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Oxford spelling “not British”?
Thread poster: Pavel Slama

Pavel Slama  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 11:27
Member (2014)
English to Czech
+ ...
May 15, 2014

So how rare are the Oxford spelling and the Oxford comma? A proofreader commented on my recent translation that it was “American English”. As I took good care to use British vocab, it must have been my -ize endings... Confused.

And what about “they” as a gender-neutral singular personal pronoun (as in: Who put their cheese in the fridge? instead of “his or her cheese”)? I see that often over here, although possibly a contentious issue for grammar purists? Was the proofreader right to correct these?


 

George Hopkins
Local time: 12:27
Swedish to English
His May 15, 2014

Who put his cheese in the fridge?
Unless a male is clearly referred to, his can be either a he or a she.
On the other hand, she always refers to a female.

'ize' is also given preference.

Ref. Collins English Dictionary.


 

Łukasz Gos-Furmankiewicz  Identity Verified
Poland
Local time: 12:27
English to Polish
+ ...
... May 15, 2014

Until a couple of decades ago, -ize was the standard spelling, and -ise was a variant. Using -ise throughout was a mark of poor education. Things changed when MS Word came in and an American designer decided that -ise was the British standard.

The misconception is common now, and many editors and proofreaders are ignorant about this subject, and many people think that -ise is more educated than -ize in British English, but the fact stands that it's not.

The Oxford comma, on the other hand, is a more widely known issue, in comparison, and any proofreader really should know better.

Oxford comma or not, however, the option to use a comma to assist the reader (and for no other reason if there isn't any) is not alien to English punctuation (which is not as homogenous or restrictive as in some other languages)

Also the difference between single and double quotation marks, or the choice of punctuation before them, is a more complex thing than just this is British and that's American.

So there's basically no simple cheat sheet. (Even 'honor' or 'color' in an old text can be a British spelling.)

babylondon wrote:

And what about “they” as a gender-neutral singular personal pronoun (as in: Who put their cheese in the fridge? instead of “his or her cheese”)? I see that often over here, although possibly a contentious issue for grammar purists? Was the proofreader right to correct these?


I'm dead against singular they, but it's madness to call it an error and mark it down at this stage, just like it's him vs it's he. It's okay to be a purist and stick by the old rules, but no longer okay to give people grief over those issues.

[Edited at 2014-05-15 14:37 GMT]


 

Giles Watson  Identity Verified
Italy
Local time: 12:27
Italian to English
It probably wasn't your Oxford commas May 15, 2014

In real life, dropping your Oxford commas and throwing in the odd UK term or idiom aren't enough to turn American English into British (the reverse is equally true). The differences run much deeper than that, affecting the way you formulate your thought and the cultural assumptions that underpin your figurative language.

I'm a UK English native and I have done a lot of translation work for US publishers. The conclusion I have come to is that, despite all my checks and QA tests (including a UK-US PerfectIt style sheet I have built up over the years), a native US English copy editor is always going to be part of the workflow.

On your more specific points, the Oxford comma is not universal in US English: book publishers prefer it but newspapers tend to avoid it. UK English publishers also sometimes prefer the -ize verbal suffix. And the differences in verbal number usage go beyond the gender-neutrality issue. For example, UK English tends to use plural verbs with sports teams ("Man City have won the League" is standard UK English where a US speaker might prefer the singular "has").

Finally, "grammar purism" isn't really the point here. There are grammar descriptivists and grammar prescriptivists. Most translators count themselves among the former but when the paying customer insists on a distinctive house style, even the least prescriptive would be well advised to comply if they want any repeat business!

Finally, not all customers are aware of the need for style guidelines. If you want to avoid problems, you might consider nominating your own dialect and/or style guide when you accept a project. The customer may object but at least you will have raised the issue.


 

Christine Andersen  Identity Verified
Denmark
Local time: 12:27
Member (2003)
Danish to English
+ ...
Good question May 15, 2014

I see Łukasz Gos-Furmankiewicz has got in first, and he is absolutely right.

Many decades ago, when my august parents learnt the English language, the Oxford comma and the -ize and -izing forms of the verbs concerned were as British as anything.

