The Joy Of English With Jesse Karjalainen

As writers, it is our responsibility to know about grammar, language and words in general. Some people love wading in this stuff and Jesse K is one of them. Today we talk about the Joy of English!

Jesse “Kay” Karjalainen is a writer, journalist, sub-editor and fashion photographer. He’s the author of The Joy of English: 100 conversations about language. [Video below]

In the interview you will learn:

  • How Jesse discovered a love for all things language and a bit about his background.
  • On why language and grammar aren’t boring! The book is more about English usage and how to improve it, not just grammar. It’s like when you buy a computer for someone, you don’t buy them a book on programming, you buy them a book on how to do email & surf etc. So the book is about usage and not the nuts & bolts.
  • On the word ‘very’ and over-use of it. When you should use ‘very’ and when you shouldn’t
  • Can you use ‘And’ or ‘But’ to start a sentence?
  • On the model sentence and sentence fragments. The challenge of describing grammar without using grammatical language.
  • Active writing and breaking the cycle
  • Ideally, you should write without commas. More than 2 commas needs editing. I mention Umberto Eco’s latest book, The Prague Cemetery which has the longest opening sentence you can imagine. Are long sentences ever acceptable? There’s acceptance and there’s taste in writing.
  • Writing is about communication. It’s important that it’s enjoyable and not difficult for the reader.
  • On writing in British English vs American English. Some of the differences and how to decide which to use.
  • Some things that annoy us both :)
  • On tenses and mixing them up in writing.
  • On dialogue vs ‘proper’ english – so people say I’d rather than I would – this is contraction and is common in speech. Let’s have coffee vs Let us have coffee. Consistency is key.

The Joy of English is available at all online bookstores & local stores in the UK. You can find more information at

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  1. Doug Lance says

    I agree with removing “very”. I’d add to that “really” and most uses of the word “just”.

    More than two commas is perfectly fine! What about lists? And what about separate clauses, like this one, in the middle of sentences? I like my commas.

    There are times when passive voice is better. Emphasis of the sentence falls on the first noun mentioned. Active voice is more appropriate 9 times out of 10 but passive does have its uses.

    As an American, I can deal with “colour” and “theatre” but the slang of British English usually confuses me. I can imagine it would be difficult being an English author writing for an American audience, because all of the wonderful idioms and sayings of your culture are off limits.

    For dialog, it’s all about fitting in with the narrative. You wouldn’t want two children talking in grammatically perfect and proper English. But at the same time, throwing apostrophes in everywhere willy-nilly just serves to confuse the reader. I look to Mark Twain’s handling of the American Southern dialect as inspiration to walk the line between too casual and proper.

  2. says

    Fantastic podcast, Joanna. I am a grammar nut and so I guess it was only natural I should want to be a writer. I have to do better about correcting other people’s grammar all the time. They probably don’t appreciate it as much. :)

  3. says

    I enjoyed this pod cast. Most interesting was your discussion about ‘American’ versus ‘British’ style of grammar, vocabulary and punctuation. I am proudly Canadian, which puts my formal training in opposition to the North American norm (television and broadcast media). I find that my writing style has melded to combine the two, right, wrong or indifferent. Obviously, I must be more vigilant about my style.

  4. Bruce Head says

    I have a good example that illustrates Jesse’s point about British vs. American words and idioms and the potential unintended effect on the audience.

    I just finished “The Dark Fields” (2001) by Irish writer Alan Glynn (the novel was recently re-titled “Limitless” to match the title of the 2011 film based upon the book). It’s set in the United States, the main character is an American, and the book is written in first-person POV. While reading, I encountered the following British words and idioms:

    British “kerb” instead of American “curb”
    British “erm” instead of American “uh”
    British “paracetamol” instead of American “acetaminophen”

    These words did not occur frequently (a couple of times each), but each time I encountered one, it was enough to break the illusion of the fictional world and remind me of the author’s presence. Even worse, I found myself searching for additional British words as I continued to read (since the first instance of “kerb” occurred within the first few chapters). Perhaps if Glynn had used an American editor, these words would have been caught and replaced before publication.

    • says

      ooh, those are good ones – I used the word ‘conker’ in one of my books which an American pointed out as he didn’t know what the hell I was talking about – it’s horse chestnut across the pond!

  5. says

    Very, very interesting chat. 😀

    I must admit to being a grammar Nazi in my spare time, but there were still a number of points I took away. My favourite point was still the “clear communication” rule. I fight this in my science day job all the time. I am also going to look into some way of not using “I” all the time, considering most of my first novel is in the first person.


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