Re: watch your language! (or don't)

Subject: Re: watch your language! (or don't)
From: Bruce Byfield <bbyfield -at- axionet -dot- com>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com>
Date: Sat, 30 Apr 2005 12:58:57 -0700

diotima wrote:

do writers and editors on this list ever feel pressure to speak "correctly" at all times when at work? in other words, do you feel any kind of pressure to always speak in grammatically correct sentences simply because of the fact that you are the writer or editor in the company? do you ever have a nagging awareness that your english is being judged even while you're just having an everyday conversation with coworkers? (to say nothing about your company email messages!)

Wine or no wine, you have a healthy attitude towards language. Claiming to be a lover of language and insisting on only received language is like claiming to be a gourmet and insisting on eating only veal scaloppine: You may have some good meals, but you'll also never discover the joys of a peasant's risotto or a good hearty focaccia.

Personally, I've got past the stage of worrying unduly about whether my language is correct. Obviously, language is a tool of my trade, and I try to use it to enhance what I have to say. Equally obviously, that means trying to get agreement correct and to avoid any eccentric spelling. But if I do make a mistake, is it really that important? Unless the mistake is unintentionally humorous, I try not to be too concerned.

Case in point: A few weeks ago, I published an article in which I used "precedent" where I meant "precedence." I missed the slip, and so did my editors, who collectively have decades of experience of proof-reading. On one of the sites that linked to the article, a couple of people chose to comment at some length about the error. It irked me, partly because I'd missed it and partly because I thought the article had more interesting things in it than a minor mistake.

But then it occurred to me that I'd enjoyed writing the article, and been paid for it. All the carping commentators got was a feeling of superiority. So, in the end, I figure that, even with the mistake, I came out on top.

And, even if I didn't, so what? As much as I enjoyed writing the article, I doubt it will be on any list of the top 100 Most Influential Pieces of Writing in the Early Twenty-First Century.

This attitude comes from my observation that real professionals don't get too bent out of shape by incorrect language. I'm writing regularly for an on-line newspaper that gets eight million unique hits a day. The senior editor is one of the inventors of on-line journalism, and learned his trade at The Cleveland Plain Dealer when it had a reputation as a hard-hitting investigative paper. None of the other editors are exactly novices, either. They try to use the language correctly, and they'll correct mistakes when they occur, but they're far more concerned with getting a good story or covering important news than grammar or spelling. Their priority is to get the stories told. If a few mistakes are made along the way, it doesn't seem to bother them for very long.

The same is true of the half dozen or so professional novelists I've known well.

From all of this I conclude that only amateurs or neurotics obsess over whether their language is correct. Professionals do their best and, if they make a mistake, wince and move on.

Bruce Byfield 604-421-7177


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watch your language! (or don't): From: diotima

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