Thursday, March 25, 2004

Nit-pickers of the world unite

Rob Grant is the man who created Red Dwarf, so it is not surprising that his new novel Incompetence is an amusing read, though I imagine that younger readers would find it funnier than I did. (It's an age thing.) The book is set in the near future, at a time when incompetence has ceased to be a bar to promotion. (Does this sound familiar to those of you who work in publishing?) So, you get airline pilots who can't find the airport to land at, etc. Some of the set pieces go on far too long for my taste, but you can always skip.

However, the point of this post is that the book is tolerably well proof-read (which is a pleasant change) apart from a couple of instances. In one place the author speaks of having to 'diffuse' a nuclear bomb, and in another of wanting to 'diffuse' a situation. For diffuse read defuse.

All of which is, of course, entirely beside the point as far as most readers are concerned. It's just that case-hardened nit-pickers like me can't help noticing these things.

Mind you, I'm not a completely lost cause. I haven't even bought Lynne Truss's famous book yet, much less read it. Although last year I did buy Lapsing into a Comma, by Bill Walsh, who is the style guru at the Washington Post. As you would expect, given the author's background, the suggested usages are mostly American in style, and concern the newspaper world rather than the book world; but it's an interesting read nonetheless.

These days, of course, English kids don't get taught any English. Which wouldn't matter quite so much if they had good examples set before them. But, as Walsh points out, they don't. In the past, readers had professionally edited newspapers, magazines, and books from which to take their cues, and to some extent they would absorb correct usage through their bones, so to speak, like radioactive fallout. (Or is it fall-out?) Today, the poor devils have mostly the internet, which is often the domain of morons and their 'amature' models. And even the Times can't always tell the difference between appraise and apprise. It will end in tears, mark my words.

Yes, I dare say you can find errors and infelicities in the posts on this noble blog. My eyesight is not what it was, and the spell-checker on Blogger seems a bit eccentric; it doesn't even recognise 'blog'. So no prizes for writing in, I'm afraid.

To my distress, Walsh argues that sexism in pronouns can legitimately be avoided by using a plural pronoun with a singular subject, as in 'Every music lover has their own favourite album.' This was Carole Blake's solution in From Pitch to Publication, and I really didn't like it. 'The original publisher,' she says, 'who is no longer actively publishing the book themselves...' No thanks.

For real copy-editing junkies Walsh runs a web site. (I prefer that to website, but I am prepared to listen to argument.) Its title is The Slot, and it has more nit-picking per line than any other site I know of. But it is very American, full of stuff about rigor, and neighbors, and practicing.

Guess what? Having just visited The Slot for the first time in a while, I find that Walsh has a new book out, as of 12 March: The Elephants of Style, subtitled 'A trunkload of tips on the big issues and gray areas of contemporary American usage.'

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