Monday, September 17, 2012

Speling. and Punctuation'

I haven't written a computer program for years, but one of the critical factors is attention to detail. Make a mistake and the computer won't know what you mean and things won't work. If you're lucky. And if you're unlucky things will appear to work but will be going badly wrong in the background. So working with computers uses carefully-applied rules, from the programming through to the protocols used for Internet communications.

Using language has its own rules of grammar, spelling, and punctuation. And there are reasons for this, though they're increasingly forgotten. We're often told that in the age of the Internet, language is evolving beyond restrictive rules, allowing free expression and global communication. To which my response is: "Are you having a laugh, or what?" In my real job, I communicate with people around the globe, very many of whom don't have English as a first language. Use colloquialisms, misspellings, shoddy grammar or txtspk with them and they won't have a clue what is meant. This cuts both ways: I'm moderately fluent in spoken French; I struggle to read it even when following the formal rules; colloquial written French is incomprehensible to me.

I think poor written English in a novel is either just plain lazy or both author and editor are fundamentally a bit dim. When an author writes about someone "pouring over a book" (he's not liquid, you fool, it's spelled "poring", which has a different meaning), or "hairing down the street" (even your spell checker knows it's "haring"), or a ship being "birthed in the dry dock" (how does one become a maritime midwife?), it leaves me feeling completely phased. No it doesn't! That's fazed, you idiot, fazed!!!

So when I read Jay's review of Fifty Shades, my first response, after wiping the tears of laughter from my eyes, was to say: "Those quotes you use, did you transcribe them correctly?" The sin here is the punctuation, which isn't just decorative, but genuinely changes the meaning of what's written. If the finer points of punctuation are a bit of a mystery, or you just want a good laugh, acquire a copy of Lynne Truss's Eats, Shoots and Leaves as soon as you've finished reading this.

So let's pick holes in Jay's quotes, shall we?

my very own Christian Grey-flavored popsicle

Why does the religion of the Popsicle® matter? And yes, Mr Editor, Popsicle® is a trademark brand name, and should be capitalized. It's your job to know these things, so why am I having to tell you? But at least we know it's not an Atheist or a Buddhist Popsicle®, it's Christian.

What's that you say? Christian Grey is the name of a character in the book? Ah! So it should have read "Christian-Grey-flavoured Popsicle". Completely unambiguous and spelled correctly, too. Why bother to hyphenate in the first place if you don't do it right?

my stomach pole vaults over my spleen

I'm no anatomist, but what's a stomach pole? And how does it go about vaulting? Oh, I see! She meant that her stomach pole-vaults over her spleen!

Anytime you have to do a double-take at a sentence, and work out was meant from the context rather than the words, supported by the grammar and punctuation, then the author and editor have failed. At best it's lazy, at worst they really don't understand the rules of communicating in the language used. And I think that's disgraceful.

And Jay, the advantage of "Mummy porn" is not only the correct spelling, it's having some cloth on hand to clean up the inevitable sticky mess.


  1. Atheist shouldn't be capitalized unless at the beginning of a sentence as it isn't a proper noun... you don't capitalize scientist do you?

    1. True: but in this case I claim that the ABC capitalization of Atheist, Buddhist, Christian takes stylistic precedence!