Tag Archives: Idiom

Not now, not never

Ah, English language, I’ll never not love you.

Negatives are powerful things. “No” is one of the first words we learn to understand as babies (apparently) and is one of the things which protects our identity and independence as we get older. Yes is often easier to say, it makes you a follower; No makes you stand out.

Negatives can have positive synonyms, but while the information they convey can be identical, the weight and feel of the message changes. Sometimes dramatically. Compare: “I will see him next year” with “I won’t see him until next year” or “I’m leaving him behind” with “I’m not taking him with me.”

Double negatives are often frowned upon and frequently misused, but they are an enriching part of English idiom too. To understand the technical meaning of a double negative, you can just take them both out, but the richness comes because it’s so more complicated than that!

“I ain’t never eating brocolli again,” technically ought to mean “I am always going to eat broccoli” but of course it doesn’t. It’s an emphatic way of saying “I’m never eating broccoli again” with a hint at the geographical or class origins of the speaker.

Conversely, there’s a line in “The Wizard and I” from Wicked which goes “no father is not proud of you”. This time, it’s technically correct. The double negative is used to mean “Your father is proud of you”, but the use of the double negative gives a clear image of the emotional state and history of the character. “Your father is proud of you” is pretty neutral, whereas the line as it is used is loaded with emotion – the singer’s father isn’t currently proud of her, she resents this and dreams of a world in which things are different.




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Filed under Grammar Rules Simplified, Writing

Divided by a common language

They say that English is one of the most difficult languages in the word to learn, just ask the Americans! My linguistic skills have never been much good and I am in awe of anyone who can pick up new languages with ease, because for me it’s an uphill struggle and one I’ve never truly mastered. If the theory is true, thank heavens I was born English!

One of the hardest things about English is not the language itself, but the idiom. We’ve got so many metaphors inherent in our speech, so many curious ways of saying simple things and so many rules-with-exceptions to trip up an EFL learner. And although that first line is an old joke, it’s one based in reality. Just ask me when I’m trying to translate my writing into North American English*. Same language, but the details, and the idiom are very very different.

It’s quite easy to go through my stories changing s’s to z’s (recognise, standardise…) and deleting u’s (colour, flavour…). I can also use the find/replace function on things like “I’ve got” to make it “I have” and to turn “different from” into “different than” (although even my US spellchecker doesn’t like that). These are the sorts of things that I’ve learned (never learnt) to ignore in the writing I critique over here, along with the fact that practise/practice is always spelt with a c. (An Aside: Facebook followers will be aware that the Canadians don’t always afford me the same courtesy, much to my annoyance.)

On top of spelling differences, I’m developing a lexicon of synonyms. It includes the obvious ones like trunk for boot, fries for chips and chips for crisps, but also the less well-known, like game for match (one wonders how they handle tennis, maybe I should ask) and cart for trolley.

But it’s a slow process learning all the idiom, and much of it is still beyond me. There’s a “feel” to the language which is hard to pinpoint but makes my writing often seem staid or old-fashioned to a North American reader. If I want to submit to a North American publication with a North American character / narrative, I still have to run the piece past a North American friend or editor with a request to winkle out all the Britishisms (winkle out almost certainly would be the first to go!). And the same is true in reverse – how many times has the British press or public torn apart an American film trying to depict British life and characters?

This is before we even consider writing further afield. I’ve recently been working on a piece featuring Tibetan monks. I have based their English on that of the ones I spent a few weeks with, but if one of them read the story, he would probably pick up something he would never say, or do.

In my more challenging moods, I think I should just throw in the towel; the rest of the time I wonder if we really are better to “write what we know” when it comes to language.

* Footnote: I’ve lumped together North American English here, but the truth, of course, is that it isn’t one beast. Canadians mix US and UK English at will in a way I have given up trying to follow, and that’s without getting into the question of regional differences. Mind you, on that front, I’ve lumped together British English too, and the regional, generational and class differences there are equally powerful. Maybe throwing in the towel would be the best option after all…




Filed under British Expat in Canada, Writing