by Catriona Mills

Ack! It's Everywhere!

Posted 4 November 2008 in by Catriona

Okay, this rant is a clash between two of my current obsessions: Bones and sentence-level punctuation and grammar errors.

I’m not concerned about my obsession with Bones: it’s one of the few shows that we actually watch on telly, rather than waiting for the DVDs to come out, so it’s not much of an obsession. But the show is simultaneously grotesque and frequently hilarious, and I’ve always enjoyed David Boreanaz much more in comic roles.

(Angelus, for example, was much more fun than Angel—not that Angelus was funny. Well, in an incredibly dark sense, he was.)

The obsession with punctuation is not something I’ve kept secret.

I don’t claim for an instant that my writing is perfect at the sentence level. In fact, I know it’s not. Sometimes, when I look back over the past entries on the blog, I have to silently correct embarrassing mistakes that I should have spotted the first time around—especially in the live-blogging, though I tend to leave anything that’s not a factual error, to maintain the authenticity of the process.

But I maintain that it is at least competent.

And for five years or more, I’ve been teaching writing courses that rarely extend beyond the paragraph level, so I’ve become more and more attuned to spotting sentence-level errors—largely, of course, the more common errors.

And today those two obsessions clashed horribly, when I was looking up the details on a forthcoming episode of Bones on Your TV:

Bones
The Pain in the Heart
9.30pm – 10.30pm Seven
Monday 10 November 2008
In an episode that will rock the lab to it’s core, a well known serial killer strikes again and when crutial evidence mysteriously goes missing, every Jeffersonian employee becomes a suspect.

The odd thing is that I’ve never noticed this quantity of errors on the site before.

I could let the absence of a hyphen in the compound adjective slide.

But that mistake with “its”? That’s basic—and it’s not that difficult to distinguish between the two uses. Though we all type the wrong one occasionally, it’s not too tricky to correct any errors on a read-through.

And the misspelling of “crucial”? Oh, lord.

In the courses that I teach, we have a draconian attitude towards spelling errors because, as we emphasise each semester, nothing will ruin your credibility with a reader faster than a spelling error.

That’s certainly true here—especially since any computer-based spell checker would have picked that one up.

Share your thoughts [7]

1

Matthew Smith wrote at Nov 4, 03:46 AM

Would you say that correct spelling and punctuation is crutial? The apostrophe in “its” always gets me tripped up because a part of my brain is convinced that if the “it” is the owner, then an apostrophe is needed e.g. “I hated the building so much I threw rocks through it’s windows”: because the windows belong to “it” the building. Luckily, the proof-reading part of my brain is on the ball most of the time.

2

Catriona wrote at Nov 4, 04:04 AM

No, but I’d say it’s crucial.

It’s a matter of credibility—and, yes, I’m trained up through and teach in the academic system, so that colours my perspective, but all forms of professional writing depend on the credibility of the writer. And if your writing is riddled with errors, you lose credibility in the eyes of your reader.

There’s a Philip Pullman quote that I use in an early lecture that sums it up quite nicely:

Sometimes we’re told that this sort of thing doesn’t matter very much. If only a few readers recognise and object to unattached participles, for example, and most readers don’t notice and sort of get the sense anyway, why bother? I discovered a very good answer to that, and it goes like this: if people don’t notice when we get it wrong, they won’t mind if we get it right. And if we do get it right, we’ll please the few who do know and care about these things, so everyone will be happy.

From “Voluntary Service” in The Guardian 28 December, 2002.

I know why the lack of an apostrophe in “its” throws people, but none of the other possessive pronouns have an apostrophe. It’s much rarer for people to insert an apostrophe in “his,” “hers,” “ours,” or “theirs,” so I’m always a little stymied by the insistence on putting one in “its.”

I suppose it’s because the possessive pronoun is so close to the pronoun itself, unlike, say, “he” and “his.”

But, as I say, there’s nothing wrong with making errors—everyone does it. The problem lies in not proof-reading for mechanical correctness. And issues such as its/it’s or creating plurals with apostrophes are rules that can be internalised over time, if you keep an eye on your writing and remain aware of the errors that you yourself commonly make.

(Not you, Matt—general you. Stupid, ambiguous second person.)

3

Tim wrote at Nov 4, 08:36 AM

You say ‘credibility’, I say ‘sociopolitical status’. There is a streak of elitism in Pullman’s argument.

;)

4

Catriona wrote at Nov 4, 09:45 AM

Tim! You’re commenting again!

Yes, there’s certainly a streak of elitism in Pullman’s argument: that doesn’t surprise me, and I’m not going to argue with it.

But I maintain that as far as my own writing and the subjects that I teach are concerned, it is a matter of credibility.

Few of my students will end up taking the academic path, but the credibility of an academic’s work would be ruined if, for example, they spelt Austen’s name wrong throughout their article.

And it’s the same in any workplace.

It would, of course, be inappropriate to malign or ostracise someone because their writing is not mechanically correct, and I would hope that I don’t do that.

But I’m not convinced that arguing in favour of aiming for mechanical correctness in professional documents is itself elitist.

That’s what disturbed me about the Your TV piece: it’s a published, professional document.

5

Tim wrote at Nov 4, 10:11 AM

I’m not saying it’s not about credibility; I’m saying (in a spirit of perversity) that credibility is at least partly a matter of status. ‘Correctness’ is constructed. Every speech act is a sociopolitical act.

On another level, of course, I entirely agree with you. :)

6

Catriona wrote at Nov 4, 12:13 PM

Well, you are an editor, so I would anticipate your agreeing with me on one level, at least.

(Plus, you correct my grammar all the time.)

I don’t think I’m elitist. I teach and work within a particular context, and I do make an effort to emphasise to my students, for example, that a certain tone, style, and level of mechanical correctness are what is expected of them by and in academia.

That’s largely the perspective I’m coming from here—and, indeed, in the entire blog.

That’s not to say, of course, that I wouldn’t like to see grammar back on the high-school syllabus.

7

Tim wrote at Nov 4, 01:14 PM

Indeed.

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