Sunday, April 1, 2012

English is a Protist?

I just finished reading David Mitchell's column in the Guardian and clicked a link to another story that caught my eye. The corrections and clarifications column editor on… grammar and spelling
We all know English is the vampire amoeba that never sleeps. That is, our reasoning brains know this; just as they know all languages absorb and mutate over time.
After stepping over the bad metaphor in the first sentence I got stuck on the second one and had to read it three times before I figured out what "that" refers to. (The wide-awake make-believe single-celled organism. I'm pretty sure nothing in Kingdom Protista ever sleeps. Ironically, though, sleeping sickness is caused by a kinetoplastid flagellate.)

I think the message here is that someone who knows the grammar rules can still be a bad writer. I almost stopped reading at the first paragraph but I pressed on. It got worse.
When we watch a word lose the precision of meaning we were taught... perspective can fly out of the window and emotion rush in, often under the banner of Defending Civilised Values as We Were Taught Them at an Impressionable Age. Possibly by someone rather given – breakfast table? schoolroom? – to fulminations of a superior sort.
I think she's talking about my mama. My mama taught me to rewrite an awkward sentence. She also taught me not to pile on the unusual punctuation. You can use it here and there when things are getting boring, but if you try that shit in every long sentence you look like an ass.
Where we do aim to correct spelling errors in online pages is in headlines, or the names of people, places and organisations. We don't pretend to have the resources for micro-fixing every their and they're, or it's and its, or led and lead.
Really? That's depressing as hell. The Guardian doesn't have the resources? Why are they hiring writers who don't type that correctly themselves? Proofreading your own typing is allowed. So is correcting it after you publish. I do it all the time. I was kind of hoping that my ability to put apostrophes in the right place might turn into something like a paying gig. I guess that skill is about as useful as lamp lighting. In this ruined world you can be a terrible writer who isn't even willing to fix the most embarrassing homonyms and be an Associate Editor at The Guardian.

I wish I had just stopped reading after the David Mitchell story. Here's my favorite part.
With greater demands on their time and physique, it's no surprise that the sportspeople of today can seem one-dimensional – and I don't just mean they're thinner.
That's a beautiful sentence. See how he used the dash and the em dash correctly? And "they're" is not "their" or "there"? He even got "it's" right. And it's a great joke! The Guardian does apparently allow a columnist to get things right themselves, they just won't help an incompetent improve.

I suppose the lesson for me is to aspire to be more like David Mitchell than Leslie Plommer. Easy.

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