Saturday, November 21, 2009

Misspelling, literals, sense, smoky and noisy newsrooms, and a shameful theft

I don’t know whether other bloggers do so, but once I have posted an entry, I revisit it several times in the following days and weeks to sort it out a little. There are always - always - misspellings and literals to be put right and awkward phrasing which can be improved. An inelegant phrasing can be forgiven and doesn’t signify that the world is about to end. But although some might castigate me for being a buttoned-up Brit going on anal for being bothered by such trivialities, I do like to try to ensure that what I write is clear, straightforward and comprehensible. If one has to read a sentence several times to establish what the bloody hell is going on, the writer has rather missed the point of writing. A good example of incomprehensible prose which verges on obscurantist claptrap is what is often written by the High Priests of Self-Regard who are employed by the Independent (‘the Indy’ as they like to call it) in that paper’s arts pages. All too often it is anything but clear, straightforward and comprehensible, and there’s a suspicion that the whole point of the piece we are reading is to get us to reflect on what a clever young thing the writer is. Making sure that what you write can be understood and is understood as you want it to be understood is, as far as I can see, the only reason for getting punctuation right. But though is might be the only reason, it is a very, very good one. Commas slow you down where you should be slowed down. That is why we use commas. If anyone tells you to use a comma in a certain way because ‘that is the rule’, you in turn should tell them where to get off. Rules are descriptive, not prescriptive (although an in-depth discussion on the whys, whens and wheres is for another time when we’re both exceptionally bored and have little enthusiasm for much else. And it has just occurred to me that in pontificating, as I have just done, on the correct use of commas, I am also laying down the law. Well, you can’t win, so perhaps we shouldn’t even try.)
The beauty of computers and word-processors is that when it comes to correcting a piece you have written, they make any re-writing involved a doddle. When I was still a reporter in the late Seventies, we wrote on typewriters and on ‘copy paper’ and always had to make at least one carbon copy. (It was called ‘a black’, but in these more enlightened times, I’m sure there is a term more acceptable to sensitive souls. I was once told off for ordering a ‘black’ coffee. What should I have ordered, I asked. A coffee with ‘no milk’ I was told. Oh well, you live and learn). In those days re-writing meant scoring out a word or sentence with a row of ‘xs’ and adding the correction. Because the ‘intro’ - the first paragraph - and possibly the second par were to be printed in a point size greater than the rest of the story, they had to be written on separate sheets of copy paper because it went to the typesetter who was setting type in 10pt or 9pt, whereas the body of the story was dispatched to the typesetter who was setting type in 8pt or 7pt. My particular quirk was that however scruffy and scored-out the rest of the story was, that first sheet of copy paper had to be pristine. If I made just one slightly typing error - and I invariably made lots - I would rip the paper from my typewriter and start afresh and keep doing so until that first sheet was spotless. I have enormous respect for 19th-century novelists who wrote by hand and even later writers who used a typewriter. Re-writing - and I can’t think they did it any less than we do - must have been an unbearable chore, yet they did it.
Misspellings and literals are another matter. Literals are understandable and can easily be forgiven. Even though I have now taught myself to touch-type, which has helped writing enormously and allows me to write almost as fast as I think, I still mistype, although far less than I once did. But misspellings, where the fault lies with the brain, not the fingers, are unacceptable if they are left uncorrected. The irony is, of course, that the spell-checkers we all now use will pick up on literals, but will ignore misspellings. So, for example, in a previous entry I wrote about hacks coming back to the profession after taking time off return ‘with their tales between their legs’. Er, not quite, and that entry had since been changed to the correct ‘tails’ (although in the context in which that error found itself, it might well, ironically, have been taken to be a clever pun, although a pun so obvious I doubt I would choose to make it.) There is any number of words which lend themselves to pretending to be another and unobtrusively insinuating themselves into an otherwise upright and respectable piece of prose of unimpeachable character: there/their, bare/bear, tail/tale, discrete/discreet, piece/peace, to/too - the list is so endless that off-hand I can’t think of any more.
This is all a very long-winded way of saying: if you come across a howler in any of these blog entries, please don’t immediately write me off as an illiterate wastrel. Wait a few days, go back and check, and if the howler is still there, then by all means damn me to hell and damnation. But wait a little after first spotting it. Who knows, I might have gone back to correct it.
By the way, I can’t leave the mention of my early days as a hack without embellishing the account a little. Just a few days ago, a guy at work and I were recalling what it was then like to walk into a newsroom before we all became modern and liberal. Today, no one is allowed to smoke and we all use computers. Then, almost everyone smoked, so the atmosphere was often rather cloudy, and as we all used typewriters, it was also very, very noisy, especially as phones still had bells. There is a grand old tradition in newspapers - perhaps I should specify in British newspapers - of making do and living in squalor. So, even today after the ‘paperless revolution’, every reporter and writer’s desk is piled high with reports and agendas which were skimmed through once and will never be looked through again until they are finally thrown out when the paper, as it does periodically, re-arranges the desks on the newsroom floor. And I am really not exaggerating when I say that these piles of paper spilling here, there and everywhere, can be at least two or three foot high. MoWhen we were still using typewriters, every morning there would always be a scramble to find and commandeer one on which every key actually worked. More often than not, we would have to put up with one on which one key or another didn’t register at all or which jammed every so often. Another daily task was finding a chair which was not - quite literally - falling apart. Why did we put up with this? Why were we expected to put up with this. But we did put. It was, and still is, a mystery to me why folk who at home live like ordinary, tidy people in ordinary, tidy homes think nothing of existing like savages once they enter a newsroom. Very often we eat meals at our desks, and very often a plate, the meal half-eaten and then abandoned, will be simplyh pushed aside where the plate will remain for the next few weeks, the congealing food looking ever more unappetising and in the old smoking days all too often being joined by stubbed-out cigarettes. I have already mentioned before that most items found in newsrooms, unless their ownership is very obvious and cannot be ignored, are conveniently regarded as common property and can be taken at will. To this day I feel very guilty about an incident which happened about 15 years ago. Walking past the desk, I spotted a £10 note lying on the floor behind a colleague’s chair. Rather than pick it up and ask whether she or anyone else had lost a £10, I picked it up and put it in my pocket, even though it was very obvious that it had probably somehow fallen from her coat. I little later she did, indeed, realise that she had lost £10 note and asked of the table generally whether anyone had found one. Dear reader, to my eternal shame, I said nothing. I kept schtumm. My lips were sealed. For a brief moment I did consider coming clean and doing the right thing, but I managed to overcome that temptation without too much trouble.
So now you might understand why, older and more mature and now with at least a modicum of a moral sense, I am so intent on ensuring my entries in this blog are correctly spelled and that they make sense. It is, in fact, a kind of penance, though, thank goodness, not one I find particularly onerous. It is a way in which I hope to persuade myself that, in many ways and despite some past abysmal behaviour, I’m not a bad old stick and really do know right from wrong. Making sure that my commas are all in the right place might seem a trivial way of demonstrating my essentially moral character, but don’t knock it.

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