“We must write for our own time”

December 15, 2016

A few words from Sartre:

A book has its absolute truth in its own time. It is lived like a riot or a famine, with much less intensity of course, and by fewer people, but in the same way. It is an emanation of intersubjectivity, a living bond of rage, hatred, or love between those who have produced it and those who receive it. If it gains ground, thousands of people reject it and deny it: we all know very well that to read a book is to rewrite it. At the time it is first a panic, an escape, or a courageous affirmation; at the time it is a good or a bad action. Later, when the time has died, it will become relative; it will become a message. But the judgement of posterity will not invalidate the opinions men had of it during its lifetime. . . .

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The Time Traveller: a rare-books magazine

December 12, 2016

time-traveller-1-rare-books-magazine-cork-irelandAmong the projects I worked on this winter was to copyedit a new, independent Irish magazine called The Time Traveller. It comes from the bookstore of the same name, which has three outlets in the west of Ireland: Westport, County Mayo; Skibbereen, County Cork; and Cork city.

The Time Traveller’s bookshop specialises in rare books, and the magazine, a quarterly, does likewise, its topics reaching into art, philosophy, history, publishing, poetry, culture, music, education, and literature in general. As its editor Holger Smyth writes in his editorial:

There is no point in starting a shy publication that looks pretty and is full of words but has nothing to say. Would it be wise to pretend everything is fine when the whole world is on the run? This quarterly will try to shine a light on important and forgotten publications, political ideas that should have been implemented, philosophies that could have made a difference, authors who could have been honoured, voices that should have been heard.

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Book review: But Can I Start a Sentence with “But”?

July 20, 2016

Editors are necessarily a fussy lot. We hunt typos, errant commas, and assorted orthographical aberrations and inconsistencies with the industry and pleasure of a bumblebee in a high-summer meadow. And if we’re any good at it, we consult authorities – often. Because we know (oh, how we know) what assumption is the mother of.

For academic writers and editors, the Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) is one of the biggest and best authorities, especially for US English. Even here in Ireland, I check CMOS often and with great regard. (After years of frequent use, editors become intimately familiar with style guides: our feelings for them are not always friendly.)

The team behind CMOS run a monthly Q&A for subs, proofreaders, writers and the stylistically uncertain. Many queries can be resolved by reference to the relevant section in CMOS, though at 1026 pages it can take some digging, while others are more esoteric puzzles that offer no obvious solution. The editors’ answers are clear and helpful, as you’d expect, but they’re also sometimes… sassy. Snarky, even.

And now there’s a book, But Can I Start a Sentence with “But”?, a selection from the Q&A. (Its publishers, University of Chicago Press, kindly sent me a complimentary copy.) The foreword is by Carol Fisher Saller, who is responsible for many of the As in the Q&A and whose book The Subversive Copy Editor, 2nd edition, I reviewed recently.

but can i start a sentence with but - chicago style q&a book coverSaller and her colleagues are a fount of level-headed sense, and it’s manifest throughout this short book. On the very first page we read: ‘In style matters, there are often competing options, all acceptable.’ This, as you may imagine, is music to my ears. Page 2: ‘When consistency gets silly, you can rebel.’

These are solid maxims of the editing trade, yet they are unknown to some professionals who assume there is always a Right Way and who sacrifice sense and compromise clarity to avoid deviating from a rule, however trivial. So it’s reassuring and constructive to see editorial flexibility upheld and indeed stressed by so august an arbiter.

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Ghost storties [sic] of Henry James

March 26, 2014

This was on my shelf a while before I spotted the intruder:

Ghost storties (sic) of Henry James - Wordsworth Editions, typo on spine

I love a good ghost storty, and since it’s Henry James I don’t expect these will be very gorty. The book was published by Wordsworth Editions in 2001: not their crowning glorty.

Imagine their fright, though, when they finally spotted it. I’ll be glad if there’s anything in the book as scary as that.


Waterstones’ apostrophe: a victim of rebranding

January 12, 2012

We’ve been here before — with Birmingham City Council and assorted businesses and place names — and we’ll be here again. A prominent organisation, this time Waterstones, has officially dropped the apostrophe from its name, sparking outrage from self-anointed protectors of the language.