They were the norm when I was growing up in the 1960s, and as an act of rebellion I adopted -ise and -ising because it was permitted.
This was reinforced by coming to Denmark in the 1970s, where Danish uses a lot of related verbs and very rarely uses the letter z.

One of my favourite writers, Sir Ernest Gowers, was already advocating the -ise/ising variants in the 50s and 60s - and the 'King James' Bible uses them as far as I remember!

When I started using a computer in the 1990s, Microsoft in its wisdom had decided that ise/ising was UK usage and the variants with Z were US. However, it is just not that simple.

The Times style guide I purchased around then still went in for the Z variations, as do the Oxford dictionaries to this day. So do Collins and Longman, I believe...

So your proofreader cannot categorically declare either form as non British!
_______________________________________

As far as my personal taste and style is concerned, the jury is still out about “they” as a gender-neutral singular personal pronoun, but I don't like it.

Rephrase if at all possible, to use gender-neutral forms or plurals (individuals must decide for themselves what they want to do...)
The passive sometimes helps with avoiding pronouns. Don't ask why Microsoft thinks THAT is a sin; just override as necessary.

In law I adopt the principle that 'man has embraced woman since time immemorial' unless referring to spouses or named women.
Even that is not always politically correct in these days of Spouse 1 and Spouse 2... but in most contexts there are ways of getting round it.
_______________________________________

The only safe answer is to ask the client, and look at the company website and other documentation if you don't get a satisfactory answer - not all clients know or care!

Then keep consistent as far as possible.


 

Charlie Bavington  Identity Verified
Local time: 11:27
French to English
A bit of yes, a bit of no :) May 15, 2014

As someone brought up and educated in the jolly old UK, and having interacted with fellow citizens in the written form for more years than I care to mention, I would say the -ise and -isation versions are more like to be accepted as correct.

That is not to say that everyone would say -ize is wrong, but if you are asked for UK English, then I believe no UK English reader would pull you up on -ise. The more conservative their linguistic outlook (and/or the older they are - the two sometimes go together!) the more likely they are to look askance at -ize. And Oxford commas, unless they can be persuaded that they aid clarity. (And starting sentences with conjunctions!)

Disgusted of Tonbridge Wells will probably prefer not using the 3rd person plural for an unknown singular individual. However, your cheese example is entirely natural, especially for less formal work, IMHO. Luckily, in more formal situations, the issue can usually be avoided, e.g. instead of "the user must not divulge his or her password", you can just say "users must not divulge their passwords" and the job's a good 'un.icon_smile.gif

Lucasz is nonetheless right that spellcheckers have a lot to answer foricon_smile.gif
I wouldn't say that your output, as reported, is necessarily wrong, but I can see why many of my countrymen, educated but not necessarily with expertise in language (remember, we're not taught grammar in school, we just have to acquire it by dint of our natural and well-known gift for languages) and perhaps of a conservative outlook, might think it is.


 

Neil Coffey  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 11:27
French to English
+ ...
Don't think the things you mention are specifically US usage May 15, 2014

babylondon wrote:
As I took good care to use British vocab, it must have been my -ize endings... Confused.


While the -ise spellings are in some sense "traditionally English", in reality both -ise and -ize are used by British authors and publishers. It's just a question of which convention you prefer to adopt. I don't think you could be legitimately accused of writing in "American English" just because of your choice of -ise vs -ize.

Plus in any case, English readers are perfectly used to reading material with either convention. I bet most English readers would happily read through a page of text or even a whole novel without even noticing which of the two conventions had been used.

babylondon wrote:
And what about “they” as a gender-neutral singular personal pronoun (as in: Who put their cheese in the fridge? instead of “his or her cheese”)?


Perfectly common and acceptable in the UK overall, and indeed probably the most natural-sounding option for many UK speakers. But as with practically anything, you'll always find somebody somewhere that has invented some logical reason for why only their convention is the "correct" one and dedicates their life to being totally outraged that other people do not adhere to their preference...

Same thing really with the so-called "Oxford comma"-- it's a convention that some prefer and others don't (and most readers probably wouldn't even notice either way). I don't think the use or absence of it could be branded as uniquely "US" or uniquely "UK".

