Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Confessions of a Reformed Grammar Nazi

Don’t let the English degree fool you.  I was never quite the Grammar Nazi that many people seem to think all English majors are required to be.  I was never one of those people who bemoaned the poor grammar skills of people on the Internet, and I always understood that abbreviating text messages was a matter of efficiency.  Besides, if people don’t know proper punctuation and usage, that’s job security for me, right? 

But I’ll tell you where I WAS a Grammar Nazi, and that was in regards to self-published authors.  If they couldn’t be bothered to edit their own work, I used to ask, how could they expect people to pay them for it? 



I have come to revise that opinion.  Here’s why:

Everyone makes typos.  Everyone.  Everywhere.  And no, the Internet is not to blame.
I read a lot.  A LOT.  Last year, I read sixty-one books, not including re-reads.  I have a Kindle, a Scribd account, and several reader aps on my phone.  And yet, the majority of my books still come from the library.  (With all due respect to all the great eBook services out there, the library still has the best selection.) 

I spot a lot of typos in print books, and not just new books either.  Last summer, I read a falling-apart, held-together-with-tape 1960 edition of Night by Eli Wiesel.  I was astonished at the number of typos I found in it because I, like so many people, fall prey to the belief that typos are somehow a new thing. 

A few weeks ago, I read a 1986 edition of Perfume by Patrick Suskind.  There was only one typo that I noticed—and why did I notice it?  Because some dickhead actually wrote in the book, in pen, correcting the mistake.  Like, thanks, asshole.  I totally wouldn’t have been able to figure out that sentence if you hadn’t DEFACED LIBRARY PROPERTY.     

My point is, these professionally published and highly regarded works have typos.  These books were published well before the Internet or texting had taken over our lives, so we can’t blame technology for our sudden (re: imaginary) lack of grammar skillz. 

Moreover, I would like to point out that these professionally published, highly regarded works were not just edited by one person, but by a TEAM of editors.  And typos still happen.  That doesn’t mean the writers are stupid or lazy, or that the editors are stupid or lazy.  Our brains just don’t catch typos because science.  But here’s the thing.  Did the typos somehow diminish the power of those works?  No.  No, they did not.  Not even a little.  

So why are we bitching?

Does it seem like there are more typos these days?  Not just in print, but in online publications?  Maybe.  I can’t remember the last time I read an article in one of the big-damn-deal periodicals, like the NYT or Rolling Stone, and it DIDN’T have at least one little typo.  But to be fair, it’s been a long time since I read actual newspapers or magazines, printed on actual paper.  But I do recall a section in the local paper every day that apologized for and corrected errors, both typographical and factual.  So apparently they happened in those long-ago days when reading the paper meant coming away with your fingertips smudged with ink. 

People freak out about this perceived new lackadaisical attitude towards editing and fact-checking.  But they’d freak out a helluva lot more if they didn’t get their content when they want it.  Which is now.  And all the time.  We are in the age of Content Is King, which requires these publications to bust their asses to keep us in new material, as in, MOAR CONTENT, NAO, before we lose interest, to keep us clicking on their sites.  That comes at a cost.  Meticulous editing and fact-checking probably have gone a bit by the wayside.  Not to mention, most journalists now are not full-time employees but freelancers, which makes the back-and-forth of the editing process an even bigger headache. 

So we have a choice to make—more content now/imperfect.  Or less content later/slightly closer to perfect.  Pick one.


eBooks are imperfect.  Deal with it. 
eBooks are a new technology.  We haven’t worked all the kinks out yet.  There have already been dozens of devices on the market for eBooks, and many different eBook subscription services and aps.  Know what that means?

Many formats: .epub, .mobi, PDF, among others.  The writer has written his/her opus in Word, Open Office, Google Docs, or one of the myriad word processing softwares available out there, which means that after they get edited, they have to be converted to as many other formats as possible to reach the maximum audience.

In converting to these many formats, a lot of stuff gets lost.  Font, indentation, line spacing.  What you download from Amazon or Smashwords and see on your phone, tablet or computer probably looks very different from what the author intended.  That’s not their fault.  They’re just trying to deliver their work to as many readers as possible. 

On my Kindle, I have several complete series—Harry Potter, A Song of Ice and Fire, the Vampire Chronicles, Sookie Stackhouse.  Some of them are riddled with issues that some may think are typos, but are probably just a problem with the format conversion.  Letters and punctuation get dropped or transposed.  Again, these are major, best-selling works.  Presumably, they were converted using the best software available.  And once again, even they are not immune to the occasional glitch.

Does that mean J.K. Rowling or Anne Rice are shitty writers, or that their books aren’t enjoyable?  No.  (Your mileage may vary.)  It just means that we don’t have a perfect eBook conversion system yet.    




