Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Rules or Conventions?

Here's a little fact that my younger readers might find interesting; In the before time, pre-1984, there wasn't a standard way of spelling.

Before (and for a few years after) the Mac brought real word processing to the masses different Professors had different ways of spelling words and if your version didn't match theirs, tough you got marked off on it. One of the most useful cheat sheets that the English Majors would passed around was a list of how the different Professors spelled words so you could check to see if you spelled it the way they wanted.

If your paper needed the word “Trying” you would check the sheet to see if your professor spelled it, Trying, Triing, Trieing, or Trieng. Sounds chaotic but those of us who went to school in the before time learned to live with it.

In '86 one of my Professors didn't allow papers that were done on the Word Processor because he felt the spell check misspelled words. So with my poor spelling abilities I would type my papers up on the Mac, run the spell check (They weren't powerful enough back then to have check as you go) print it out, check it against my list, then retype it on my Remington Standard 16 (I had a new Smith-Corona as well but the 1920 Remington worked better) and then handed it in.

Once the word processor killed the typewriter people accepted the word processor's spell check as god. Although the spell check on Open Office is a little sexist and can't deal with the few words in English that have gender. It keeps wanting to give my females blond hair instead of blonde (the feminine spelling).

Besides showing my age, this story does have a point.

If you look at the reviews on Amazon there are trolls who complain about the grammar in almost every book. These people have me in awe, traditional books get proof read by a team of copy writers that pass tests that 98% of the people fail. Good copy editing is very profitable so these people who take their valuable skills and freely use them on books proofed by others are incredibly generous souls. Either that or they don't know what the hell they are talking about and are using their high school level grammar to judge people who have studied English as a language.

English is unique as a language as all others were created by humans and evolved with society, English was handed down by God in 1762. Bishop Robert Lowth wrote A SHORT INTRODUCTION TO ENGLISH GRAMMAR in 1762 as he had studied Latin extensively so he felt English would benefit by having a set of grammar principles laid out just like the Vatican had for Latin.

There were two slight problems with this. First, English is a Germanic language and Latin is a Roman language. Second, English is a living language and Latin is a dead language.

If anyone else had written it they would be laughed at, but at the time the church could chop off peoples heads for laughing at them so it was treated as if god himself had written it. Bishop Lowth's book is the basis for most grammar books used today.

Because English grammar rules were enforced so heavily by both the church and British Government, English speakers have a larger percentage of Prescriptive Grammarians than any other language.

In linguistic terms people treat their language as either Prescriptive or Descriptive. Prescriptive grammarians feel that there is a strict set of rules for their language. Descriptive grammarians feel the speakers and writers of a language determine how the language is used.

All the commenters on Amazon feel that the Prescriptive Grammar is how English should be written. They feel that they will win the war of grammar. Except that war has been fought and the Prescriptive Grammarians lost. Which brings me back to the story at the beginning of this post.

A Prescriptive Grammar checker isn't that much harder to program than a spell checker. The early Mac's came with a much more aggressive grammar checker than modern word processors. Early users went through the same steps, turned it on to 5 its highest setting. Hit Ignore 15 times per page. Next paper, back it down to 4, hit Ignore 10 times per page. Next paper, turned grammar check off. Re-read the paper and noticed a bunch of grammar mistakes. Next paper turned grammar check to the lowest setting, let it catch the biggest grammar mistakes, re-read the paper and caught a few more and were happy with that.

In a 75,000 to 140,000 word novel there will be mistakes, in the pulp science fiction novels from the 50s that I grew up on their were 4 to 6 per page. In modern novels a couple per chapter. In the last book I reviewed I got more distracted by the lack of mistakes when I hit my first one after 100 pages than if I encountered 4 to 6 per page. The whole point of spelling and grammar in a language is to make the writer or speaker be understood. If a reader can see what the writer is trying to say without having to re-read the sentence the writer has done their job.

Corrections and Retractions:

A book critic said that those who can write, those who can't write reviews. I hope that means that I can write because I can't write a review. In my review of NEW WORLD ORDERS Monday I forgot the most important thing that any review needs to have: Where to buy the damn book.

NEW WORLD ORDERS is available at Smashwords for $0.99

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