recently changed their name to “Derek Smith Incorporated”.

For reasons of speed, it might be tempting simply to search for the word Limited” and press “replace all” to substitute the word “Incorporated” with the word “Limited” in each instance.

However, somewhere in the text, the word “limited” might occur in a sentence such as “He agreed to try this for a limited period of time”. The result of a blanket substitution would then be the rather nonsensical “He agreed to try this for a incorporated period of time”…

Which brings me neatly to another point. If you are replacing a word that begins with a consonant by one that starts with a vowel, remember that before you search for the word “motor”, for example, with a view to changing it to “engine”, you need to search for any instances where the indefinite article is used before the word, i.e. “a motor” and change this to “an engine”.  Otherwise, if you simply dive in and change all instances of the word “motor” to “engine”, you could end up with “a engine” appearing in your text.

All these examples highlight the importance of reviewing substitutions one at a time. Use the humble “next” button and don’t be tempted by the speedy “replace all” approach.

Obviously, spellcheckers and find/replace tools do have their uses; however, it’s wise to bear in mind that while they are certainly very helpful when it comes to avoiding basic typos and for saving time, they are anything but foolproof!


The secret behind successful copywriting…

My writing resolution for 2014: never use three words when one will do

In the first week or so of any New Year, TV and the written press bombard us lesser mortals with talk of New Year’s resolutions. If you haven’t yet come up with a resolution for your business or organisation, here’s a suggestion to make your marketing and social media campaigns more engaging. It’s very simple: be brief.

As an eager journalism student years ago, I have vivid memories of receiving my first assignment back from our lecturer – an articulate, erudite lady with an impeccable track record in lexical manipulation.

To my horror, I noted that more of my precious words seemed to have been deleted than actually remained on the page – and, judging by the reaction of my classmates, my experience was not unique. They, too, had suffered a savage and apparently unprovoked attack on their verbosity.

Our lecturer’s writing mantra, she explained, was to remove every word that was not doing a job.

When I reread the offensively red text she’d handed me, I realised that she hadn’t changed the meaning of my writing one whit: she had simply removed the parts she deemed “redundant”. And what was the result of her interventions? Precisely the same message was conveyed in around 30% fewer words…

This baptism of fire at the hands of an editor who wielded a red pen like a scalpel was a stark reminder that in copywriting, as in so many other aspects of life, it is quality – not quantity – that matters.

Take slogans. They’re an excellent example of writers making words work hard for a living – in just three words, companies such as Nike (“Just do it”), Coke (“Coke is it”) and Audi (“Vorsprung durch Technik”) promoted their brands memorably.

It probably took their marketing teams days (perhaps even weeks) to develop these short, yet highly successful, slogans – an apparent paradox which was neatly summed up by American writer Mark Twain. He is quoted as saying, “If you want me to give you a two-hour presentation, I am ready today. If you want only a five-minute speech, it will take me two weeks to prepare.”

As for how long it took to translate (or “localise”) the three aforementioned advertising slogans phrases into a host of other languages in such a way as to achieve a similar effect across both cultures and continents, well that’s another story entirely (and the subject of a blog later this year)!

Twain wasn’t the first writer, by a long way, to identify the difficulty of being concise with words. In Shakespeare’s renowned tragedy Hamlet, Polonius declares:

“Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit,
And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,
I will be brief.”

Even before that, Roman philosopher and statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero wrote: “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.”

These three men understood the importance of being succinct.  Having spent the first 20 years of my professional life being paid by the volume of words I translated, it’s perhaps ironic that I now regularly advocate brevity. But I do.

Cartoon depicting two old gentlemen surveying empty booksheves, that contain only a few electronic reading devices.

Why Translators had Bigger Biceps 30 Years Ago…

How the digital age has revolutionised translation research

 Cartoon of two gentlemen observing an almost empty bookcase, in which there are only three electronic reading devices.

A recent “big” birthday set me thinking about how much the translation industry has changed in the almost three decades since I emerged one sunny July afternoon from the Assembly Halls in Edinburgh, clutching a document (encased in a red cardboard tube) which proclaimed me to be a trained and tested translator.