[Edited at 2014-05-15 15:22 GMT]


 

Neil Coffey  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 11:27
French to English
+ ...
Not sure about -ise being "uneducated" or that their use is purely down to MS Word May 15, 2014

Łukasz Gos-Furmankiewicz wrote:
Until a couple of decades ago, -ize was the standard spelling, and -ise was a variant. Using -ise throughout was a mark of poor education.


I really wonder if that was the case. There is a fairly spurious argument for using "z", originally (I think) put forward by the OED editors and then regurgitated by authors such as Fowler. And there are certain publishers (OUP, CUP, some newspapers, etc.) famously mentioned by Fowler as adopting the -ize spelling. It may well be that in Fowler's day, this situation together did lead to the "-ize" spelling being seen as "a sign of education". But I really wonder if that impression persisted until as late as a few decades ago, or that there has recently (or ever) been much of an impression that the "-ise" spelling is "uneducated" as such.

And given that e.g. Fowler in 1926 writes "Most English printers follow the French practice of changing -ize to -ise", I don't think you can blame MS Word for the impression that the -ise spellings are an English preference.


 

Pavel Slama  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 11:27
Member (2014)
English to Czech
+ ...
TOPIC STARTER
Thank you May 15, 2014

Thank you all for your support and for dispelling the doubt about the qualifications of the proofreader.

The problem that I’m left with, though, is that to exacerbate the already fiendishly difficult project of learning to write in a language that I didn’t imbibe with mother’s milk, there is this extra layer of leeway/complexity. Unlike the Czech, where all is merrily regimented (where to place commas, how to write numbers and units, Capital Letters, and how to spell, of course), the English has this plethora of ingenious style guides. But I don’t really feel the need to adopt a particular style of spelling as a hallmark of my personality, and have better things to do than to endlessly investigate the acceptability of dangling participles. It feels like the extra large supermarkets with 200 different kinds of pasta on the shelf. Who needs so much choice? And worse still in my particular field: How would you like your contract, sir, plain English or legalese?

Back to the issue – once I realized the need for choosing one, I naturally picked the style guide of my favourite newspaper, but threw in my OED’s preferred etymological -izes. Any suggestions on the choice of a personal default style guide?

Christine, I am not obsessed with gender neutrality as such, even though a couple of times I’ve used she where he would traditionally be expected (a different kind of embrace); nor do I really like it, Łukasz, but sometimes it is so much easier than to rephrase. George, think of the cases where it can be he/she/corporation. They rules.

And yes, Giles, I felt your implied rebuke there – inevitably some of my English sentences will not sound quite right (in any variety I may attempt), and my work will need proofreading. But I think working the other way as well does wonders for a translator’s work into her A-language.

[Edited at 2014-05-15 16:14 GMT]


 

Giles Watson  Identity Verified
Italy
Local time: 12:27
Italian to English
No rebuke implied May 15, 2014

babylondon wrote:

And yes, Giles, I felt your implied rebuke there – inevitably some of my English sentences will not sound quite right (in any variety I may attempt), and my work will need proofreading.



It certainly wasn't intended as a rebuke, bl. Everybody's work benefits from professional proofreading. It's the final translation that counts, not how it was achieved.



But I think working the other way as well does wonders for a translator’s work into her A-language.



True, but can't you do that without charging people for it?

G. Asking, not chiding icon_wink.gif


 

Phil Hand  Identity Verified
China
Local time: 18:27
Chinese to English
Are you sure about this MS Word thing? May 15, 2014

My current version of Word allows both -ise and -ize when I set the spellchecker to British English, and I remember that being the case at least since I have been aware of such subtleties.

@babylondon - the proofreader doesn't sound very good. Their vs. he/she is a live issue in English, therefore a question of style, therefore proofreaders should not be messing with your choice. That's not their job. -ize/-ise is the same, a question of style. If your proofreader is wasting their time on such stuff then they are not a good proofreader, and you have little cause to pay any attention to their views.


