MITSAKES - SHERRY ASHWORTH
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!
There is so so much that needs to be said around those sentences, and so little that is. Fabulous for raising the points
There I go, you see. I can't help it. But it does matter. Of course language develops. We don't, unlike the French, have an Academy to protect its purity and a good thing too. But there are logical implications and relationships in language which don't change. I'm a bit of a Mr Bart. I LOVED teaching grammar. Especially clause analysis. And it has helped in my writing. I feel I can control a sentence, especially a long one, because I know how they work.
Yes, that's a privilege and I'm lucky. And Dan is right. There's so much that needs to be really teased out here. A case in point. It's often said that you can get away with bad grammar and poor usage when it's in direct speech because it's the character saying it, not you. I cannot agree with that. We DO NOT despise our own characters even if they are evil and especially if they come from a minority or a 'lower class.' If we try to reproduce what we think are their speech patterns to identify them, that's tantamount to insult. All right, I know they are only constructs of the mind but we are projecting our prejudices onto the people we are trying to portray. I feel strongly about this. I recently had to chide a new writer I was working with who had given a working-class character a propensity to aspirate words which didn't begin with 'h' and lose the 'h' when they did. I insisted that even if the aim was to be funny and identify the character, all it did was show contempt for him. Dickens often used that ploy and how I wish, wish, wish he hadn't, because, even though he was a Victorian, it cheapens him. If a modern writer does it I feel offended on the character's behalf.
But what if we do succeed in reproducing least their speech patterns accurately? Is that necessarily insulting?
In other words, perhaps it's a question of authenticity.
I'll leave everyone else to argue about what constitutes bad grammar and poor usage - and whether they can be effective even when used in other than direct speech.
I'm not a atickler for 'correct grammar' - but grammar is a huge aid to clarity in writing, which is probably my main concern. I want readers to understand what I meant immediately and clearly - and not have to stop and work out my meaning because my grammar was confusing. (I write prose: with poetry a little puzzlement over meaning, leading the reader to new insights, might actually be part of the poet's plan.)
When it comes to imitating a character's speech patterns, there is a big difference between a very accurate reproduction of the character's voice - as, for instance, in the Scots stories by our own Cally Phillips - and the sort of 'don't they talk funny?' speeches put into the mouths of minor characters, which Dennis objects to. In one we're getting a character's whole world view, and not only having to walk in their shoes but speak with their tongue. In the other, they're being looked at from the outside, and paraded for a short comic turn.
I'm not arguing for lack of clarity; instead, I think of clarity as a necessary (mostly?) but insufficient component of fiction. Nonetheless, there may may be times when ambiguity, for example, is effective, hence my 'mostly'. Undoubtedly you're right that without some sort of 'yardstick of clarity' we'd only be reading gibberish.
I've read some fascinating short stories and autobiographical pieces written by youthful offenders under the guidance of a good writer. They were written in diverse vernaculars, at times almost incomprehensible to me, but a great deal of their energy would have been lost if the kids had been forced to try to write standard English; in fact, probably they wouldn't have written at all.