Plain English

A writer friend has recently written an amusing story about the use of plain English, which has set me thinking of my own use of words when I speak but also when I write. I like to think I use plain English in my novels and stories and I consciously avoid words which might be considered highfalutin or pompous ( unless a specific character demands it). English is such a generous language, with so many options and alternatives, that’s sometimes easier said than done.

Language continues to develop and change; regional variations and accents are now more encouraged, email etiquette alters the way we communicate, and then there’s texting and tweeting!

Many of us change our language according to circumstance. There’s an interesting chapter in “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings”, where at the end of Chapter 29, Maya Angelou describes how her Black (always a capital B in the book) childhood associates “learned to slide out of one language and into another without being conscious of the effort”. She explained by saying that at school, in a given circumstance they might respond with “That’s not unusual’ but in the street, meeting the same situation, they easily would say “It be’s like that sometimes.”

In speech many of us alter our choice of words, tone or accent according to circumstance. It was a family joke that my Yorkshire born mother, renowned for her perfect Queen’s English, slipped into a Yorkshire twang half-way up the A1 when we drove north to visit grandparents. I have the ability to do the same. I guess changes might be less obvious in the written word but they still occur.

Despite my desire for plain English I love to find unusual new words and Twitter is a great source of such discoveries. Susie Dent, she of Dictionary Corner fame, posts excellent new-to-me words, as does Robert Macfarlane who finds pleasure in his lost words. There’s even a Twitter site named New Words. These lost and found, new words are not always usable in everday life but I’ve recently found one that suits be well and it is to tartle (19th century Scots). Apparently if you’ve ever had to introduce someone while totally blanking on their name, you’ve tartled. I tartle all the time.

Another new found gem that’s cropped up is a percontation – a 16th century suggestion for indicating a rhetorical question, sometimes called an irony mark. Sadly I can’t find a percontation to use on my keyboard but I’ve given you a picture of one to see at the top of this post.

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