Opinion & Commentary

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Writing in English as a Second Language

Here’s my favourite quirk of the English language. There is a recognised order of adjectives, and the weird thing is that this seems ingrained in us English speakers as if it’s part of our DNA.
AlexF

There are many people writing in English as a second language, and doing it very well. Some of them are friends of mine. But they live in the UK, so they’ve been able to learn and adapt to subtleties and changes in the language as they come across them in everyday life. But what if you live elsewhere?

The Advantage (and Disadvantage) of having English as your First Language

I feel that we in the UK take for granted the fact that English is one of those languages which is spoken, understood and read throughout the world. That gives us home-bodies an advantage, but it’s also apt to make us lazy. We can learn to communicate in other languages if we like, but unless we’re going to work or teach abroad, once we’ve left education behind, we don’t have to. And the more languages you learn and use, the greater your understanding of language in general.

Unique Local Words

No matter which language you learn first, you will take in your stride its unique elements which can catch out anyone who hasn’t grown up with them.

The individual regions within the UK have words that have developed locally and are unique to them. (And English is only one of the languages spoken in the UK, but that’s another story!)

A Disadvantage of Writing Poetry in English

On the other hand, those of us who write poetry, like me, have problems finding suitable rhymes. There are relatively few of them in the English language compared to, for instance, French and Italian. So, perhaps in self-defence, our modern poetry has largely moved away from rhyme.

Instead, we often use the ‘off-rhyme’ or ‘assonance. The film Educating Rita famously has the line ‘Assonance means getting the rhyme wrong.’

The Order of Adjectives in English

This is my personal favourite quirk of the English language.  There is a recognised order of adjectives, and the weird thing is that this seems ingrained in us English speakers as if it’s part of our DNA. So much so that, in speech at least, whenever get it wrong and if we did, the result would sound ridiculous. The order is: OSASCOMP, which stands for opinion, size, age, shape, colour, origin, material, purpose. Of course it would be very unusual to use all of them, but if you did, you could describe something as a cute little 1960s square red Swedish leather armchair. But not as a leather red, cute Swedish 1960s little armchair, unless you want people looking at you funny.

English Loves Breaking its own Rules

And there’s another thing – rule breaking. The correct part of speech for the end of that sentence should have been ‘funnily’. But the term ‘looking at you funny’ can typically be used. On the other hand, I could have used ‘strangely’ and no-one would have batted an eyelid.

By the way, you can also use the term ‘batted an eye’ and even ‘batted an eyelash’: they’re interchangeable.

Helpful Dictionaries and Apps

So what can we do to feel more confident about our English usage? We can check online or printed dictionaries for the meaning and spelling of any word or phrase we’re unsure of. We can use apps like ProWritingAid or Grammarly to find and fix any errors. Even in a Word document those little red and blue underlines can help us pick up on a grammatical or spelling error. We all use them – even editors like me.

However, it’s important to be aware that many of them will correct to U.S spellings rather than UK if you don’t change them. But if you’re writing for the U.S. market that won’t be a problem.

Advice for Novelists

If you’re writing a novel in English and it’s not your first language I would recommend asking for line editing as part of your editing preparations for publishing. Your editor will use their knowledge of the language to ensure your writing is easy to read and to enjoy.

AlexF

Writer, poet and content creator based in the UK
View all posts by AlexF

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