Scarf, gloves and woolly socks: the naked editor is cold!

Posted on November 28, 2007 in Uncategorized


Winter is finally upon us and, together with Father Christmas, it has brought freezing cold weather. I am not a big fan of below-zero temperatures so I was already struggling to adjust when the heating gave up the fight and suddenly stopped working. By the time the gas man (not the one I mention in the last column) came to repair it, I had spent two days in the house in inhuman conditions, which involved no hot water (hello cold showers!) and no form of heating whatsoever.
Seeing my boyfriend happily skipping out of the house on his way to a warm office made me bite back all the smugness I’d previously shown for my lack of commute. But being in a freezing house with a hot water bottle as your only company can have its upsides. For a start I was forced to give myself two days off from work; if you think I was just lazy, then try typing on a laptop wearing a pair of gloves…do it hunched up on the desk, so as to keep warm, for a couple of hours and then try standing up. Not pretty is it? So, anyway, there I was, staring at the ceiling and just thinking. Don’t worry, I’m not going to pretend that I’ve found the answer to life’s deepest questions or developed a new philosophy which I think you should follow.
It just struck me how much language shaped my life. When I became a teenager, I found respite from my moods and tantrums in literature, mostly classics. I felt comforted in sharing the love troubles of Jane Austen’s heroines and felt that Shakespeare’s characters perfectly worded the anguish I sometimes experienced when growing up. When I read Joyce’s Dubliners I knew I had to visit the city, so a day after turning eighteen I signed up for a summer English course there and was soon off with an overweight suitcase (Italian mums can go a bit over the top with worry and force you to bring all sorts of ‘essential’ things with you) and my well-thumbed copy of the book. Needless to say, I had an amazing time and was back the next year. That was it…I had fallen in love.
English was my favourite language when I was at school, which people found bizarre; surely it should have been Spanish or French (which were also part of my curriculum): easier on the ear and more similar to Italian. But I found it impossible to resist the unfamiliar diphthongs and combinations of syllables that English presented – it was a challenge: what kind of language has the same three letters pronounced in so many different ways? It was the quirkiness of the spelling, deceptively easy grammar and the funny ways I had to twist my mouth to come up with the right sounds, which I loved most. Also, my favourite authors were English speakers and I always thought that reading the original (when possible) is better than the translation.
For me, language and literature have always gone hand in hand – isn’t writing just a way of playing with words? And aren’t words one of the best way to express feelings?
I guess that this slightly romantic view is what attracted me most to learning foreign languages, but while at university in Manchester I came across something that surprised me. I like to consider myself as a typical creative soul: a teensy bit erratic, driven by moments of inspiration and passionate about what I truly love. So when I took a module in Linguistics and heard (in the first lesson) that I was about to embark on the study of a science, I was barely able to restrain myself from bolting for the door. I never expected to really appreciate it and actually enjoy it to the point of voluntarily reading additional books on the subject. It was odd – although slightly dry at first, I realised that this ‘behind the scenes’ explaining of why and how we use certain sounds could be fascinating in its own way.
I started to see language from a different angle: more that a bunch of words thrown together in the way that pleases an author and the reader (I used to love justifying all the quirkiness in my writing with two magic little words: ‘poetic licence’). I understood that the way we speak is the result of thousands of years of history. Apart from that, what fascinated me most about English is its fluidity: the vast majority of people in the world do speak it because it’s considered the universal language and, whether we like it or not, it dominates the world of business (sorry disgruntled French people out there!). And I think its strength comes from the way it managed to accommodate people’s needs, welcoming new words and being elastic in the way non-native speakers can chew it up a bit and spit it out adding their own personal touch!
However, I must have a bit of a split personality thing going on because, although I enjoy experimenting with language, I am actually a great supporter of grammar. I am weirdly obsessed by it and I am one of those people whose dream it is to be able to go around with a big red pen and correct all the badly written signs which infest our cities. I guess that now you probably understand why being a freelance editor and proofreader is my ideal job. I do get to spend my entire day wielding a red (alas normal sized!) pen and my closest companions during the day are various dictionaries and a thesaurus. But what I love best is that I get to do all that in my favourite language, whose grammar has been the subject of my affection and interest for over ten years: English.
Still, at the end of this long train of thoughts, I was left wondering how my wild, extrovert side could be reconciled with my strict grammar-loving self. And thanks to my home’s sub-zero temperatures I found the answer. In a depressingly desperate attempt to get warmer I began covering myself in newspaper and magazine’s pages; I opened Psychologies (nice wide, glossy pages) and my eye caught this tiny article at the bottom of the page: ‘Do extroverts get more of a kick from good grammar? Yes, according to research. People with high levels of extroversion are more likely to perceive someone as likeable if they use correct capitalisation in emails’.         
To me this proves that we must stop being ashamed of good spelling and correct comma usage: we are cool!