 

Neil Coffey  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 11:27
French to English
+ ...
I think you may be over-worrying May 15, 2014

babylondon wrote:
this extra layer of leeway/complexity. Unlike the Czech, where all is merrily regimented (where to place commas, how to write numbers and units, Capital Letters, and how to spell, of course), the English has this plethora of ingenious style guides.


There are indeed a plethora of style guides written by different authors. But I think you're over-worrying about the situation. I would suggest:

- if your client has told you to adhere to the conventions of a particular style guide, then adhere to those conventions;
- if your client has expressed no preference, then style your text in a way that you feel is clear, logical and similar to the way structure, punctuation etc is used by authors/publishers whose writing you find clear and easy to read and/or that English speakers generally respect.

If the client has not specified any particular convention and you've structured and punctuated your text clearly and in a similar way to the conventions you see used by other respected English writers, but then the client's proofreader has some form of OCD that forces them to nonetheless go through inserting or removing "Oxford commas" etc, I would really let them worry about that.

babylondon wrote:
I naturally picked the style guide of my favourite newspaper, but threw in my OED’s preferred etymological -izes.


That sounds perfectly reasonable. You might also have a look at something like Swan's English Usage or other descriptive guide that attempts to give a *summary* of generally observed usage without getting bogged down in too much pointless pedantry.


[Edited at 2014-05-15 18:31 GMT]


 

Stuart Hoskins
Local time: 12:27
Czech to English
+ ...
EU-heavy response May 16, 2014

1. –ize/-ise. After years of splitting my personality, using –ise for EU texts and –ize for everything else, I have given up, along with a lot of the UK media, and now stick exclusively to –ise. The 1990s MS Word UK spellcheck has a lot to answer for. However, my affection for -ize will never wane.

2. Oxford comma. Sounds like a recent issue there has been with EU “correctors” – they’ve been clamping down on the Oxford comma recently. Makes the text look "cluttered", apparently.

3. They. The EU style-guiders (specifically SK>EN) would not have a serious problem with “they”: “Note also that it is nowadays quite common, particularly in speech, to use the plural pronoun they (and them, their) as a singular general, non-gender-specific pronoun (although not everybody considers this grammatically correct or acceptable in writing)” http://ec.europa.eu/translation/english/guidelines/documents/tips_translation_slovak_english_en.pdf

4. Off-topic: Note also from the above that, contrary to (erstwhile) standard UK practice, I use double quotes (again, apart from EU texts). I switched a few years back as it seems to me that doubles are becoming more common (if you trawl through UK websites, you’ll see that most of them freely [inconsistently] use a mix, with the BBC a particular culprit – the homepage uses single quotes, but click on articles and you’ll find double quotes, e.g. right now: Hamilton could be ‘impossible to beat’ on the BBC homepage, but “will be almost impossible to beat” in the actual article).


 

Pavel Slama  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 11:27
Member (2014)
English to Czech
+ ...
TOPIC STARTER
Back to -izes in a roundabout way May 16, 2014

This brings to mind a true story of a prominent figure of the Czech Wikipedia back in the naughties. A prolific and outstanding writer, lawyer by profession, polyglot, opinionated, rights and free speech advocate. The problem was, he’d insist and insist on consistently using dated form of spelling, claiming that it’s “not incorrect”, in a manner that someone described as “obstinacy bordering with childishness”. (You see, the Czech with time tends to adapt the spelling of foreign words to how they are pronounced, ie 1920s’ clown and tramway gave way to klaun and tramvaj – but that that was decades ago, and now the “historic” spelling sticks out like a sore thumb.). The inevitable conflict with other editors escalated into the admin’s departure with a bang, to start “his own Wikipedia”.

The moral is, I think, that what you might perceive a pleasant idiosyncratic quirk of a good writer (perhaps lending him a mask of a sophisticated, pedantic smart-ass – in a good way), can be detrimental in collaborative writing, and perhaps not the best choice for a translator. Too much personality.

Possibly a parallel to this ise/ize thing, or am I exaggerating?


 

Łukasz Gos-Furmankiewicz  Identity Verified
Poland
Local time: 12:27
English to Polish
+ ...
Personality May 16, 2014

Whatever you say about too much personality in a translator, how much should there be in a proofreader?

 
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