30 March 2013

Walk like an Egyptian

Now, I’m on the same side as Lynn Truss, but Devon’s Council decision to stop using apostrophes in place names (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-devon-21795179), which might, or might not be reversed (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-devon-21835017) is not something I’m particularly worried about. Does it matter whether Bakers Row refers to one, two or more bakers or if it refers to a producer of baked goods having an argument? On road signs it’s probably not worth the debate. In written text, however …

English is a curious language: Read It In Books. It’s Read pronounced ‘Red’ not Read as in ‘Reed’. Without context there’s no way to tell which is right. Of course both are correct, unless you happen to be a devotee of early Echo and the Bunnymen or The Teardrop Explodes.

I spend my working life putting other people’s words onto a page, making sure it lines up, is in a consistent font, size and colour and is spelt correctly. I know how to use a spellcheck (and I know how to question the Americanisms). Grammar is more difficult, you can set Microsoft Word or Adobe InDesign to check for errors, however, the lawyers and accountants who’ve produce these documents are busy making up words and phrases of their own and before long my screen is covered in green squiggles.

For this blog, I’m a bit more slapdash, it’s tends to be a stream of consciousness: think; type; spellcheck; post. I get tangled up in tenses and like H G Wells drift from past to future, stopping off in the present every now and then, but I post, read through on screen and if it seems to make sense, publish. If I submitted my efforts to a proofreader, no doubt there would a page of red ink that would take me more time to correct than to originally type out.

I have my pet hates: Mis-spelt printed signs (there’s a sign in a wedding shop that I walk past each day that proclaims that ‘Alternations/Repairs made here’); using ‘inch marks’ instead of apostrophes; the classic ‘there, their, they’re’; and 'could of'.

‘Could have’ abbreviated to ‘could’ve’ but pronounced ‘could of’, is not a problem. When it gets written down as ‘could of’, it is. Mainly because I suspect that when someone writes ‘of’ instead of ‘have’ he or she can’t see the mistake, which is true of ‘to’ and ‘too’ as well as ‘there’, ‘their’ and ‘they’re’. The ignorance is worse that the original error.

Language has to evolve, if it didn’t we’d all be speaking Sumerian or communicating in Hieroglyphs. Reading Victorian novels and finding words that were hyphenated then but are now more commonly truncated such as: to-day; to-morrow; week-end; is an interesting game, but the atrophied humble hyphen should serve as a warning to the not so humble, nay, superior apostrophe. How long before Sainsbury’s drop theirs, and while we’re in the supermarket aisle, how many people call their rivals Tescos?

So does grammar get in the way? Do we need to relax our rules? I don’t think so. In written English, grammar smooths the way. I’ve read books and articles that are so poorly written that they are difficult to understand, having to go back over paragraphs again and again to make sense of it. Is the art of proofreading and editing going the way of typesetting in this digital world?

Or is the typesetter, proofreader, editor, printer, finisher and shopfitter becoming the same person? Maybe I’m being unfair and the business is a wedding shop on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and home to a band of revolutionary time travellers on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays (Sundays kept for repairs), innit bruv.

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