We launched this “On the Job” series to find out how people use English in their working lives. We talk to them about jargon in their profession, writing on the job and what advice they’d give to learners of English.


Helen Couchman


Who do you work for?

Helen Couchman: I work freelance. I am an artist working freelance on exhibitions and publications using mostly printmaking, drawing, photography and installation. I also take commissioned work. The commissioned work usually takes the form of photography, drawing and painting.

What is your position?

I am the accounts, marketing, legal, new business and continuity departments, as well as the director, all rolled into one. All these roles do not come naturally to me but I have slowly realised that they are all apparently necessary.

How important is being able to speak/write good English in your job?

I do not consider myself an accomplished writer and obviously there is more of an emphasis on the visual in my work. However, I would like to write well and even if I can’t reach a level that I set for myself I know that at the very least written communication should be presented as accurately as possible. I may be visual, but most of the world also expects us to communicate in writing. In fact, writing is something I have struggled with and have at times been very frustrated with as I am dyslexic.

Does your field have its own particular jargon? Could you share some of the more unusual terms with us?

Yes, the ‘art world’ as it is often referred to has jargon of its own. For example, I remember noticing that the word curator always used to be spat out by my spell checker though not these days. Often it is new turns of phrase at work as well as jargon. For example, a friend of mine coined the term ‘the YBAs’ (Young British Artists). This has subsequently been used far and wide to refer to a particular period in recent British art.

Do you ever ask another person to proofread your work? If so, in which circumstances?

I have learnt the hard way that you can rarely proofread enough times. As an artist, the most obvious things that need proofing are press releases for exhibitions and events. Quite apart from them being sent far and wide you don’t want your message hindered by an easily avoided typo.
Having had two books of my work published I can also highly recommend that one plans for even more proofreading if the work going to print is bilingual. Please note that computers set up in another language (in my case other than English) may well unexpectedly wipe punctuation, italics and the like in the English text, titles, notes, footnotes etc.

What mistakes or phrases in English do you find most annoying? Why?

The use of quite as in quite a lot or quite a little has got me into trouble. I always thought quite meant a lot but it is not certainly the case these days. Also the contextual difference between maybe and may be has eluded a couple of editors in my experience.

Would you like to add anything you think our readers would find interesting?

If you can face it, listen to the radio or watch television in the language you are learning. Listen to pop songs. Read something page turning and light in your chosen language as soon as you can. Find a book that you are entertained by and one where you want to know what happens; don’t worry about having to read something “improving” at this stage. Immerse yourself. Do this in your free time so as not to put extra pressure on yourself at work. Languages can be fun.

Visit Helen Couchman’s website to contact her or view her portfolio.

Want to hear what some of the other interviewees said?  Head over to the On the Job series home page here.