Monday, November 06, 2006

A Pride of Pedants

Well, I just made that up but it does have a nicely balanced ring to it. For I don’t believe there is an officially authorised, pedantically approved, collective noun for such a gathering. It would be a terrible experience, in any case. Imagine a room full of pedants, all expressing their pedantic views, pedantically. Why, you would hardly be able to get a grammatically correct sentence in edgeways.

My old and valued friend, Michael Flore, now, alas, gone to that playground in the sky reserved for all New Yorkers, was a persistent and imaginative mauler of the English language. When I would protest, he would answer, “But you understood perfectly well what I was saying.” And, of course, I had. It was just that I was being pedantic as well as several other things beginning with “P,” and probably a pain as well.

Using words in your everyday work does make you a trifle sensitive to such matters but I, myself, would be an easy target for the pedants. For, in my writing, I have a cavalier attitude to the niceties of grammar and punctuation that would bring tears to the eyes of editors clutching Fowler’s English Usage to their collective bosoms. Those strong enough to be able to carry the Chicago Manual of Style would be in for a nervous breakdown, I fear.

It’s not that I don’t recognise such solecisms as a split infinitive. I do, and, if to me it sounds better split, that’s the way I’m going to write it. Here I must say Mr. Fowler is on my side.

But the purpose of writing is to get your message across and, if you can do it with graceful and well-balanced sounding sentences, so much the better. German authors are at a serious disadvantage here, I feel.

The east-west divide of spelling is well known but makes little difference. Readers on both sides of the Atlantic understand each other perfectly well and to carp about spelling would be, well, just pedantic. If it weren’t for Noah Webster none of this would have happened and his decision to change spelling arrangements for Americans must purely have been made out of nationalistic pique.

But I still think a word like colourful is a lot more, er, colourful than colorful. But we all understand the meaning – unless you wish to be pedantically obtuse.

Sometimes, in order to retain the feel of a book, translating it into perfect English would be a mistake. I recently finished working on a book for an author who had written her manuscript in English, although this was not her native language. She asked that I turn it into “good” English. In fact her command of the language was excellent but many of the phrases she used betrayed her origin. To have converted these into colloquial English would have, in my view, removed much of the authenticity from the book. Her meaning remained perfectly clear and the words read smoothly and effortlessly, but it would still be possible to appreciate that this was not her native tongue. I believe it added greatly to the appeal of the book and, happily, in the end, so did she. The resultant manuscript would be anathema to a grammatical pedant however.

One of the most successful abusers of the rules of English must be Damon Runyon, like my late friend, a New Yorker.

His stories of high and low life in New York are classical, unless you happen to be a pedant over the use of English. But Runyon was a newspaper man and knew his English – and what he could get away with. And the results are predictably readable.

And there is always the example of Winston Churchill, one of the finer exponents of the language. Not only would he gleefully invent words to enliven his prose but he was more concerned with the sound of his phrases, rather than their grammatical purity. His riposte to the courageous aide who once commented that he had concluded a sentence with a preposition, is well known.

If you are a writer and are still agonising over the correct usage, help is at hand. For up until the time of his death in 1963, a certain William Follett had been working on a book of guidance on the subject. His book, Modern American Usage, was completed after his death and published in 1966. To my mind, it is an excellent guide as to what you may or may not get away with. It’s still available on Amazon etc. and is equally applicable to English English, not only American.

Highly readable in its own right, Wilson Follett proves that he was no pedant.

But if you’re in the mood for some really specious pedantry, let Microsoft’s Grammar Checker have a go at your work. The, when you’ve had a good laugh, quietly disable it.

Your writing will be all the better for it, pedantically speaking.


Blogger Aries327 said...

I'm with you on the split infinitive stuff. I'm working as a copy editor and have often edited manuscripts to make them read more comfortably (to me), and then the authors throw a tantrum when I've split an infinitive (because it sounds better) or ended a sentence with a preposition.

But you mention that Chicago and other manuals don't agree with this. Well, Chicago does. At least the edition I have (15th). Their entries on end prepositions and split infinitives state that you should use both when appropriate.

And as well, the American Heritage Dictionary sets up a good defense for the split infinitive.

I'm in the midst of composing an email to send to an author explaining (in Fowler and Follet's own words) that it's ok to split the infinitive. Follet's 1966 edition has a better entry than the 1998 edition, in case anyone wonders.

10:00 pm  

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