I was fortunate to secure my first professional post almost immediately – as a junior translator for an endearingly eccentric translation company based in a rambling mansion in deepest Sussex. The in-house translation team was comprised of a cosmopolitan bunch of linguists: a Scottish girl (Yours Truly), two chivalrous Englishmen, a spirited Spanish lady, an elegant Italian lady, a gentle German Mädchen and a trio of flamboyant French linguists.

As a newbie language professional 30 years ago, I quickly discovered that the company’s in-house “library” was the centre of my new universe. Then, as now, research was critical to the production of terminologically correct translation. Fortunately, the company provided us with an in-house library for research purposes – an utterly heavenly room (for a bibliophile) lined with groaning bookshelves.

Being called upon to translate texts on a wide variety of weird and wonderful topics, I would make frequent trips to that fact-filled repository – often lugging half a dozen weighty tomes back to my work station, where I would pore over them in pursuit of particularly obscure terms.

There was no concept of “online” research in those distant, yet not-really-so-distant, days. The occasional mention of a mysterious electronic communication system called “Telecom Gold” seemed to excite the techy gurus in the office, but we translators paid little attention to it. We were far too busy buried in our dictionaries and encyclopaedias or queuing up beside the chuntering telex machine either to pick up the telegrams awaiting our translationary expertise or to send the fruits of our linguistic labours off to waiting clients all round the world.

When I became a freelance translator several years later, I rapidly realised just how much I had relied on that munificently stocked multilingual library for my research. Specialist dictionaries were expensive – especially for young professionals starting out on their own – so initially freelancers had to restrict themselves to purchasing a few select dictionaries covering the subjects that they handled most often. This meant that we each tended to have our own “pet” dictionaries, the “breeds” of which varied depending on our individual areas of expertise.

Ever the hoarder, I am still in possession of my first three specialist dictionaries, even though they are now decades out of date (not a problem that afflicts today’s easily updated online dictionaries).

The three books in question are like old friends: the intimidatingly titled yet fabulously informative Ernst Wörterbuch der industriellen Technik; its French alter ego, the Ernst Dictionnaire de la Technique Industrielle (in those days I translated a lot of technical materials about heavy industrial gas turbines, zip manufacturing and plastic packaging); and the appropriately green six-language Haensch-Haberkamp agricultural dictionary, which was my pride and joy.

It was also an essential tool, given that I was doing a lot of work for the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (now DEFRA), so I needed to know my bovine somatotropins from my bovine spongiform encephalopathy – as you do…

When I think now about how long it used to take me to track down fiendishly tricky technical terms that defied even the most erudite of dictionaries and compare that often frustrating and protracted experience with the push-button ease of modern-day online research, it’s tempting to wish that I’d been born 30 years later. I still remember perching heavy dictionaries on my “bump” while I was pregnant and worrying slightly that the bambino would be born with a dictionary-shaped dent in his or her head!

So modern-day research methods definitely have their benefits – such as obviating the need for Popeye-esque biceps to cart colossal compendiums to and from one’s desk. However, it’s important to bear in mind that the ready and rapid supply of online information does – in spite of its undeniable advantages and attractions – present a few problems of its own.

Of these, undoubtedly the most significant is the reliability of information sources. Faced with myriad offerings (often a choice of a dozen options for translating a single word or phrase), modern-day translators have to be extremely selective in their research and to know which language and reference websites to trust.

Such knowledge is generally gleaned as a result of years of (hopefully not too bitter!) experience – as well as through discussion with other freelance colleagues who work in the same subject areas and language combinations. Email, Skype, Facebook, Twitter, Facetime and the likes have revolutionised the facility and speed with which translation professionals around the world can liaise and cooperate, which is a good thing for translators and clients alike.

This veritable explosion of digital communication options has also ensured that clients can submit source documents to a translator and receive their completed translation back again in a fraction of the time it took previously. Gone are the days when I had to accost the poor postman each day to check whether a promised source text had arrived from a client so that I could count the words individually by hand (yes, really!) and ring the client with a quote.

Nowadays a Word document can tell us its own word count faster than we can say “arithmetic”, allowing a quote to be calculated and submitted in a matter of minutes. How things have changed…

I’m delighted to say that I’m still in touch – albeit occasionally in some cases – with almost all of the multilingual in-house team with whom I worked in those good old bad old days. Looking back at our experience of researching translations then, it seems like another world away – what’s hard to believe that it was just 30 short years ago.