Hello. How are you? How’s your English? Mine’s fine, thanks. But then I’ve spent several decades hearing, speaking, reading, studying, teaching and writing English. I’ve been surrounded by native English speakers all my life. I’ve never had to learn the language, in any conscious way – and I have a great deal of sympathy for those who do.
English, someone once told me, is the easiest language on the planet to learn badly – and the hardest to learn really well.
It’s spoken as a first language by about 400 million people (mainly in Britain, North America, Australasia and parts of Africa). And it is now used as a second tongue by three times as many people, making it the world’s most popular language.
It has become the lingua franca of the 21st century, the linguistic glue that allows communication between people from different language and cultural traditions. In technology, diplomacy, business and finance, aviation and shipping, science and medicine, music, international sport and tourism, English reigns supreme.
But if 1.5 billion people use English in their daily lives or their work, how many of them understand its infinite subtleties and complexities? Very few indeed. And that includes the native English speakers. Because unless you’ve dedicated your life to writing, journalism or teaching, you’ve probably had better things to do with your time than grapple with the ins and outs of a perverse, multi-parented language like this.
For a start, English has a great many rules that beginners have to learn. You know the sort of thing. ‘I before E, except after C’ is an obvious example.
But all the rules have exceptions (how about ‘weird’, ‘seize’, ‘foreign’, ‘height’ and ‘science’?), and in many cases the exceptions have exceptions, too.
If you are foolish enough to ask academics to explain the correct sequence of different types of adjective describing an object, for example, you deserve everything you get.
‘Aha,’ they’ll say, settling in for the long haul, ‘It’s really quite simple. The order of priority is just OPINION > SIZE > AGE > SHAPE > COLOUR > ORIGIN > MATERIAL > PURPOSE and then the NOUN.’
That’s not much help, without a practical example. But the experts are always happy to come up with one of those.
‘Look,’ they’ll explain, ‘Imagine you’re kipping down for the night in some remote part of Eastern Europe where creature comforts are few. You may find that all you have to sleep on is a horrible big old lumpy brown Transylvanian horsehair camping mattress.
‘Not a pleasant thought. But one thing any native speaker of English would be comfortable with is the word order. There’s no scope for messing about with that. There are no alternatives. That long, rambling train of adjectives has to be coupled together in exactly that order.’
That’s all true, though not one person in a hundred would be able to describe the rule that’s at work here. Native English speakers just naturally put the adjectives in the right order, without even knowing they’re doing it.
And, infuriatingly, even a rule as complicated as this has its exceptions.
For example, you would naturally say: ‘What a fierce little dog!’, rather than ‘What a little fierce dog!’ As the rule demands, you would instinctively place the qualitative, opinion-based adjective (‘fierce’), in front of the size adjective (‘little’).
But what if the dog happened to be bigger? You’d say: “Be careful – that’s a big fierce dog!” It wouldn’t occur to you to say: “Watch out – that’s a fierce big dog!”
Why? To be honest, I can’t tell you exactly. “It just sounds right” is not much help. If I were learning English and someone said that to me, I’d feel like biting their leg.
In this case, the deviation from the rule is probably something to do with the relative importance of the description. What matters about a big fierce dog is the fact that its size makes its ferocity a threat. The fierce little dog is not threatening. Its fierceness is merely descriptive, a matter of attitude. So the big dog’s bigness comes first, as that could be what the hearer needs to know as a matter of urgency.
The point is this. You can learn English idioms and grammar till the cows come home. You can speak the language with ease and fluency. But unless you’ve lived with it for many years and invested your time in studying its freaks and foibles, you won’t be able to write it like a really experienced British or American writer.
And what seems to work fine in conversation may look a whole lot less convincing when it’s immortalised in black and white.
For many of the people the members of our little band of ghostwriters work with, this is a key factor. Our authors may be entrepreneurs or consultants, surgeons or sports stars, inventors, adventurers or survivors. They may have a theory, a philosophy or a personal or business history that’s crying out to be shared with an international audience. But if it gets into print and it’s not quite right, they’ll regret it for years to come.
There’s a lot more we can bring to the party, in terms of helping to shape and structure your book, test and develop your ideas and keep your interest and enthusiasm high throughout the whole daunting process. But getting the language right is a big part of our job – and, when the chips are down, nobody does it better.
Ian Shircore’s latest book, So Brightly at the Last: Clive James and the Passion for Poetry, has just been published by RedDoor Press.