Wordy Wednesday: Regionalisms, A Cautionary Tale

Guys. I’m at the Eagle and Child right now. I AM WRITING AT THE EAGLE AND CHILD RIGHT NOW. (So yes, it’s a blog post rather than some brilliant work of fiction, but still. I AM FLIPPING. OUT.)

I’ll put up a post dedicated to our trip to Wales soon, but for now this week’s Wordy Wednesday is a writing process post.

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I’ve been at Oxford for about a month now and the setup for my class so far has involved writing one paper a week, based on the readings and lectures.

My first two papers went pretty well. Of our two professors, the same one read both papers, and she mainly left comments like “good argument” or “this needs more fleshing out.”

Then we reached our third paper.

This third paper was on the topic of the various representations of evil in Narnia and Middle Earth, focusing on the way Lewis and Tolkien treat evil in relation to their protagonists.

It was a fun paper to write and after the way my previous two papers had gone, I figured I’d get decent comments on it. Some constructive criticism, some compliments. Nothing too bad.

Nope.

Because of a mix up with rearranging classes due to being in Wales for four days, I ended up in a tutorial with the professor who hadn’t read one of my papers yet. The tutorial consisted of the prof, two other students, and me (my class is too big to warrant the usual one-on-one tutorial system Oxford runs on).

We spent the majority of the hour discussing the themes of our papers and it seemed to be going pretty well.

But then it came time for the professor to give us our individualized critiques. And she chose to give me mine last so that the other two wouldn’t have to sit through it.

And when she did slip into the seat beside me to go over the critique, she had absolutely COATED my paper in hurried scribbles of ink.

My stomach turned. My palms itched with moisture.

“Don’t worry,” she said. “It’s not that your paper’s terrible. It’s just that it could be a lot better.”

At which point she took it upon herself to tear my paper to shreds for primarily stylistic reasons—the worst being my use of regionalisms.

I’ve never thought of myself as someone who uses a ton of regionalisms in my formal writing. In conversations and fiction and blog posts? Sure. Totally. In formal papers written for classes and applications and stuff? NE. VER.

This, however, ignores the fact that generally the people reading my formal writing live somewhere in the USA. And this professor obviously does not.

So while the word “sects” is perfectly legitimate to use in description of different common types of Christianity in the United States, it’s apparently super offensive in the United Kingdom. Only to be used to describe the “radical extremists.” And I had this word right in the middle of my opening sentence, to describe the way Lewis was protestant while Tolkien practiced Catholicism.

This was just one of several regionalisms the prof pointed out throughout my paper as offensive, or simply WRONG, errors.

If I had realized these words were regional to the United States, I wouldn’t have used them in a paper for a class at Oxford. But I didn’t realize. Which is the point I’m getting to.

No matter where you live—whether it be Michigan or England or freaking Narnia—you will have words and phrases in your vocabulary that are specific to your region. This is okay when writing about and for your region, but when you expand either your setting or audience to somewhere beyond this, it’s important to be aware of these regionalisms. Losing or offending your audience (as I repeatedly did in my paper) is NOT a fun time.

So if you’re a New Yorker writing about someone who’s grown up in England, be aware that “pants” refer to American underwear and “trousers” refer to American pants. If you’re from Houston, writing about Detroit, be aware that we call carbonated beverages “pop,” not soda or Coke.

Regionalisms are so important in writing. They can either make or break your setting and character development. They show either an awareness of your audience or a complacent ignorance.

Don’t be that writer who uses “sects” to describe what the British strictly call “denominations.” Or you will find yourself having a very awkward conversation with your professor to explain that no, you do not think C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien were religious extremists—and yes, believe it or not, you do know how to speak English. Yours just happens to be a different version of it.

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Thanks for reading! Keep an eye out for that Wales post if you want to see a multitude of crappy iPhone photos that in no way encapsulate how truly gorgeous Wales is.

 

~Julia

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5 thoughts on “Wordy Wednesday: Regionalisms, A Cautionary Tale

  1. I understand the difference in connotation (being an Englishman who grew up in an Anglican household) – having the Church of England, for example, referred to as a “sect” would seem off. But the reaction of your Prof seems a bit…extreme? I proofread for some of my living, so I do a lot of red pen work (although I use yellow highlighter on Word). This is going to make me feel bad about being so strict.
    I deeply sympathise with your issue, and i think the biggest problem is that regionalisms don’t sound wrong to the person using them – it’s only the stranger who’ll point them out. And I say this as someone living in Canada, where saying “car park” got raised eyebrows once or twice….

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  2. Don’t feel bad about this at all. Divided by a common language, right?

    You should use your time at Oxford to find as many of these regionalisms as you can, because really there’s no other way to find them than through experience. Thank the professor for taking the time to teach you about these, and ask her to please keep letting you know when she notices them in your writing. I’m sure she will anyway, but it’ll help your confidence if you feel it’s okay to make a faux pas like this — once for each, of course.

    By the way, I grew up in Britain, though I’ve lived in Japan for the past 14 years, and I had forgotten that we didn’t use the word “sect” as an everyday word. This is because it’s commonplace here to refer to different sects of Buddhism. My point isn’t that this is right or wrong, just that each country has its own way of talking about things — even the non-English speaking countries.

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  3. This is a fantastic point – and one that I hadn’t really thought about before. (And I had no idea about the word sects, so thanks for letting me know!) Your experience doesn’t sound like fun, but don’t be too harsh on yourself – no one is perfect, and you can’t be expected to know every little nuance of every version of English. Now that you know to be aware of and avoid regionalisms, hopefully you won’t be in that position again. 🙂

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  4. Yes, there are definitely some differences between UK English and USA English. (Never thought about the “sects” word though.) I guess that was a good lesson to learn.

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