More books than ever before = more words and more opportunities to fuck up.
As I said, Content Is King.  Books are being published in record numbers every year.  It’s easier than ever to write a book and get it out there.  The conventional wisdom for self-published writers is to publish early and often.  People want to binge-read the way they binge-watch TV shows.

Fine.  We’re dutifully churning out the goods.  The average novel length is supposed to be around 130,000 words.  I can’t even begin to tell you how many keystrokes and characters that amounts to, so, for simplicity’s sake, let's just look at word count. 

A full-length novel means there are at least 130,000 opportunities for the average novelist to make a simple mistake.  Because, God knows, it’s not like the novelist has anything else on his mind, like trying to keep his eye on things like plot, characterization, themes—y’know.  Shit like that.

So let’s say ten typos get left in his manuscript, overlooked by the novelist and by the editors.  Now, I’m not a math genius (English major!), but that comes to .01% margin of error.  What was the last product you bought that had so few defects?  Think about how many insect legs the FDA allows in your peanut butter.  Suddenly, ten typos in a novel don’t seem so bad.

Also, when was the last time YOU did 130,000 things in a row perfectly?  I’m thinking never.  So let’s cut writers a break, huh?


Language has never been a fixed, unchanging law, and neither has grammar. 
People think English grammar is something that Moses brought down from Mount Sinai, but I’m here to tell you, it just ain’t so.  Modern English, as we know it, didn’t even come into being until the 16th century.  The demand for grammatical rules came around the same time, but didn't get systematized until the 19th century.

And here we are, still quibbling.  I’m in a constant debate with my co-author as to whether a semi-colon is ever necessary outside of a list.  We’re also in constant debate on spelling—he insists on using the English spelling for words, “colour” instead of “color,” “grey” instead of “gray” and so forth.  I keep telling him I’m a damn American and I don’t want any weird vowels in my words, thank you very much.  But does that mean “grey” is wrong?  No.  I just happen to prefer “gray.”  So much for systemization.  I mean, systemisation.    

Should I be putting one space between these sentences, or two?  That’s a question that has arisen due to new technology.  Two spaces used to be the norm because of the way spacing between letters was set up on typewriters—it made it easier to see the beginning of a new sentence.  That’s no longer necessary with computers, but putting two spaces is a leftover convention.

Is it okay to end a sentence with a preposition?  Is it ever okay to use the word “I” in an essay?  Should I use an ampersand or spell out the word “and”?  And what about the Oxford comma?

Sorry—this is a glimpse into the things that keep grammar geeks like me up at night.  I could go on, but I’ll spare you. 

I’m not saying grammar doesn’t have a place, because it absolutely does.  We have to have a general agreement on the rules so we can understand each other.  But there’s a reason the dictionary gets updated periodically—because we’re constantly adding new words, and new words mean new ideas. 

Grammar exists to facilitate language and thereby communication.  When the language changes, grammar must do the same.




No other art form gets shit the way that books get shit. 
I have said many times before that writing is the most democratic art form.  If you can (more or less) speak the language, you can write.  Literacy isn’t even a requirement, as long as you can find someone to transcribe your words for you, or transcription software. 

It’s not like music or art, which are intimidating because they require so much specialized skill.  They’re costly to learn, their materials are expensive, and, in the case of music, you have to basically learn a whole different language just to be able to play an instrument, never mind compose. 

So we don’t criticize art and music the way we do books.  I love music and I even know some fancy-schmancy music history stuff like the distinction between Baroque and Classical, but damn if I could tell you if a musician hit a wrong note, or if his beat is off.  Moreover, I don’t care.  If the song is brilliant, I’m willing to forgive imperfection.

In the case of art, people are even more disinclined to give an opinion.  Their main concern is whether something would look good in their living room.  The best most people can do is say, “I don’t get it,” or “It’s ugly.”  They’re not going to stand there and nitpick it to death, “Y’know, I think the artist mixed this color imperfectly,” or “His brushwork in the corner is a bit sloppy.”  But they still respect the artist for doing something they can’t do. 

WHY IS IT NOT THE SAME FOR BOOKS?


Because grammar and Grammar Nazis.
“Oh, look.  A book.  I can read.  That means I can critique it!  Look, here’s a typo!  MWAHAHAHA!  Clearly the author is an idiot and I am brilliant because I found his ONE MISTAKE IN 130,000 WORDS!  GO TEAM ME!  Never mind the other 129,999 words that are arranged just fine.  Never mind the content of the piece.  Never mind the characters, the theme, or the artfulness of his prose.  Let’s just focus on this ONE MISPLACED COMMA!”

Because, yeah, Grammar Nazis.  That’s what you sound like.  That's not a review, that's nitpicking.  It's not constructive.  And it says more about you than it does about the work.  

Now, granted, egregiously bad grammar generally goes with bad writing-- because if a writer cares about good writing, he usually picks up the grammar basics as a matter of course . . . which only means that the Grammar Nazis have less to gripe about.    


I, for one, have learned to gripe less.  


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