Nicky Grieshaber discusses his book, the empowerment of clear communication and macaroni and cheese

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“Is dit deur Nicky?”

This is probably the most asked question in the LitNet office. At LitNet, Nicky Grieshaber is known as The Proofreader. With a few regular exceptions (like blogs and notices) almost everything that appears on LitNet and LitNet Akademies has “gone through” Nicky (even this interview, which he will proofread while he answers the questions). What I knew about Nicky before I started doing research on him, is that he is equally proficient in Afrikaans and English. He will pick up mistakes like a metal detector will pick up a lost wedding ring on the front lawn. He makes people happy, because he can clarify situations by solving language problems. He is married, has three children (and a daughter-in-law and grandson), plays the piano and can cheer up all of the LitNet team on any given day.

Nicky has recently published a book titled Diacs and Quirks in a Nutshell – Afrikaans Spelling Explained.

Nicky, who are you – or how would you describe your profession(s)? (Is this one question? Feel free to unbundle it if you manage to separate your work and personal identities.)

Thank you very much for your very kind words, Naomi. I enjoy my relationship with all of you in the “full-time” LitNet office very much and admire you greatly for the workload you get through. If I manage to ease your burden by my contribution from the Last Outpost of the British Empire, then that makes me very happy indeed!

A shortish answer to your two-in-one question is that who I am is informed by my desire and commitment to live in a way that is consistent with the Christian faith I profess; to do what I do as well as I can; to be open to learning whatever new things I can from others; and to add value to people’s lives. Not exactly earth-shaking or original, and of course I don’t succeed all the time, but these “philosophies” have served as a solid and adequate foundation for my family life, my broader social life, and my professional life. Regarding the latter I am, as you know, primarily a language person. I believe in keeping language simple, unambiguous and as pure as possible, and when I change something in a text that I’m editing or proofreading I always try to make sure that if I were to be asked why I did so I would be able to provide a clear and well-motivated answer.

On your website you say you’re in the business of language (as you’ve also just stated). You accentuate the importance of communicating clearly. My original word of choice was "emphasize" but I had my doubts about the American "z" as opposed to the British "s" - which demonstrated this very principle. Afrikaans people often struggle with all the different nuances of the English language, the fact that there are so many different synonyms, for example. It is like entering a super mall in the United States and having to choose between different breakfast cereals: it can be overwhelming. My point is: we Afrikaans people tend to struggle to find the exact word when conversing in English. We can sound so silly so easily. But your book is written for English people who want to make themselves clear in Afrikaans. Why on earth?

You put yourself down unnecessarily, Naomi, and you’re far too apologetic – the average Afrikaans speaker is much better at English than most English people are at Afrikaans. But be that as it may … As you know, the definitive reference work on Afrikaans spelling, Afrikaanse Woordelys en Spelreëls (AWS), is written in fairly academic Afrikaans, and therefore assumes a readership made up of people who are – at the very least – quite proficient in the language. Yet there are hundreds of thousands of non-mother-tongue speakers of Afrikaans, both in South Africa and abroad, who cannot read and comprehend Afrikaans at that level, but who either need to know, or want to know, how the rules work. My book is aimed at “opening up” the rules – and also the AWS itself – to them. And, of course, being able to spell better contributes greatly to being able to communicate more clearly. So to use the modern (hopelessly overworked) buzzword, one might say it’s all about empowerment! I’m frankly astounded, I must add, that a book like this wasn’t written a long time ago – either before my own first (not very good) attempt in 2000, or since then.

Continuing with the same question in the same paragraph would have been too much, but I wasn't done with the second question. My view is that Afrikaans people in this country will read English books, but English people will not really read Afrikaans. Afrikaans as a language carries so much baggage, it is not even funny. Firstly, if I asked you to be a spokesperson for all of the English-speaking population who actually have an interest in Afrikaans, what is your view on this statement? And which language do you find most interesting, or which of the languages' mother-tongue speakers do you find make the most mistakes in their own language (or in the other one)? (How many questions were those rolled into two?)

I wouldn’t presume to be able to speak for “the English-speaking population”, partly because it is so diverse, and partly because I’m probably not all that representative of it, but you are probably right about Afrikaans people more readily reading English than vice versa. I would guess that in the case of many white English speakers this may have less to do with the baggage (if you’re referring to political baggage) of Afrikaans than with a sense of superiority towards Afrikaans and Afrikaners; for people of other groups the baggage probably is more of a factor. But these are obviously gross over-generalisations, since neither of us has been specific about factors like what parts of the country and what professional or socio-economic groups we’re talking about. Perhaps someone somewhere has researched this scientifically?

