In Praise of the Queen’s English

First, a PSA: Grantville Gazette VI, edited by Eric Flint and published by Baen Books, is on the stands now. It contains my story Suite for Four Hands, which is part of a series of stories exploring how musicians of the early 17th century might react if the music of the late 20th century was dropped in their laps. Check it out.

Now, on with today’s post.

What do the following words have in common?

Slept, dreamt, leapt, burnt, dwellt, swept.

They are all representatives of a class of irregular verbs. Four of them are also examples of a trend by American publishers to ‘regularize’ many irregular verbs in American usage. You’ve seen it, even though it may not have registered with you. Dreamed instead of dreamt, burned instead of burnt, dwelled instead of dwellt. (Slept and swept have somehow managed to avoid being replaced with sleeped and sweeped.)

This is apparently an American movement. The rest of the English-speaking world seems to be doing fine being irregular with irregular verbs. Now, I am not particularly an Anglophile. (But I’m not an Anglophobe, either.) Outside of Charles Dickens, C.S. Lewis, and J.R.R. Tolkien, I’m not especially fond of English writers per se. (And I’m not sure why I like Dickens-I just do.) Most of the ‘classics’ of English Literature leave me in a state of vast ennui. I will even admit to having successfully managed to avoid reading Shakespeare throughout my high school and college careers.

That said, I must stand up and shout against this trend in American publishing. Author C. J. Cherryh probably described the background and circumstances better than I can in a post a number of years ago. But regardless of the whys and wherefores of the trend, the fact remains that by removing the usage of these irregular verbs, publishers and copy-editors are removing tools from our writers’ tool chests. They are removing richness and flavor from our writing. They are, in fact, reducing our ability to write in distinctive styles. And I find that deplorable.

When I write, I quite frequently use particular words to create specific effects in the reader; ‘aural’ effects, for lack of a better term. In my mind, and to my ear, ‘dreamed’ has a different effect than ‘dreamt’. And I’m not rigidly locked in to one form or the other, although I have noticed that I tend to use ‘dreamed’ forms more in science fiction and ‘dreamt’ forms more in fantasy. But regardless of the genre, if I use one over the other, it’s because I want the effect of that specific word in the passage at hand.

I guess I’m funny that way. People can criticize my plots or my characterizations and I’ll listen with an open mind. And most of the time I’ll take criticism of my narrative and dialogue without getting particularly upset. But for some reason, if after due consideration I choose a specific word to create a particular effect, to have someone object to the use of that word really rubs my fur the wrong way. Of course, as a new author, the state of my fur may not be the copy-editor’s highest priority. Which, while probably appropriate from the consideration of publishing as a business, is unfortunate from the consideration of the craft and art of writing.

But today, the rise of e-publishing and the freedom it provides for self-publishing is creating changes in the traditional publishing models, and some of these arbitrary rules may not be a factor much longer. One can only hope.

So I sing the praise of irregular verbs! Join the chorus when it comes around.

About David Carrico

David is a member of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America. He has been writing since 1977, but made his first sale in 2004. Most of his work has been written in Eric Flint's Ring of Fire universe, and has either appeared in The Grantville Gazette electronic magazine (http://grantvillegazette.com) or in the anthologies Grantville Gazette III, Grantville Gazette IV, Ring of Fire II, Grantville Gazette V, and the forthcoming Grantville Gazette VI and Ring of Fire III.

7 responses on “In Praise of the Queen’s English

  1. John Wiswell

    I don’t see what flavor or dexterity these verbs ending in ‘t’ rather than ‘ed’ offer a writer, outside of perhaps a rhyming poet. Maybe it affords some dialogue tricks? But anything goes in dialogue, so they’d still be admissible. I wish you’d gone into what applications of irregular verbs you appreciate rather than sticking to abstract protest, because in this scheme of things all I can think is normalizing conjugation makes it easier for people learning English as a second language. It’s already difficult enough.
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  2. KylieQ

    I haven’t really noticed this happening here in Australia but then American word usage does tend to be somewhat different to ours (please, can’t you just get rid of the Zs and be done with it!)

