Write Direction

Now here’s a sentence I never thought I’d write. Harry Styles, the long-maned cougar magnet from One Direction is my new hero.

It isn’t because of his dulcet tones or raunchy lifestyle. It isn’t even because of his good looks, he’s not my type. No, dear Harry has grown to superstar status in my eyes because he called a banner-wielding fan forward at a concert at Philadelphia during his On the Road Again tour the other night and … corrected her grammar.

The unfortunate fan, 16-year-old Taelor Ford, had scrawled Hi Harry! Your So Nice and that was enough for the new and unlikely head of the grammar police. The poster ended up on stage, out came the pen and in went the missing apostrophe and extra ‘e’. He then held up the corrected version with a scowl fit for a vinegary schoolmarm. This was what made it for me. Yes, our Harry was as offended as I am by an errant missing apostrophe. Who knew?

So now I am looking forward to The Harry Styles Guide to Punctuation and The Harry Styles Grammar Book. And if he needs a ghostwriter …

Can Language Influence Our Saving Habits?

It’s obvious that our native tongue is going to have an influence on how we view the world. As a language teacher I spent many a happy hour teaching the conceptual difference between the present continuous, the future simple and the “going to” future and the intentions these different forms convey.

We native English speakers view time in chunks. It’s also amazing how most of us who write from left to write also view the past on the left and the future on the right.

I was fascinated to discover that behavioural economist Keith Chen has found a provable link between the way languages describe the future and that population’s saving habits. It throws up so many more questions!

See what you make of his astounding Ted Talk here.


Is Letter Writing a Lost Art?


From when we moved to Italy in June 1994 right up until a few months before my dear Mum died last December, I wrote her a letter every week. A handwritten letter with drawings, bits cut from magazines and pasted to the paper, sometimes with enclosures like photos, sometimes just plain letters. And she wrote back to me.

Every so often I read through the hundreds of letters she sent me. They make me laugh and yes, cry too, as her humour comes shining through the lines. I’m transported back to her house, her kitchen, her little dog, her daily life and the years melt away.

There’s something about a letter, a proper letter, that forever holds the energy of of the person who wrote it. It’s rather magical really.

Compulsory Letter Writing

And so I read with interest a Daily Mail report on the latest UK government plans for the 2014 curriculum. Key Stage 3 pupils (11-14) should be able to ‘write accurately, frequently and at length, with increasing fluency and sophistication’ through ‘personal and business letters using the correct form’ as well as other forms including stories, poems and essays.

Apparently the fear is that too much texting has caused kids to lose the ability to write a letter. Some teenagers can’t even do joined up handwriting apparently! (Actually I can well believe that as my own handwriting is much worse since I started doing almost all my writing on my computer or iPad.)

So writing a personal letter would kill two birds with one stone: kids can practise their handwriting while also learning things like salutations, dates and even how to spell sincerely correctly apparently.

I actually think this is a good thing. Using text, messaging or email feels different from writing with a pen. There are some novelists, more than you would think, who write in longhand first in a notebook or similar and then transcribe it later, and these include Stephen King and J.K.Rowling.

Handwriting Stimulates the Brain

They are not being old fashioned, as brain scans shows that handwriting uses more parts of the brain than typing does. It also helps us remember better and stimulates creativity.

In an article in the Wall Street Journal, Gwendolyn Bounds writes: “Virginia Berninger, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Washington, says handwriting differs from typing because it requires executing sequential strokes to form a letter, whereas keyboarding involves selecting a whole letter by touching a key.

She says pictures of the brain have illustrated that sequential finger movements activated massive regions involved in thinking, language and working memory—the system for temporarily storing and managing information.”

So dust off your fountain pen and buy yourself some luscious handmade paper, open up your address book and send someone a handwritten letter. Not only will it make their day, it will make you – and your brain – feel good too.



Sometimes It’s Easier in English

Just before I went back to the UK for a week's holiday at my Mum's last Thursday I went to the local hairdresser for some age-defying highlights. 

I'm lucky in that our Italian village has its own hairdresser, Laura, who is great and used to my odd foreign ways. I first went there accompanied by Mikey the little terrier we rescued and he sat in the shop while I had my hair cut and Laura just accepted this oddity with her usual aplomb.

That day I also met her husband Carlo who had popped in for a haircut too. No-one speaks English so the conversation was totally in Italian. I asked him where he worked. 'Lavoro al cimentiera' he said.