English and Afrikaans are interesting in different ways, as I’m sure you would agree. So may I take the liberty of suggesting we don’t pursue that question? The question you should not get me started on is which of the two languages’ speakers make the most mistakes. But too late! You’ve got me started. I am appalled and utterly unimpressed by how criminally reckless Afrikaners are with their language, as they capitulate to the pressures of English. I’ve heard someone say that Afrikaners no longer speak Afrikaans; they speak translated English. That is true of so many Afrikaans people. And the irony is that it seems to be particularly true of speakers/writers in the academic or semi-/para-academic fields, who should know better – or who should at least take the trouble to be more careful. Afrikaans’s own “idiom” is so beautiful and rich – why speak translated English? Why should I constantly be correcting monstrosities like “Is jy op vir dit?” (clearly from “Are you up for it?”) in LitNet pieces written by educated Afrikaans mother-tongue people? (I could also quote tons of more subtle examples.) I find it very frustrating and, frankly, highly irritating – not to mention disappointing.

Your book is described by a pre-publication reviewer as a “very useful and systematic reference guide for second-language users of Afrikaans who are not familiar with the underlying principles of Afrikaans spelling, the rules that apply and the correct use of the diacritics. All the challenging subject matter, exceptions and relevant rules are clearly and systematically explained and most important of all it is written in English. Indeed a must-buy for every South African, not only for those who need it for work purposes, but also for those who are intrigued by the language itself.” If there is only one principle you want to people to understand after reading this book, what would it be?

I suppose this is more of a fact than a principle, but it would be that diacritics make a big difference to the correct spelling and pronunciation, and hence the meaning, of words. (Since many people don’t know how to type characters with those diacritics, my book includes a page that tells them how to do so – Annexure A – so no excuses!) And in more general terms, that in the interest of clear, unambiguous communication – and equally importantly, out of courtesy for your intended reader – spelling correctly is a non-negotiable.

Your favourite font is Verdana 10-point. What is your pet hate when it comes to grammar mistakes?

Verdana is not my favourite font from an aesthetic point of view – it’s far too uninteresting for that! I latched on to it early on simply because I found it best for proofreading purposes.

Regarding grammar mistakes: in English it’s definitely those so-called dangling modifiers! In a current East Coast Radio ad for a particular brand of mattress one of the lines goes something like, “Being a pocket spring mattress you won’t feel your partner moving.” (I kid you not!) And from a published restaurant review: “Served on a potato rosti with avocado and crème fraiche, my mom loved the salmon.” Vaderland! In Afrikaans: any copied-from-English constructions (like the one I mentioned above) and the mindless, in-the-interest-of-coolness (?!) use of English words like “obviously” when there are perfectly good Afrikaans words to use. Aaarrrggghhh!

I read on your website about your wife's catering business. Which of her cakes is your favourite? Or any other favourite food?

Marilyn’s baking and catering business is very small and part-time – her “real” job is that of a high school English teacher. But to answer your question: her chocolate cakes, by far. She does a few delicious chicken dishes too, and then there is plain old potato and green beans and onions mixed and mashed together … and her macaroni and cheese … yum.

You describe Pietermaritzburg as your "city of choice". Are these your own words or a regional marketing phrase? Either way, what do you like (is “love” the correct word?) about KwaZulu-Natal?

“City of choice” is Pietermaritzburg’s marketing tagline. Some parts of KZN would not be my sub-regions of choice, but I like Pietermaritzburg, where I’ve lived and worked ever since my student days. The climate is wonderful (mostly), and we’re only a few kilometres away from the Midlands proper, with its beauty and tranquility. And then, of course, less than an hour away in the opposite direction we have that quaint little coastal town of Durban which up-countryites seem to find so irresistible. Pietermaritzburg is big enough to have most of the things one would want in a city, yet small enough almost to be a dorpie – we say you can get from any part of the city to any other part of it, suburbs included, in about 15 minutes, and that is almost literally true. And you are often likely to bump into people you know when you go to any of the shopping centres or various social events, for example – that’s probably not true of many cities.

Does it indeed feel as if you are doctor on call, the emergency doctor in the ICU, as if you are always on standby in your language business, for LitNet and for other businesses that utilise your services? Where do you find the joy when you are on duty 24 hours a day?

Yep, most times! And you would know. J Just three weeks ago I was in my car on my way to town one afternoon when you yourself, Ms Meyer, phoned me on my cell and said there was some really important submission that had to be proofread before such and such a time (which was about an hour away) and … um … So … U-turn, head back home, emergency procedure has to be performed, town has to wait. (Of course you weren’t to know I was in my car at that point, so you’re forgiven!) Joy? I really do enjoy most of what I do most of the time! And the fact that I’m a freelancer means a lot to me, because even with LitNet and its pressures (and the ad hoc demands of other clients), I know that with a bit of organisation I can go and play squash with my son, go shopping with my wife, or enjoy a business date with a friend at almost any time of any day – or even manage not to have to be glued to my PC all day long when a trip to Jozi or Durban occasionally becomes necessary. I would not trade that kind of freedom for anything. And ICU doctor on call or not, since I work from home I can pop over to the piano in our lounge any time I like when I need a break … It’s not all blood and gore being a medical … um, I mean language … practitioner!

Further details relating to the book (including the table of contents, a few pre-publication reviews and the full text of the foreword) can be found at Information on where and how to purchase both print and e-versions of the book is available on Nicky’s website.

Also read a review of Nicky’s book.

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