Wednesday, 22 October 2008

So what brought all that on?

Last night I didn't manage to finish my latest book, Trouble for Lucia by E F Benson (the sixth and last in the Lucia series). I'm going to excuse myself though, because I was proofreading the first part of a friend's novel instead. So although I haven't read a complete book, I reckon that the amount of effort I had to put into proofreading this rather than just reading it makes it count as a whole book! (Okay, a thin argument but this is MY challenge!) I'd better not say too much about the novel but as soon as it comes out I will let you know all about it in order to bask in reflected glory.

I've done proofreading before for another friend, and I consider it a great honour as well as the opportunity to get an insider's view of a work in progress. That's what got me started thinking about spelling and punctuation though and where better to air your views than in your very own blog. I advise starting one if like me you have strong opinions! (Opinions scurrilously referred to as "rants" by certain of the male persuasion ...)

Mr F has bought the last Harlan Coben (at least the last one we haven't read). It's another stand-alone mystery and I am itching to get my hands on it. Mr F is keen as well - he even went to a proper bookshop to make sure of it, rather than taking pot luck in the charity shops (of which there are many where we live).

On "correctness"

My last post was about the importance of correct or conventionally-accepted spelling, grammar and punctuation.

So when DOESN'T it matter? The sort of "correctness" I object to is when somebody rudely corrects somebody else, whether in speech or print. The sort of person who does this is usually completely dogmatic about how things "should" be done, usually because they were taught to do them this way at school. They seem oblivious to the fact that rules of grammar and spelling can gradually change, or that there can be more than one way to do things. They usually have no awareness of the great age of prescriptive grammars in the 18th century, when the "right" way to do things was first set down based on the glories of the Latin language. They do not seem to realise that these rules are simply man-made conventions, which can be changed.

This sort of "correctness" is not aimed at helping the reader or speaker, but at showing off. Certainly you should correct somebody's pronunciation if you know for sure that they are saying a word incorrectly and are about to go out on stage and make a twit of themselves! Otherwise I would say that in ordinary conversation a few slips in pronunciation don't really matter - and certainly shouldn't be rudely corrected by some know-all. And does it matter that someone starts a sentence with "and"? No, not if they wished to use it for emphasis. Is it wise or even sensible to boldly seek out all examples of the split infinitive and blast them with withering scorn? I think not.

My last example of incorrect corrections appear in library books! The reader detects some flaw and writes a correction in the margin. How rude! First, they have defaced the book. Second, they have assumed that other readers are not bright enough to detect this flaw without having it pointed out to them. Third, it seems that even though nobody could possibly know who they are, they have felt obliged to point out that they, the anonymous reader, were aware of this fault! This annoys me much more than the original mistake - if in fact it was one, because such 'omniscient' readers are in fact often wrong ...

On spelling, grammar and punctuation

Does it matter any more? Is expressing yourself more important than worrying about correct spelling, grammar and punctuation? I think it does matter. Spelling, grammar and punctuation that is correct, or more usefully, in the form which most people expect to see it, is a courtesy to the reader. It makes reading easier when you don't have to stop and figure out what the writer meant to say.* Proofreading is important too. It seems like it used to be unusual to find a misprint in a published work. Nowadays some publishers seem less than vigilant. Again, why does it matter as long as the story as a whole is there? Well, it matters to the reader's "suspension of disbelief". The reader is collorating with the writer, immersing themselves completely in the story and accepting what happens as part of the novel's internal narrative. Then if the writer makes a wrong step in the plot, for example, or is inconsistent, then that brings the reader up short. They are immediately brought out of the collaborative world of the novel and back into the real one. It spoils the story in other words. The same thing happens with typos in a published work - they jar on you and bring you out of the story. So that's why efficient proofreading is so important to the reader.

*Of course people who have dyslexia or similar conditions may find this just too difficult and I don't mean to criticise them at all.