Since I’m both an editor and a writer, it would be fair to say that I think about words a lot. It would, perhaps, be unfair to say that I obsess about them, but not necessarily inaccurate. Caring about good spelling and grammar is, at least for me, just a subset of appreciating English in all its Frankensteinian splendor, and I’d like to address that aspect more often. Rather than pedantry for the sake of pedantry, I view typo-hunting as cleaning the glass that protects works of great beauty, in a kind of continually fluxing museum, the curation of the textual world.
Typos are a distraction from and a detractor to the larger picture. It’s true that many of the words we use today are corruptions of historically differently spelled words, and that in the future, some more common misspellings may become the new norm. That’s language change, and I’m not concerned with that. I’m addressing the isolated errors, the widespread misunderstandings of phonetic logic and agreed-upon standards. To say a typo in a given sentence “doesn’t matter” is to say the whole sentence doesn’t matter, and that kind of casual dismissal is a willful blindness to the potential power of English.
I see this very phenomenon all the time in the majority of fiction books and scripted shows and films. The characters talk in cliches, and the descriptive metaphors are ones we’ve heard far too many times before. How does such tired writing happen? Because the authors or screenwriters look at their first-draft prose, say to themselves, “Screw it, that’s good enough,” not taking the time to realize that it can be so much better. Editing really is a wonder– it’s like a multiplication of the writer’s brain, a dialogue among various copies of the author. First-draft author is an admirable workman but a bit of a hack; he writes down whatever pops into his head. Second-draft author is slower-paced but has a clearer eye for how the larger story structure fits together, or at least how it should fit once he’s done with it. Third-draft author has a remarkable knack for turning familiar and overused phrases into fresh, surprising stuff, by masticating each line. And so on. All these guys team up to make something great, and none of them could have done it alone.
Such are the often astonishing fruits that can be shaken from the fulsome orchard of English. A note: obviously I’m referring to longer-form, more durable prose above, as opposed to the disposable text composing much of the internet, such as IMs, e-mails, Facebook rants, and this blog. There’s a difference between functional, throwaway writing and writing that’s supposed to stick around for a while.
About Jeff Deck
Jeff Deck has felt an incinerating passion for proper spelling and grammar from an early age. In sixth grade he placed third in the class spelling bee, with only a technicality hindering him from even higher rank. In both seventh and eighth grade he won the schoolwide spelling bee, only to flub the district bee each time.
Deck has written about retirement communities and reviewed books for Washingtonian magazine, and his short stories have appeared in The Furnace Review and Boston Literary Magazine. He very nearly got into an MFA program one time, and enjoys drawing comic strips. He lives in the greater Boston area but will be moving to the town of Portsmouth, New Hampshire in summer 2010. He is 5’10” without shoes.