In Junior school, I was proud and precocious, and rather good at English. When my teacher, Mr Bart, called me to his desk to tell me that I had mis-spelt ‘all right’ as alright, I was indignant. Of COURSE it was ‘alright.’ He patiently explained that I had used an American version of the two word English expression. I refused to believe him. I harboured a resentment for years.
I know this does not put me in a very good light. But it was the first time I’d come up against correctness in English, and the passion it engenders in people. A comma, or not a comma? The moral turpitude of those who dare to end sentences with prepositions! The ignorant misuse of apostrophes! The English language must be defended against the invading hordes of modernity and sloppiness!
Years studying English, then teaching it and then even more years of proof-reading my own novels and other writing, have given me eagle eyes. I can spot (most) mistakes. I am fearsomely good at spelling. But my passion for correctness has dimmed a little.
I’m going to be a bit paradoxical here, but, hey! This is a blog and as far as I can make out, the rules about blogs are that you can freewheel, loop the loop and generally go where you will. Unlike the highly structured essay. But am I wrong?
The English language was only properly fixed in the eighteenth century. Until then even Shakespeare spelled his own name in different ways. But the Enlightenment spawned a desire for order, and so English grammar was codified. Codified according to the rules of Latin grammar, which is an entirely different language. This enabled grammar to be taught.
I was one of a generation of grammar school children who was taught grammar. We analysed clauses. We knew what the subjunctive was. We could parse a sentence. And did this make the world a better place? Did it make us better writers? Did it enhance our appreciation of literature? Those are three rhetorical questions best left unanswered.
However, when I started writing, it was good to have some understanding of the way the English language works. Even then, copy editors picked up lots of mistakes I’d made. And every time they did, I felt just as indignant as when I was pulled up by Mr Bart.
Sometimes I think correctness is exploited as a means of establishing authority and superiority. There’s something distasteful about the person who sneers at the greengrocer’s apostrophe – and the phrase itself is not fair to greengrocers! Why are we so horrified at others' mistakes? And pointing them out (unless your motives are purely to help the person who made the mistake) is discourteous and even plain rude.
That’s why I dislike reviewers who focus on technical aspects – there’s a typo on page 43! The paragraphs are not indented at the beginning of each paragraph! Noooo! Tell us what you think of the book we’ve written – don’t pull us up publicly for every mistake we’ve made. If you’re bothered about our lack of copy-editing, then email us privately and offer your help.
Being able to produce perfect English is a skill that comes from a good, old-fashioned education. Not everyone has that privilege. Others might be coping with dyslexia too. They work five times as hard as those of us to whom spelling comes naturally. So what gives us the right to march around criticising poor English or accidental mistakes?
Having said all of that, as e-book writers, we really ought to try to produce flawless texts. It’s precisely because people DO confuse perfect English with authority that we need to be so careful. We are presently underdogs – or pioneers, if you prefer. To establish our right to be read with respect, we need to show we are every bit as fastidious with our English and proof-reading as paper book writers. We must take care and be professional. Not just to earn respect from our readers, but also to show ourselves that we are worth it, that our books are worth it. We must demonstrate the highest of standards.
A belated thank you to Mr Bart. You’re all right, sir!