Interview with Stan Carey

Stan Carey
Stan Carey

Grammarist is proud to feature an interview with Stan Carey, the Irishguistarian-er.

Please introduce yourself and provide some background information.

I’m Stan Carey, a freelance writer and editor from Ireland. I trained as a scientist, thought about becoming a musician, then got hooked on language. I write about it at Sentence first, Macmillan Dictionary Blog, and elsewhere. Most of my work is editing and proofreading reports, books, academic and business texts, advertising copy, and so on.

What inspired you to start writing your blog, “Sentence First?”

It began as a spin-off of my freelance editing and proofreading work – somewhere to discuss grammar, usage, and common problems with writing. It was pretty dry at first, but I relaxed into it and started covering other language-related topics: dialects, slang, etymology, book reviews, the politics of usage, language history and evolution, and offbeat stuff like wordplay, conlangs, weird headlines, and linguistic humour. Have you met Indo-European Jones?

What is it about “Sentence First” that has made it such a successful blog?

Maybe the Irish accent, or the Alice in Wonderland reference.

How has blogging changed language? How we use language?

It hasn’t changed it much, I think. It may have nudged it towards greater informality, but that was happening anyway. It can help popularise internet slang or verbal fads, like doge, lolspeak, I can’t even, and because X, as well as emoticons, emoji, and initialisms like OMG and WTF. Some of these phrases and sublanguages have spread offline; others remain peripheral or ephemeral. Social media and the internet have probably accelerated language change because we’re exposed to many more styles, informal usages, and regional variants than we would otherwise have encountered.

What is so interesting about language/grammar to you?

I’ve always been drawn to nature and biology, and language is one of its more compelling phenomena – not least because we use it to think and communicate with. As the Modest Mouse song goes, it’s the liquid that we’re all dissolved in. Once you start looking closely at language it opens up worlds of wonder, be it the complex choreography of speech or syntax or the transporting effects of a novel or poem. Sometimes language gets in our way, but it’s hard to imagine human life without it.

What are the main differences between American English and Irish English?

I don’t know what counts as a main difference, but there are lots of modest differences in the dialects’ grammar, phonology, and vocabulary. Many of these are due to the strong influence here of the Irish language, which has coloured Irish English vernacular with idiosyncratic features such as amn’t, the “after perfect”, and subject contact clauses. Our spelling tends to align with UK norms.

What do you think is your unique contribution to the English language?

Everyone who uses a language to communicate with other people makes a unique contribution to it. Mine isn’t much different from anyone else’s. One way to bring something new to English is by inventing words, and I like to do that. (Been there, sold the T-shirt.) I don’t expect any of my whimsical coinages to catch on, but there’s hope yet for portmonsteau, ineptnorant, apostrophantom and the gang.

What do you feel is your greatest accomplishment in the world of language/grammar?

Acquiring it in the first place! Grammar is very complex and never sits still. Modern grammar books can run to over a thousand pages and still not come close to covering it all. Picking it up as a child is no mean feat, so I’m grateful to my infant self and my family for all the hard work decades ago. I appreciate it.

Why should anyone be more interested in linguistics/grammar?

I’m not one for telling people what they should be interested in. But grammar has an unfortunate image in the popular imagination, often being identified with specious pseudo-rules rather than being seen as the subtle structure underlying our natural linguistic expression. Anyone interested in human nature and the amazing range of our communication will find grammar and linguistics an endless source of interest.

If you could change the way people speak or write what would you suggest? Why does it matter?

I’d like to see more use of spontaneous verse and song. That would liven up my visits to the post office. Sometimes readers of my blog leave comments in rhyme, and I love that. Formal contexts aside we should feel more permitted to play with language instead of worrying about sounding proper all the time. Even Twitter is rife with correctness-bots policing casual usage. People forget, or don’t quite believe, that language is theirs to experiment with. It matters because sticklers for “correctness” often abuse and belittle others for breaking rules that don’t even apply.

What are the three most critical errors made most often?

I don’t know about the most critical, but here are three I often see. (1) Believing that hyperformal language is preferable or impressive. It isn’t. Saying something like “We hereby wish to acknowledge receipt of your correspondence” instead of “Thank you for writing” makes you sound remote, out of touch, and barely human. (2) Believing that non-standard = substandard, or that informal = incorrect. These are common assumptions, but they’re misguided and harmful. They often correlate with the belief that language is deteriorating, but it isn’t – it just changes. (3) Using it’s for its. Hey, I’m allowed a trivial peeve too.

Anything else?

I talk about language a lot on Twitter, so you can also find me there if you want.

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