    In thinking about these words, dreamed/dreamt and burned/burnt particularly stand out to me as words I would use interchangeably depending on the effect I wanted (and, as you mentioned, perhaps the genre). If I wanted short, sharp words for a fast-paced segment, I would probably use dreamt and burnt rather than the slower dreamed and burned.

    To me, burnt is a word I would particularly use with any sort of witchcraft reference (for some reason, in my head, it has to be burnt at the stake, not burned at the stake).

  3. Evan

    I get it, David. The words are both used commonly here in Canada, too. I understand the “aural effect” argument you and Kylie make, but the part of me that likes to be consistent makes me want to make the use of these words uniform. So if I use “dreamt” once, I feel compelled to stick with that throughout an entire book.

    In any event, I don’t find it terribly upsetting. Though I am extremely fond of other Anglo/Canadian spellings — colour, honour, neighbour, clamour, etc. I hate simplifying those, and hate even more when American proofreaders comment on them…

  4. David C

    @ John – perhaps I’m a bit of a frustrated Romantic. I do understand your point about “normalization”. Indeed, according to C J Cherryh’s post that I linked to, that is one of the arguments used in support of this trend back when it all started. But that is just side-stepping the point, which is this: when an author who has learned his/her craft well enough to sell consistently makes a considered choice to use an irregular verb, a copy-editor shouldn’t be changing the form of that verb just because someone in the publishing house forty years ago said “all verbs should be regular in form.” It can change the shape of a story.

    Example in point: the two most recent novels in P.C. Hodgell’s Kencyrath series are entitled “Bound In Blood” and “Honor’s Paradox”. Both are published by Baen Books, and the second has just been released. In those two novels there is a character named “The Burnt Man”. I promise you, that name in that form has an impact, a frisson of horror, that the form “The Burned Man” does not have. Granted, in this case the verb is actually acting as an adjective, but the point is the same. I don’t know if Ms. Hodgell had to contest with anyone at Baen to keep Burnt–probably not, because Baen tends to be pretty practical about most stuff. But I know she would have at some publishers.

    @ Evan – oh, I wouldn’t switch back and forth in a single work. Whatever form I started with for a work, I’d use it consistently. I’d even be consistent in a multi-work series, for that matter.

    But again, the point is not that I object to one over the other. It’s that if I make a conscious choice to use one for a particular effect, I object to it being changed just because a publisher may have a policy of “Regular verbs, good; irregular verbs, not good.”

  5. leigh

    I agree with Kylie. The percussiveness of the shorter spelling is very indicative of a particular mood. The American versions are softer, less forceful, so I would very much choose one over the other depending on what I’m trying to put across. Although, what’s wrong with the letter Z?

    As Evan pointed out, the Anglo version of these words are still in use, just on in regular usage in the US, so I doubt we’ll ever see them go away. It’s just an annoyance us fiction writers have to deal with. Much of what we do is subjective, based on what effect we’re going for. It’s the same with punctuation and grammar. We don’t stick to the rules as much as someone writing for non-fiction or everyday usage. Unfortunately, we just have to deal with proofreaders and copyeditors who are sticklers for a set format.

    And everyone with issues like this needs to learn one word when dealing with people who want to change your prose out of a need to “standardize” things. Stet. It means, “Leave it the %&$* alone!” It’s an option open to everyone, and one every writer should feel safe to brandish it in defense of their prose.

  6. Colette

    In the same thread, what are your views on new-age slang? Something I’ve been hearing more often, and I believe I actually heard it in a movie recently, was using the German “uber” in conjunction with an English word. i.e. “He’s uber-hot!” My kids use it often, but when I placed it in a ms, one of my readers freaked because it wasn’t even a “real” word. I think any word– past or present, real or created–should be fair game in our toolboxes. It’s like mixing paints to create distinctive color.

  7. David C

    @Colette

    In dialogue, everything is fair game as long as it’s intelligible to the reader, other than avoiding historical anachronisms. No teen-age pages in the court of Henry VIII going “Cool!”

    In narrative, everything should be fair game, with the observation that the vocabulary should be consistent with the genre and the writing style.

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