31 October, 2011

Grammar Rules, OK?

What, precisely, does this say about me? My boss visited me at work the other day, to give me a letter from someone high up in the company, changing somewhat my working conditions, and to cover those changes with me; he gave me the letter to read, then asked if i had any comment. The very first thing i did was to point out a grammatical error in the letter (“lot’s” for “lots”) and laugh that the higher up clearly doesn’t have a proof reader like my boss (i perform that task for him quite regularly). In fact, there were three errors in the letter ~ which in itself surely says something about the value that higher up puts on us more lowly types!


What got my curiosity going, however, was my reaction to the letter. The changes are not really dramatic, nothing that will badly affect me, though i am going to have to work a little bit later twice a week, which could be a problem if i were with someone also working full-time and we had young children at home ~ and there are bound to be some of my colleagues affected in this way ~ so i didn’t really have to question the content of the letter; nevertheless, it is surely a little odd that my first reaction is to examine the form of the message, not the message itself. In truth, errors such as these stand out to me when i read something, stand out so dramatically that i struggle to overcome them (doesn’t mean i cannot make them myself, however, so don’t bother pointing out any of mine own!) and move on to the meaning.


This confusion (though that isn’t quite the right word, since i know what i am doing, and can tell the difference) between medium and meaning affects me at other times, too. One of the most obvious is reading books. If i come across an error of spelling, grammar or (heaven help us) fact in something i am reading i am confounded by it. I am truly amazed that, whatever it is, it was not picked up by the author in proof-reading, or by his editor, or by a copy-editor or someone paid to do the job at the publishing house. How, i wonder, can such carelessness have been allowed to slip through? Frequently, if i go back and read my book reviews, i have been so incensed by a series of such errors that i have had to mention them in the review; on occasion, such an error is almost all i can recall of a book i have read: There was a book i read in seminary, for example, by a man called McBeth, and though i know i enjoyed the book, the single thing i remember about it (other than its physical dimensions and feeling, of course) is that there was an error in which he mis-dated the Glorious Revolution, or misspoke in naming the participants. How silly of me, for the subject of the book was Church (specifically, Baptist) history, not secular, and the actual error made no difference at all to his argument, yet now, some twentyfour or five years later, that’s all i recall.


Thus comes the real joy of reading articles on Wikipedia, the on-line encyclop√¶dia: If i come across a nasty spelling or grammatical mistake, i can correct it. Immediately. What a lovely feeling of accomplishment; what a super way to learn. And, indeed, a large number of edits that i have made to Wikipedia are corrections of such simple errors. Usually i say that i am doing a “Typofix”, which seems kinder in implication than something along the lines of “Correction of grammatical ignorance”. The latter, though, is sometimes closer to the truth!

25 October, 2011

People who ought to know better

I am annoyed on occasion by people saying or writing something that they really ought to know better than. It happened not that long ago (in the great scheme of things) listening to BBC Radio 4, usually a source of intelligent conversation ~ except when politicians are interviewed in the morning on the Today Programme ~ but not this time. I was listening to a woman talking about books and, to aid her in talking about The Screwtape Letters, she brought in a literate vicar (i believe those were her actual words, though i could be mistaken). In the process of saying that the Letters had once been one of his favourite Christian books but now was not, he mentioned that one of the things he dislikes about C.S. Lewis is the way he condemns Susan, in the Narnia books, because she likes lipstick and make-up.

Now this is just plain false, and it annoys me to hear it. I do not know if this literate vicar is misremembering, or not as literate as the presenter apparently thought, or if he and others (including Philip Pullman) whom i have read or heard making the same point are consciously and purposely misrepresenting the facts. Certainly Pullman, if none other, is intelligent enough to know the truth. That truth is, of course, quite different from what is said, and i am annoyed because this gives an incorrect idea of Lewis and Aslan and of the God who stands behind both those two, which, certainly in Pullman’s case, suits his intentions.

The truth is, clearly, that Susan has chosen to be a grown-up, which is symbolised by the cosmetics, rather than to retain the childlike faith in and desire to be close to Aslan. Peter, when asked by Tirian, who remembers that there were four children, about his sister, says, “My sister Susan...is no longer a friend of Narnia”; their cousin Eustace adds that Susan claims the others are merely “thinking about all those funny games we used to play when we were children”. Clearly, if one reads the text, the grown-up interests of Susan are simply a symptom of her attention and focus, which is being in this world fully, rather than the reason she is condemned.

Two or three times during the Chronicles Lewis makes it clear that Aslan does not have the power, or has chosen to limit his power, to break through someone’s unbelief: The dwarves in The Last Battle, for example, and Andrew Ketterly in The Magician’s Nephew are permitted to block out Aslan’s voice so completely that his goodness is unable to reach them. This limitation is obviously parallel with that of Jesus, who never gave up on those who didn’t believe him, but warned them about misascribing the actions of the Holy Spirit to the Evil One (Luke 11:14ff., for example).

It is important to recognise that i am not pretending that Susan is not condemned, having chosen a poorer way; i am, though, concerned that the truth be seen, that Lewis not be condemned himself, purposely or accidentally, for something he did not do. He himself passes no judgement on Susan in the narration: All the words against her are spoken by the characters in the books and, within the series’ world it is clear that she herself is responsible for her own poor choice. The fact is, just as Susan is not condemned for liking lipstick but for refusing to continue her friendship with Aslan, Lewis’s orthodox belief is that a person is not damned for doing evil but for turning his back on God. A subtle difference, but incredibly important.



07 October, 2011

Ah, how i love language.

Lost English

Chris Roberts

Bought this for Chen for her birthday and, naturally enough, read it! It is different from the other books of words which have dropped out of common use in English because the words and phrases here are very much of recent vintage and loss, rather than the more usual centuries old words. Certainly, some of the entries i’ve read here i have used within my life, indeed, some of them i’m not sure i wouldn’t still use (which may speak more to my innate conservatism than anything else!), such as “Heath Robinson”, “blotting paper”, or “pell-mell”, for example. The book is nicely written, with good language (definitely necessary in a book about language) well controlled. In fact, the only real complaint i have about it is one i have run across previously, though i’m not sure if i have expressed mine aggravation in any of these reviews: Certain publishers (for it is a publisher stupidity, not anything to do with the author) seem to get mixed up between the “1” key and the capital “I” when writing dates, so here, in a book which frequently uses dates, i was often annoyed by things like this ~ “the late I950s” or “from I972 to I985” ~ which look really idiotic. Small point, but very annoying in terms of disturbing the flow of reading.

Curiously, just as i post this, i have read a review of this book on Library Thing (or Librarything ~ i refuse to follow the ridiculous trend of putting capital letters in the middle of words), and the person who wrote it was rather less appreciative of the book than i. And they claim to be an English expert. I'm a little disappointed ~ in myself or them? Not sure!