English Plus+ News, July 2003

What is a Copyright?

Recently there has been increased attention to copyright violators, especially from the music recording industry. This is a newsletter on the English language. We are not here to discuss legal ins and outs. We just want to take a look at the word copyright and what it suggests.

What a Copyright Is Not
First of all, the word copyright is tricky because people misspell it, thinking it is related to the word write rather than the word right. How many web sites have you seen that say "copywrite 2002" or something similar?

The confusion here is simple to understand. Copyrighting is most often connected with things that are written. So people think that the root of copyright is write because writers often have their works copyrighted, and the copyright is violated when someone else writes what they have already written.

In recent years the confusion over the spelling has increased because businesses and advertisers sometimes hire copy writers--a person who writes advertising copy. The word copy in this sense means, "material presented for printing." As happens so often in English, now the term which started out as a noun phrase is used as verb. While it is still more standard for an advertiser to say, "I spent all day writing copy," we do hear people say, "I spent all day copy writing." Occasionally the phrase will be written as a compound word--e.g., copywriter.

By the way, this illustrates the problem of relying solely on spell checkers for proofreading. Written copy that confused copy write and copyright would not be detected since all words are spelled properly. The question is not one merely of spelling, but of meaning.

What the Word Copyright Implies
Actually the word copyright contains a very simple concept. It is made up of the word copy, which as a noun means here, "a duplicate, reproduction, or imitation of an original work." The other word in this compound is right, "a privilege or authority one can legally claim."

Very simply, copyright means "the right to make copies." That is all.

A person or corporation who owns a copyright owns the legal right to make copies of that work. If people want to make a copy of that work, they have to get the permission of the copyright owner to do so. In most cases the copyright owner is the person or corporation who created or published the work. In the past it appeared unfair that the people who put all the work into writing something or creating a work of art should then have others copy their work without compensating them in some way. So copyright laws were developed.

For a long time, copyright violations were fairly easy to catch and recognize. If someone printed a copy of a book or an article, we could see it clearly. If someone performed a song or a play, we could hear it clearly. If the printer or performer did not have permission to copy the work, the situation was usually fairly straightforward.

Who Had the Right to Hobbits?
About forty years ago, for example, an American publisher printed and sold copies of the British classic The Lord of the Rings without the permission of J.R.R. Tolkien or his English publisher. The case was clear. The American publisher had to quit producing those books and had to compensate Tolkien for copying his material.

Even today, if you were to go to a photocopy store and ask for multiple copies of more than a few pages of a book or magazine, the store would refuse to do it unless you could demonstrate that you had permission to make the copies or that the material was not copyrighted.

The advent of magnetic and digital recording has made copying things much easier, but the principle is still the same: Do you have the right to make a copy?

Note: We did not write this because of any concern about people copying the software of English Plus+ or to take sides in the current music file sharing lawsuits, but simply to take a look at the literal meaning of the word copyright.

Writing Styles and Standards in English

Grammar Slammer and most other grammar and style books and references speak of various ways in which the language is used. We hear of standard English and nonstandard English. We hear of formal or informal speech. What do these terms mean, and how can they help us. (Note: sometimes the words standard and nonstandard are capitalized when used in this context. Whichever way you choose, be consistent.)

Where Does This Come From?
Different languages and cultures will look to various authorities to set standards for their language. In some cases there are none. Let me use a few illustrations from other lands and languages.

In China, the standard pronunciation for Mandarin Chinese is the dialect of the Xi'an region. This was an early capital of the China, and so most Chinese see it as closest to the origin of the language.

France established the French Academy to rule on what is proper in the French language. The Academy sets the standards, and the French textbooks follow them. Since the 1960's when most French colonies became independent, the French Academy has included members from former colonies so that the standards are applied as widely as possible.

Greece has many distinctive local dialects. When Greece became independent after nearly five hundred years of Turkish rule, the government adopted katharevousa, or "purified" Greek. It was an artificial language based on the Greek roots meant to be widely understood. In the last hundred and fifty years, however, the katharevousa has become identified more with certain elites rather than with the Greek nation. Its use became a political issue, and in many places it is ignored or resented.

English has nothing like any of this--no principle of origin, no authority, no government-ordained pure language. It is spoken in many countries. Even in England today there are many dialects. There is no academic or governmental authority to rule on what good English is or is not. Still, since the advent of the printing press, English speaking people have developed standards.

Standard English
Standard English comes from two main sources--editors, both of books and periodicals, and the schools. This means that there is not always uniformity. However, anyone who reads English frequently can begin to see there are certain standards, and that written English is not quite the same as everyday spoken English. Indeed, people often speak of standard English as standard written English, or SWE. The standards are in place for one very simple reason--to communicate effectively with as wide of an audience as possible.

Indeed, in most cases where writers did not use standard English, they were consciously writing for a more narrow audience. We see this with the Scots' poetry of Roberts Burns, for example. He also wrote many poems in standard English, but some he wrote in the Scots' dialect specifically for a Scottish audience or to evoke a certain atmosphere.

Most grammar texts, style sheets, and writing guides use standard English. Some specific details may vary slightly, but the purpose is for clarity and communication, and they are largely uniform.

Sometimes standard English is further divided into formal and informal English. This is mostly a matter of setting and tone. Formal English is used in most literate writing and most business communications. Clarity and precision are important. Formal English does not have to be pompous or complicated, but it is precise and clear.

Informal English is still grammatically correct, but it may use certain words or techniques that would be avoided in formal speech or writing. A good example is the use of verb contractions. There is nothing incorrect about verb contractions. They are a reflection of the way most English speakers talk. In informal writing--a personal note or memo, for example--they are fine. However, in any kind of formal writing, the words are spelled out.

Informal: He doesn't know what happened yesterday.
Formal: He does not know what happened yesterday.
Informal English is more casual. It is appropriate when you need a less formal or more personal tone. Informal language is sometimes called colloquial.

Nonstandard English
Nonstandard refers to terms or practices which are not recognized as standard English. In most cases, there are one of several reasons for something being nonstandard. There could be a problem in logic which makes for confusion or ambiguity. Dangling modifiers or incorrect subject-verb agreement are examples from everyday speech which are nonstandard for this reason. In some cases, the expression is simply not commonly used or understood. Jargon and slang often fall into this category. In some cases, the language is considered rude, offensive, or impolite. Oaths and profanity would be examples of this. Dialect would also be considered nonstandard. Writers sometimes use dialect to illustrate the speech of a particular region, but to write a whole work in a dialect would be confusing to those unfamiliar with the dialect.

The novel Jane Eyre has an example of Yorkshire dialect when a person in the book says, "You are all redd up and made decent." Redd up is a term that many English speakers are unfamiliar with, but if you were from Yorkshire, England, or Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA, you probably would have heard or used the term. It is accepted; it is not slang or jargon; but neither is it standard.

Style and Other Considerations
Usually when authorities disagree over usage, the question is one of formal vs. informal. There are very few uses which some would consider standard and some nonstandard.

A lot of what is considered standard writing is a question of style. For example, the PSAT, an American college entrance examination, contains a Test of Standard Written English. While some of the questions are about grammar, most are about style. Which way of saying something sounds more precise, more clear, more organized?

Why does the PSAT not test merely grammar? In all cases we are looking for the best way to communicate.

We are hoping that the reference files in Grammar Slammer will help you not only understand SWE, but that they will make you are better and more effective communicator.

May all your anguish be vanquished,
Your friends at English Plus+

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