    'You know in England we put people in the ground, we don't put them in the walls,' I informed him, keen to show off my knowledge of Italian cemeteries, where they do indeed put people in the walls.

'Really?' he said, looking somewhat bewildered by the turn the conversation had taken.

'We live near the cementeria,' I said by way of explanation.

'No Fiona, you live near the cimitero,' said Laura, snipping away. 'Carlo works in the cement factory.'

I am used to making howlers in Italian, it used to bother me, but now I just laugh and move on.  So when I saw Carlo again on my latest visit, accompanied by their new puppy, I was keen to show off my canine knowledge and increasing fluency. (I actually do speak pretty good Italian!) Their puppy was going through the biting stage and I wanted to tell them to make a high pitched sound when it bites you to make it stop.

'You know when puppies play together they bite?' I said using the verb 'muorono' for 'bite'

He looked at me. 'Mordono,' he said with a laugh.

Oh God! ' I said.  'Yes, mordono, of course!'

It appeared the cemetery mistake had affected me more than I thought and I had now told him that when puppies play, they die!  

Sometimes it's hard being a foreigner!

Ghostwriter or College Cheat’s Companion? The Sordid World of Paper Writing Services

I recently received the following email: Dear Madam, I see you are a ghostwriter. Can you help me? I must go to UK on a study holiday. Please can you give me your phone number so my teachers can call you and you can verify my work? Please can you write a report on my satisfactory work? Thank you.

I must admit my reply was disingenuous, rather than writing: No I won't you lazy cheat I said I didn't understand. Why could he not ask his real supervisor in the UK to phone and to write the report? Why did he need me? Of course, he didn't continue the correspondence! It left a nasty taste in my mouth, though. For him ''ghostwriter” was synonymous with “person who will help me cheat”. Well, you picked the wrong person, mate!

A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education  called The Shadow Scholar made me think of the whole murky sordid unethical area of essay writing services, called paper writing services in the US. The writer Ed Dante (not his real name) is supposedly coming clean about his academic paper ghostwriting service and how widespread cheating is in the academic world. But all I could think of was 'you unethical loser.' He boasts in the feature about how much he made writing in the stead of the hopeless, hapless and dishonest. He quotes examples from Ph.D students who can barely string a sentence together as if we're supposed to be horrified that they resort to his services. Well, hello? People have always cheated. The only horror I felt was that someone talented enough to write academic papers for other people had so shamelessly sold his soul to make money. For God's sake! Where are your morals, man? How many people have you helped get qualified and put in positions of responsibility who should never be there?

I am the daughter of older Scots parents with a razor sharp work ethic which has sliced its way into every area of my life. (It's probably why I can't ever 'relax' and always have to be on the go 'doing' something!) My father used to say 'Get your qualifications, they can never take them away from you.' And so I did. O levels, A levels, degree, three postgraduate qualifications (the most recent just four years ago!) And all of those involved study, sacrifice, hard work and, yes where Warwick University was concerned – a hell of a lot of partying too. But I still wrote all my essays myself. I once had to read 14 novels in two weeks because of leaving things to the last minute, but bloody hell, I did it. And I can say, hand on heart, that apart from telling everyone in my class at school to 'vote for me and I'll vote for you,' in the form captain election when I was six years old (and then promptly voting for myself – I won of course!), I have never cheated.

So here's my message to students – do the work yourself. You learn from your failures, stress is part of life and certainly part of the world of work – get over it!

But my message to people like Mr 'Dante'  is stronger than that. Shame on you.

Changes in the Language? I’m Loving It!

I know there are people out there whose teeth are set on edge by the many new words and expressions coming into the English language. The latest version of the Oxford Dictionary of English has over 2000 new entries, including vuvuzela (oh how we hated that during the World Cup!) and geo-engineering.

Adding new words and expressions and changing the pronunciation of existing ones is as old as the hills. Look at Shakespeare and you can see that, for example 'wind' – the noun for that feature of the weather – used to be pronounced to rhyme with 'find'. It is the mark of a vibrant and living language.

Some changes are transient- slang like 'groovy' and 'trendy (although 'cool' is now cool again) – others are with us as long as the phenomenon is relevant, such as those words connected with climate change.

I really like this aspect of English. It's fascinating to see the latest additions. So, at the risk of giving my more traditional husband apoplexy – bring it on , I'm loving it!