I have spent the last six weeks editing a book. Publishing in the digital age isn’t what it was. The days of turning in a physical manuscript and waiting for the proofs seem long-since gone. To be an author/editor is also, now, to be a copy editor and type setter. My eyes are addled by the constant scrutiny, searching earnestly for rogue commas and inadvertent spaces; watching out for the differences between Em spaces and En spaces; burning the occasional ‘which’ that should be a that, which follows a genuine rule you know; juggling leading (line spacing), and font sizing, headings and subheadings, headers, footers and the like. I’ve also been unifying spelling and punctuation. When you have fifteen people writing in English who hail from half-a-dozen different countries it is quite apparent that English is not one language but many. Also references: there are really only four main styles of academic referencing, but most academics write in an idiosyncratic combination of all four. Making one out of four is a devilish business. And of course there are mistakes, and often not of the obvious variety. Would you be able to spot that a quote from Cicero is mistakenly attributed to ‘On Ends’ when really it came from ‘On Duties’? Well, to my surprise, I did.
Now, forget page counts and word counts. When you consciously set about eyeballing every facet of a document (you can hit the show/hide button in MS Word to make every key stroke appear on the page, including spaces and carriage returns) the relevant number becomes the character count. There are, at present, 707,000 characters in this book. I am, understandably I think, bleary eyed. But I am also satisfied.
Why? Because this stuff is important. Too many people these days cannot form basic sentences in their native language (I am reasonably convinced that the problem is worst for English speakers). Spelling has gone out of the window; punctuation is like some mysterious black art; grammar, so far as many people are concerned, is merely your mother’s mother. Mistakes are passed over unnoticed. The beautiful, slippery, taut but paradoxically flexible vagaries of grammatical rule are jettisoned in favour of expediency, laziness, and an altogether unengaged approach to discourse. I maintain, however, that these things are the pillars of politeness. They afford us grace in our interlocutions. They hold us together by a common bond. They pour meaning into belonging, and grant that feeling an esteem, appreciated most, perhaps, when we see it abused. And yet our language, when used properly, also allows us to transcend its strictures, and therein lies its power, its authority, and dare I say it, its cool. But rules can only be broken when rules are known. Otherwise transgression is simple ignorance, and in simple ignorance there is no power, and no authority. There is no cool.
The Devil is in the details. We should do well to pay them mind. Our language is, after all, a precious inheritance.
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