Errors and Omissions

Having blogged exactly once, I see two errors in the text that eluded me when I was proofreading my work. I haven’t figured out yet how to go back into the text and change those errors. I’m sure there’s a way, but I’m more interested in what these errors may be.

At first glance they are problems with composition, the dreaded spelling-grammar-punctuation-usage flaw that plagues anyone in an English class. These same troubles plague the teachers that must correct them, as I learned when I taught English, literature and writing.

The pesky manners of English composition are about as easy to learn as the multiplication tables. You memorize “rules” (which I would rather call customs) and then you apply them repeatedly until they sink in. This becomes problematic when you reach memory fatigue, as I did when, for reasons I’ll never remember, I stopped learning the tables past 11. This slowed down my ability to calculate and contributed to my envy of “math people” who can look at a splattering of numbers and instantly know the answer. Those with a similar attitude should listen to Jimmy Buffet’s hilarious song, “Math Sucks.”

Fortunately I have been saved by the calculator, which is not the same as the grammar and spell checkers in word processors because grammar and spelling are customs, rather than rules. The language is changing all the time, and the changes rarely please the fussy grammarians who memorized above 11 and become so righteously indignant when someone messes up who and whom.

I know. I used to be one. I used to get mad at people who used “kind of” and “sort of” instead of “almost” or “rather.” I’d stomp on literary discussions in college by fixing the hapless student with the steely gaze of the unquestionably correct, and say, “what KIND are you talking about?” Worse, I’d say “to sort is to arrange in an orderly fashion. A sort is an arrangement. To what sort of arrangement are you referring?”

Be assured: I’ve changed my ways, for many reasons. A significant one arose after I studied the origins of the English language, both as a hobby and as an occasional teacher of etymology (the study of word origins, which should not be confused with entomology, the study of insects). I discovered that in the 17th century, English middle class anxiety to distinguish the properly (that is, expensively) educated from the rabble led to a desire to nail down proper speech, writing, spelling and punctuation. The pioneer grammarians decided that English should resemble Latin, whose grammatical structure is based to a great extent on word endings.

Sadly, the English in use at the time (which is nearly identical to what we speak and write today) was only one-third Latin, and most of the Latin words were terms that had been either derived from French (William the Conqueror came from Normandy, and French was the official language of the English Court until the High Middle Ages), or invented in the expanding disciplines of science, medicine, religion and the law. Latin was used conversationally at universities. It was Europe’s international language of diplomacy.

The other third of English was Germanic, crossing the English channel with the Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Danes. These languages derived meaning not so much from word endings as the order in which words were used in a statement.

The other third of English is “everything else.” This includes place names from other languages (Michigan, Seattle), the names of food items¬† (coffee), words for new creatures that may become automobiles (Mustang), words that sound like what they mean (puff), acronyms (snafu), and words we event because we don’t know the correct term, we don’t like the correct term, or we have a better and more appealing one.

As you may imagine, the German and Latin parts of English have not gotten along well. Though they are used interchangeably, “same,” which derives from the German, and “equal,” from the Latin via Norman French, are neither similar, nor are they equivalent (one can find most of the major problems of American democracy in the contradictory interpretations of these words: we like to be believe that all human beings are “created” equal, but, as individuals, we are unique, and therefore, cannot and should not be the same as everyone else).

In wanting to make English more like Latin, the 17th Century grammarians created a more problems than they solved. Yes, they did systematize¬† much of what was written and those who have followed this system have achieved greatness. William Shakespeare, Winston Churchill–the list is gloriously long.

But didn’t Winston Churchill say that a preposition was a terrible thing to end a sentence with?

And why did Shakespeare infamously overload his adverbs when he had Marc Antony (that wily rabble-rouser) characterize Brutus’s stabbing of Julius Caesar as “the most unkindest cut of all”?

Please don’t tell me that in order to make great art you must learn the rules to break them. As someone who has learned the rules, I can tell you about many great artists who were in too much of a hurry to memorize and and repeat. have left us so much fabulous art precisely because they didn’t learn the rules. Academics like to dismiss these artists as “naive” or “unschooled” but, for every musician who knows theory, there are a dozen more who can’t even read a staff, who just picked up an instrument because they loved it and have filled the world with joyous noise.

I believe that we should still teach English grammar, spelling, punctuation and usage, not as rules, but as manners: historically or socially derived customs that are indulged to achieve a desired end.

This said, I proofread my first blog entry, thought it was as good as I could make it, and I didn’t see the errors.

I’m just getting old and don’t see what I may have when I was a young man in a hurry? As I recall, in my youth, I saw less errors and relied greatly on editors.

Is it the odd flickering of a digital screen that somehow makes things look perfect, even when they’re not?

Is it what Christopher Cook Gilmore (a charismatic character who was far more fun than the books he wrote at the New Jersey shore) smugly aid likened his work to a rug weaving. “The weavers put in flaws because only God can make something perfect.”

What about James Joyce, who said errors were “volitional” and, for an artist as great as he was, they led to “portals of wisdom.”

Or can I just throw up my hands and say, “I goofed.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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