global English

Calling the register

I’ve just bought a newly-published book about life in an English Grammar School in the 1940s. Long, long before my time (obviously), and not the usual sort of memoir that attracts me. But this one is slightly different, not only because the school in question is the one that I went to many years later, but because the author had by then returned as a member of staff and was my form teacher when I was in 2B. (Aged 13. They call it year 8 now.)

Of course, when you’re 13 and some ancient pedagogue (though he was only, I now realise, 33) plasters red ink all over your best attempt at creative writing, you get the feeling that he must be an oracle and can do no wrong in matters of English grammar and style. So it’s quite an eye-opener to see an extended stretch of his prose laid out before me, and quite tempting to read it with red pen in hand.

One of the things I remember about his English lessons was that he made great efforts to get us to understand the importance of appropriate register. This is a tricky area, and the difficulties are shared by young native speakers as well as learners of English as a foreign language. How do you express willingness or enthusiasm for example? Are you keen on something? Dead keen on it? Exceedingly enthusiastic about it? The sort of exercise he would give us would be to take a job advertisement and ask us to write two different versions of an application, one in very informal (and thus inappropriate) English, and one in formal, much more appropriate English.

In our enthusiasm, we would usually overegg the pudding on the formal version and dream up something unbelievably pompous along the lines of:

Dear Sir,
With regard to your advertisement in the local newspaper of the 10th inst, I should like to avail myself of this opportunity to submit for your kind consideration my application for the post of head chef in your esteemed establishment’s kitchen. As you will see from the enclosed CV, I have long had a passion for haute cuisine and am cordon bleu trained …

and then gleefully translate it into something even more inappropriate such as:

I clocked your ad in the local rag last week and I’m well up for the gig. I’m dead keen on all kinds of grub and can knock up a mean beans on toast …

It was certainly more fun than conjugating Latin verbs – a bothersome task that was inflicted both on the author and later on me by the same ‘Mac’ McIver.

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Stephen Bullon


  • Hi Margit

    there’s a saying in English: different strokes for different folks. It means that what some people find enjoyable other people might not. Latin verbs have a bit of a reputation in Britain – they’re considered to be difficult and, well, not very interesting. But I have to say that I wish I’d put a bit more effort into them when I was 13. It’s not till later on in life that you realise that all the stuff you tried to ignore at school is actually quite useful.

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