Waterstones’ managing director James Daunt said: (PDF)

Waterstones without an apostrophe is, in a digital world of URLs and email addresses, a more versatile and practical spelling. It also reflects an altogether truer picture of our business today which, while created by one, is now built on the continued contribution of thousands of individual booksellers.

This seems entirely reasonable to me. The fact that it’s a bookseller, of course, compounds the agony for the is-nothing-sacred crowd, who last year worked themselves into a state of pseudo-grief and fury over the non-death of the serial comma, and who now protest this latest insult on Twitter and Facebook and in comments on news websites.

John Richards, of the Apostrophe Protection Society, is predictably unhappy with Waterstones: “You would really hope that a bookshop is the last place to be so slapdash with English.” If the quote is accurate, his use of slapdash is itself slapdash: the word means hasty or careless, and I’m quite sure Waterstones are being anything but.

Martin MacConnol, in a sensible post about the furore, points out that Waterstones’ name “is a brand mark, and thus doesn’t follow the normal rules of grammar”. David Marsh at the Guardian says it’s “no catastrophe”. But he recommends carrying a felt-tip pen and Tipp-Ex to tackle public lapses in punctuation, à la Lynne Truss, which sounds like a recipe for hypercorrection and Pedantry Gone Wild.

One blogger, whose identity I’ll spare, lamented the news thus:

So now you know: apostrophes that used to feature in Waterstone’s will shuffle off to reappear in genitive itsas if to spite me. They might also find a niche in the aberrant “s-form” Tesco’s (from Tesco), which Lorraine Woodward studied in her interesting dissertation “The supermarket storm: an investigation into an aspect of variation”.

My favourite reaction was from Waterstones of Oxford Street, whose Twitter account posted the photo below (cropped; source unknown), followed by a series of faux-poignant tweets about the apostrophe’s last day at work with the company. “A victim of rebranding”, indeed.

By the standards of common punctuation marks, the apostrophe has had a short existence bedevilled by instability and inconsistency. As Christina Cavella and Robin Kernodle’s paper “How the Past Affects the Future: The Story of the Apostrophe” (PDF) shows, there has always been disagreement and uncertainty about how best to use it.

So no, this is nothing to get upset about, and language is not going to the dogs. The fuss over Waterstones’ dropped apostrophe will soon blow over for all but a few committed sticklers, to be relived next time a big brand or institution puts pragmatism over fastidious punctuation. Best get used to it.

Updates:

Two excellent posts on Waterstones and the use and history of the apostrophe: Michael Rosen explores the politics of punctuation [via]; and David Crystal notes that English writing did fine for almost a millennium without the mark.

John E. McIntyre weighs in at You Don’t Say (subscription). Apostrophe usage is “a mess and a muddle”, he writes, and resolving it all is “a doomed venture”. So we shouldn’t fret over brands and signs and menus but instead focus on our own writing. He concludes with a fine line — “You can’t weed the world, but you can cultivate your garden” — that echoes an analogy by C. S. Lewis I wrote about recently.

In my post, I avoided linking to any (of the many) tiresome, end-is-nigh reactions to this story. But Mark Liberman at Language Log has gone a different and amusing route, ironically playing up the Daily Mail‘s apocalyptic panic by recruiting no less a barbarian than Shakespeare.

Also at Language Log, Geoffrey K. Pullum rejects the argument that apostrophes are needed to avoid ambiguity. He finds it sad and irritating that people

[try] to represent themselves as educated thinking defenders of the English language by mouthing off cluelessly about grammatical topics, voicing allegations about “incorrectness” and “ambiguity” that cannot withstand even a few seconds of thought. There is nothing whatever about the decision on the new Waterstones trade name that relates to grammar or grammatical error at all.


English As She Is Broke

November 9, 2011

Its delicious unconscious ridiculousness, and its enchanting naïveté, as are supreme and unapproachable, in their way, as are Shakespeare’s sublimities. Whatsoever is perfect in its kind, in literature, is imperishable: nobody can imitate it successfully . . .

