Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Storms Of Paper

I'm now in the process of printing out all of the stuff wot I have written before. Since this is isn't precisely an editing round, I'm going single space/double-sided. The somewhat daunting process ahead of me: compressing 33,000 words worth of bloviation into the 15,000 word space I've allotted in my new outline. Actually, less than that. Probably 10,000, because there are some different directions I want to take in this section. Red pen, you are going to be my sexy new friend.

Luckily, my cheap and cheery laserjet printer is loaded and primed for action. If you're going to be writing a lot, accept no substitutes. Inkjets and bubblejets may print a fine photo, but when you're going to be blasting out a cool several hundred pages a month, ink which costs more per dram than the equivalent amount of single malt scotch is not going to be your traveling companion. Give me acceptable print quality and costs per page down in the low single digits any day.

I'm breathing a sigh of relief as I see these pages roll off the press that I'm not actually editing right now. I'm going to come right out and say it: I'm a lousy editor. On a scale ranging from "Absolutely Do Not Give A Fuck" on the left all the way to "Sherlock Holmes Is Horrified By My Meticulous Detail" on the right, I'm probably a two or a three. More fuck, less Sherlock, so to speak.

I've always had a tense relationship with grammar. Half of English grammar seems to be for the convenience of copy editors and the other half is grammar appropriated from other, more civilized, languages and applied wholesale to our own, with no thought for what actually exists or is in use.

English is a strange language. At its root, it's a variant of Old Germanic, full of neat vital words like "knock" and "hill". Every few centuries, it gets infusions from other languages to weird things up a bit. A blast of Church Latin from Christianity here. Some northern words from Viking raiders, such as "lawyer" and "midden," there. The occasional Norman invasion adds in a dollop of French. A constant stream of loan words and constructions arrive from immigrants. The result is rather schizophrenic and a nightmare to describe.

Most of the rules we follow were cooked up wholesale back in the 19th century when the literati really wished, deep down, that English was actually Latin. We were urged to not split infinitives or end sentences with prepositions, in spite of the fact that it's perfectly valid in spoken English to do such things. In Latin, you shouldn't split infinitives, for example, because you CAN'T. Not without making your sentence melt into a goopy mess. In English, it's just fine. To boldly go, and all of that.

At least the more copy-editor-driven grammatical rules make sense. Legibility is a good goal to have. Paragraphs should be about a thing. Sentences should flow properly on a page. Punctuation is your friend because they're the shepherd dogs of words. If your punctuation is all willy-nilly, then your readers may give up in frustration or read your stuff the wrong way.

More formal constructions, though...language was never evolved, specifically, to be written down. To write words down is to kill them, in a sense. Spoken language, when transcribed onto paper, very rarely resembles written dialogue. It's ugly and messy, has terrible flow, too many pauses. There's no spoken way to pronounce a semi-colon, even.

A true grammar of any language would be very difficult to express in words. It would mostly involve statistics and algorithms. At a basic level, any language can convey a certain amount of meaning, no matter how much you mangle it. A real grammar would not output a statement of true/false when asked the question "is this sample correct?" It would output a scale of truthiness instead: "does this sample feel native or authentic? How much? Does it make the speaker sound like a rube?"

Grammar is probably a thing more of mathematics than anything else. It's like spoken DNA--there's probably no set of rules for any given language, only a sliding scale which must take into account where you're from and who you're talking to. It would have to take into account history and context. And the output tells the listener more about the speaker than just what the words are conveying.

And this is why I'm a lousy editor. I tend to negotiate with the page too much instead of having a mental checklist of rules. When I correct punctuation and spelling, I'm mentally more about making things pretty than following any system of logic or checklist of things to look for. I'm not sure if it's for the reasons above or out of general laziness. Probably both.

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