x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

As a punctuation vigilante, I am adopting a mellower outlook

But when the eyes and ears are assaulted each day by the liberties taken with the language, it is reassuring to come across the simplest examples of correct usage.

There are many ways of showing we care about the use of English. The options range between trying to lead by example and going out on patrol in the manner of Stefan Gatward, of Tunbridge Wells, south-eastern England, who painted the missing apostrophe on a street sign because he could no longer bear to live in St Johns Close. But when the eyes and ears are assaulted each day by the liberties taken with the language, it is reassuring to come across the simplest examples of correct usage.

After my granddaughter's first day at nursery, I was delighted to read a report of her activities that observed every relevant rule of grammar and spelling. For some reason, it was particularly heartening to see that Maya had been "practising her walking". So many people fail to make the distinction between practice as noun and practise as verb that the nursery nurse's precision was commendable. That is not to denigrate, as a whole, the American practice of practising different rules of English. I do believe, however, that the United States is the only country of the English-speaking world, by which I mean where English is the native language, to favour the -ice ending for practice in all cases.

Much as this may surprise some of my American colleagues and friends, I do not suggest for a second that there is only one acceptable form of written and spoken English. It is right that any self-respecting publication should decide which form to use, as The National did when opting for British English, and that it should make every effort to stick to its preference. But I can identify clarity and elegance whatever the background and customs of the person using the language.

The English I speak and write is a long way from what is known as the Queen's English. I find many of Britain's regional accents attractive, and have a slight one of my own. The writers and speakers I most enjoy do not originate exclusively in the British Isles. I am as likely to read Ernest Hemingway or John Grisham, and listen to (early) Dylan or Leonard Cohen, as to pick up a book by George Orwell or choose records by British and Irish songwriters, whose work is often influenced by Americans in any case.

As regular readers of My Word know, I have consistently argued for flexibility, even in the enforcement of this newspaper's style guide. Many Americanisms are now so commonplace that it would be ridiculous to forbid their use. Only when there is clear conflict do I insist on British usage; I bridle at "gotten" for got or "alternate" for alternative, both of which have appeared recently on our website. But I am untroubled by apartment/flat, cookie/biscuit and whether friends agree to meet on or in Hamdan Street.

Have I mellowed? Those American colleagues may think so. But if any of them contributed to my leaving presents when I returned to Europe, they must take some credit. For no book this year has given me greater pleasure than one of the gifts, the 1877 edition of Bartlett's Dictionary of Americanisms. Even as I type, it is open at a page quoting another writer's rant at the "inelegant as well as absurd" use of female as a noun for woman or girl. Mr Bartlett confines himself to noting the usage before saying he and his collaborators do not "indorse" - American for endorse - the writer's grammatical criticism.

There is no separate entry for practice/practise and I have so far found no trace in the book of an opinion on the matter. I shall regard that omission as clear authority to abandon, for once, my spirit of tolerance and declare that the nursery nurse is right and the Americans are not only alone but wrong. Colin Randall is a contributing editor to The National and may be contacted at crandall@thenational.ae