Saturday, 24 July 2010
Sometimes it's right to be wrong
I know the rules of English grammar. I do, honestly I do. I understand who and whom, your and you’re, and where words go in sentences.
I’ve had rows with people about English grammar. A mother at my children's school got very upset because the class teacher had written a sentence which ended with a preposition. ‘You learn that you shouldn’t do that in sixth grade!’ she said. ‘I think it’s fine,’ I replied. ‘You’re wrong,’ she said.
I gritted my teeth. How dare she challenge me? I had been a commissioning editor on a broadsheet national paper. How dare she! I’m ashamed to admit that I spent the evening printing out pages from the internet ('You've finally gone mad' said my husband) proving that I was correct – and presented her with them the following day. This is the kind of petty mania which possesses expat mothers, cut off from their professional lives. Quite soon afterwards I found myself a local job as an editor.
But in When I Was Joe and Almost True I break rule after rule, with abandon. It’s all in the voice. Ty says less when he should say fewer, he splits infinitives, he says ‘like’ instead of ‘as if’. Reading the final version of Almost True, I was horrified to find an error – a place where Ty uses correct grammar in saying ‘If I were Harry Potter’. Of course he should have said, incorrectly, ‘If I was..’
Sometimes I felt I should put a disclaimer at the beginning of the books reading: ‘The author would like to apologise for the narrator’s poor grammar, and assure readers that the mistakes are deliberate.’ But I didn’t. So if the preposition stickler mum ever gets hold of a copy then she will probably wave it in the air, saying ‘I knew it! She knows nothing about grammar.’
The final edit for Almost True was an exercise in thinking about grammar. The proof reader and editor had identified 972 instances where there could be a comma added or removed. I had to consider each one, thinking about the pace, the context, the clarity of the sentence. My instinct when writing was to avoid punctuation as much as possible, and to keep it simple. No colons or semi-colons, lots of ellipses, dashes - I love dashes – and full stops. Quite often my response to these phantom missing commas was to find a way to avoid their use altogether by cutting out sub-clauses and creating new short sentences.
I loved a recent obituary in The Economist for the Portuguese Nobel laureate in literature Jose Saramago, pictured above. Here is an extract from it:
Punctuation, he said, was like traffic signs, too much of it distracted you from the road on which you travelled, and if you wondered, Wouldn’t writing be rather confusing without it, he would say No, it was like the constant wash and turn of the sea, sounding even more sibilant in Portuguese than in English, or like a journey taken by a traveller, every step linked to the next and every end to a beginning, or like the press of time, no sooner coming than going, never stopping in the present, which consequently never existed.