So wrote Mark Twain in his introduction to Pedro Carolino’s English As She Is Spoke (1883), a Portuguese-English conversational guide infamous for its incoherent translations and memorable incongruities.

Every page of this short book is rich in non sequiturs and grammatical mishaps that border on the poetic, the cumulative effect of which is a rare and unpredictable entertainment.

Will you this?
Let us amuse rather to the fishing.
The coffee is good in all time.
You hear the bird’s gurgling? Which pleasure! which charm!
Comb-me quickly; don’t put me so much pomatum.
He burns one’s self the brains.
You come too rare.
I row upon the belly on the back and between two waters.

Carolino’s book offers vocabularies, phrases, dialogues, letters and anecdotes, all of them delightfully mangled. There is a pronunciation guide that renders washerwoman as uox’-eur-ummeune, and a list of proverbs that turns “A rolling stone gathers no moss” into “The stone as roll not heap up not foam”.

If it were twice as accurate, it would not be half as beguiling.

The book’s history is also muddled. Collins Library published a new edition in 2002 that followed an early edition in crediting Carolino and José da Fonseca as authors. But Fonseca appears to have had no involvement except that his own work inspired Carolino’s awful effort. (I use the word inspired loosely: Carolino spoke no English, and borrowed wholesale from one of Fonseca’s phrasebooks.)

After linguist Alexander MacBride got a copy of the Collins Library edition, he contacted the publishers to question the dual authorship. He felt that a grave injustice had been done to Fonseca:

Not only was his little phrasebook ripped off, and transformed into an eternal monument of linguistic incompetence — he, the victim of the outrage, is remembered by posterity as its author!

Further digging by MacBride threw more light on how the confusion came about. It’s a nice bit of historical research. He found that Fonseca was “a serious and competent scholar” who had an excellent command of English and was “contemptuous of shoddy and amateurish conversation guides and phrasebooks”.

So English As She Is Spoke — Carolino’s “Jest in Sober Earnest” — would presumably have earned Fonseca’s contempt, but we can enjoy it on its own inimitable terms. After all,

A little learneds are happies enough for to may to satisfy their fancies on the literature.

You can download English As She Is Spoke in various formats at Project Gutenberg and the Internet Archive.

Put your confidence at my. How do you can it to deny?


Fashionable ambiguity

August 15, 2011

For a few years in the 1950s, independent publishing company André Deutsch rented the top two-thirds of a doctor’s house in London. Diana Athill, then an editor at the company, describes them as “happy years, but still a touch amateurish: did proper publishers have to put a board over a bath to make a packing-bench?” (Stet: An Editor’s Life*).

During its time in that location, however, the company did well enough to buy Derek Verschoyle’s firm and to move into its premises in Soho. Athill recalls one consequence of the deal:

One of the more burdensome books we inherited from him was a pointless compilation called Memorable Balls, a title so much tittered over that we thought of leaving it out when we were arranging our stand at The Sunday Times’s first book fair. Finally one copy was shoved into an inconspicuous corner – where the Queen Mother, who had opened the fair, instantly noticed it. Picking it up, she exclaimed with delight: ‘Oh, what a tempting title!’ André insisted that it was his confusion over this that made him drop her a deep curtsey instead of a bow.

As you’ve no doubt guessed, Memorable Balls has nothing to do with sport or anatomy but concerns formal dances. It was edited by James Laver, an author and fashion historian who came up with a system he called Laver’s Law (Taste and Fashion, 1937) to describe popular attitudes to fashion:

Was the author’s tongue partly in cheek when he composed this table? I don’t have a copy of Taste and Fashion, or any of Laver’s other books, so I can’t infer his tone from context.

It is in any case a revealing list of adjectives, some of which I often see applied to language usages. “Language is like dress,” wrote Simeon Potter in Our Language. “We vary our dress to suit the occasion.”

In honour of Laver’s Memorable Balls, I propose Balls’ Law: Bawdy double entendres never fall fully out of fashion.

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* For another anecdote from Athill’s marvellous memoir, see this earlier post.