Friday 25 July 2008

The language.

Loads of people have been linking to Giles Coren's beautifully expressed hatred of sub-editors, and who am I to resist a bandwagon?

I don't really like people tinkering with my copy for the sake of tinkering. I do not enjoy the suggestion that you have a better ear or eye for how I want my words to read than I do. Owen, we discussed your turning three of my long sentences into six short ones in a single piece, and how that wasn't going to happen anymore, so I'm really hoping it wasn't you that fucked up my review on saturday.

It was the final sentence. Final sentences are very, very important. A piece builds to them, they are the little jingle that the reader takes with him into the weekend.

I wrote: "I can't think of a nicer place to sit this spring over a glass of rosé and watch the boys and girls in the street outside smiling gaily to each other, and wondering where to go for a nosh."
it appeared as: "I can't think of a nicer place to sit this spring over a glass of rosé and watch the boys and girls in the street outside smiling gaily to each other, and wondering where to go for nosh."

There is no length issue. This is someone thinking "I'll just remove this indefinite article because Coren is an illiterate cunt and i know best".

Well, you fucking don't.


Gary points out Roland White's impassioned defence of the subeditor (which may or may not be serious — or, rather, it's clearly not serious, but it's not clear whether he really likes subs), and adds:

I’ve had subtle gags ruined by unnecessary exclamation marks

[shudder] That's about the worst thing you can do to writing, that is.

Generally, though, I’m with A.A. Gill:

The joy of being a hack is that there is a back room of people far cleverer, more experienced and adept than I working to make me look clever, experienced and adept. If on occasion I fail to do so, naturally it’s their fault.

The whole thing has got me thinking, and I've decided that modern subediting, which doesn't stop at merely correcting mistakes but goes way beyond what should be its remit and amends a writer's style, is not just annoying for Giles Coren but is actually wrong in principle.

Thing is, language is defined by its writers. It makes no real sense to talk about whether there are grammatical mistakes in the King James Bible, for instance, because our grammar is based on the King James Bible. When considering whether a particular usage is valid, a linguist would refer to the King James Bible — as well as Shakespeare, Austen, Dickens, Bronte, Wilde, Carroll, and the other greats — to see whether they used it. Basically, if it's in there, it's correct. They all made mistakes, sure — Johnson really should have put an H in "discord" or no H in "chord" — but their mistakes were theirs only: it's not my mistake when I spell "chord" with an H in it, because Johnson, errors and all, was one of the writers whose work defines our language.

Now, journalists aren't quite as influential, usually, as Shakespeare. But the same process does take place with their work. New words and usages enter the lanuage, with the OED citing newspaper columns as their first recorded instances. The language is supposed to change, and journalists, with the size and frequency of their audience, are agents of that change. Look at "misunderestimate": a brilliant and useful word, coined (by accident) by George Bush. If he had just said it, I reckon it would have remained forever a one-off mistake. It was the word's appropriation and repetition by journalists that caused it to catch on.

Now, do we want a language whose future is built by imaginative, creative writers or by subeditors with lists of rules? As I said on Gary's blog, Tolkien reportedly spent hours going through The Lord of the Rings, laboriously changing back every instance of "try and" that American subs had changed to "try to". This is JRR fucking Tolkien, writing one of the greatest books ever written, and the bloody subs still thought they spoke better English. Would you rather have read their version?

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