Monday, March 23, 2015

Spelling Counts (also Punctuation, Word Choice, and Grammar) [6 Oct. 2013]

"I like cooking my family and my pets."
Use commas. Don't be a psycho." (

"NO RAGRETS" — Highly visible tatoo in We're the millers (2013)

             When I first started teaching back in the late 1960s, students would tell me with some regularity, "I don't need to know how to spell and punctuate; my secretary will take care of that." And I would ask, "And what makes you think you won't be the secretary, and happy to have the job?"

            Secretaries nowadays are a dying breed, and most people realize they're going to be typing (etc.) their own papers and presentations and all, but young folk still sometimes resist the idea that spelling, punctuation, word usage, and just idiomatic English — I taught English — are significant.

            In a way, they're not significant. Not when you realize that much of the time when people say, "That's not grammatical," they mean, "That doesn't conform to the rules in the prestige dialect" or "That's unfashionable." Much of the time it's a snob thing. And such trivial errors are obviously trivial when set against real problems in language like Orwellian twisting of words so ethyl alcohol consumed to get zonked isn't a drug and nerve gas is "a weapon of mass destruction" but cluster bombs are not.

            Still, there are readers who will get upset that I used a sentence fragment in the last paragraph but can accept without comment talk about "alcohol and drugs" and can have a beer in hand while demanding putting people in jail forever and ever for using  drugs; there are people who will get upset by my sentence fragment and Syrian civilians getting killed by illegal nerve gas, but not so upset if any foreigners get killed by legal high explosives.

            Sentence fragments can be useful, and I use them when I think they will be effective. However, I need to be conscious of when I'm using them and consider if I annoy more of my target audience with the sentence fragment than the point is worth. If it's a matter of indifference whether or not I use fragments, most of the time I can do it the way my (imagined) audience wants. Especially if I want to, say, move them to support legalizing marijuana or helping get peace in Syria — or wherever — without the US firing missiles at people.

            Anyway, back when I taught, I would tell my resistant students how MAD Magazine once ran a letter to the editor attacking MAD for its lack of intellectual sophistication. "The Usual Gang of Idiots" at MAD simply ran the letter as they received it, with "[sic]" after each misspelled word.

            Now whether or not the letter-writer could spell was irrelevant to his argument about the intelligence level of MAD Magazine. Ditto for punctuation and such. Still, what I recall is the three of four "sic's" and that the letter-writer not only didn't make his point but also looked ignorant, and a fool. That isn't fair; that wasn't fair; but it was an effective ploy on the part of the staff at MAD. (Satirists are not nice people.)

            "Proper" spelling and punctuation is the writing equivalent of actors' learning their lines. If you're an actor, and your friends' compliment you after a performance with, "Uh, well, you certainly remembered all your lines!" … you can be pretty sure your performance sucked. The same rule applies with spelling and punctuation and what we used to call "Basic Conventions": It's no compliment if people point out you got them right; just don't screw them up.
            For a more powerful if less exact analogy, getting the basic conventions right is like remembering to zip up after hitting the head before The Big Speech. Or for a more woman-acknowledging/unisex example, checking to be sure you aren't entering to the speech "trailing clouds of glory," and toilet paper.

            Trust me on this: Odds are that few people will remember your speech, but your friends will remember and remind you of your embarrassment long after they've forgotten the names of their grandchildren.

            E.g., a really great Shakespeare scholar taught the course I took on tragedy and one day delivered what I'm sure was a fine presentation on … well I've forgotten. What I do recall is that the class puritan had a front-row center seat, and that I was one of the teacher's "eye-contact people" but had to keep my head down because the guy next to me was speculating on whether or not the professor wore underwear (he announced that he saw none) and on possible reactions of Miss Cotton Mather in the front row looking at the prof at crotch level — and if I looked the professor in the eye I was going to crack up laughing.

            That's all petty and immature and, well, totally typical. That pettiness, though, is there, and writers must deal with it, and not just writers in English classes.

            My experience is that most English teachers are educated enough as scholars — and hardened enough as readers of student writing — to sweat the small stuff rather less than the somewhat-educated readers out in what is often called "The Real World."

            I now work on the periphery of the semi-real world of the film business, and I have met one producer with an absolute rule that the third or fourth spelling error he comes on in a script — he tosses the script. Yeah, the scriptwriter may be a Hemingway or a Shakespeare, but the odds are strongly against it, and producers get a lot of scripts and are looking for reasons to reject scripts.

            As I occasionally try to explain, readers of scripts understand the economics here. As Robert A. Heinlein is said to have said — it oversimplifies the quote but makes pithier what he actually advised, and more entertaining — «Don't revise unless an editor makes you.» Even as pulp writers of the mid-20th century had to minimize the labor they put into each manuscript, so with script writers: the economics of the situation mean that you shouldn't revise a script unless you can get it sold, and different readers will give you different "Notes," and different producers will have different demands.

            But little in spelling and punctuation is debatable, and it just looks bush-league and disrespectful if you don't even bother to run the spell check and get the sucker proofread before you send it in. Look, we know it's an early draft — but don't rub our noses in it.

            And quite frequently, "we" do know.

            Initial reading of most scripts isn't done by recent-immigrant studio executives from the early days of the talkies nor by over-schooled but undereducated MBA's that fit the current stereotypes. Initial reading is frequently done by over-worked, underpaid, female recent college graduates who are very good at what they do. Do not piss them off unnecessarily, and it will piss them off when an agent sends them what, on the level of the sentence, looks like an early draft by a high-school junior.

            Or, for the lumpen literati out there who don't have agents — or only small-time agents — the script will be read by someone like me: a friend of an Indie producer, a guy with free time and some education who does the first reading. More, exactly: a friend who does the first reading if the producer reads the first few pages and decides it deserves a reading at all.

            Similarly in other fields: There's a fair chance you'll be read by a twenty-two-year old who can't spell either and is occasionally unclear on the meaning of words s/he's heard a few times but hasn't read often in context because s/he doesn't read often.

            That's possible. It's also possible you'll get a very smart twenty-three year old with a good education who knows not to get hung up with spelling errors, but notices them.

            The semi-literates probably won't downgrade you for spelling right and getting your words to mean things within shouting distance of the dictionary definition. With literate readers, those spelling errors (and such) are trivial — but also like showing up to the interview with your fly open / trailing toilet paper caught in your shoe and panty hose.

            Zip your fly; check your hose and shoes; run the goddamn Spell Check; proofread each draft — and get your final draft proofread by someone competent you can trust.

            Spelling does count, and so do punctuation, word choice, and the other "Basic Conventions."

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