Nonstandard Usage Detracts from Novel
The English language can certainly be said to be in flux when college professors write such stuff as:
1. She reached into her carpetbag to her side and found her ever-present notepad.
2. This was the first unsolicited compliment her figure had ever gotten by a young man
3. Pneumonia, thought Lucy calmly, and at the very least, flu
4. I weary of hearing about John and his sentinel at the cross
and a press as prestigious as St Martin’s publishes it.
I recorded four single-spaced typed pages of notes on unidiomatic English and misused words while reading the 776-page Gospel by Wilton Barnhardt.
At first I imagined that the author, who has a German surname, was writing in English as a second language and I was favorably impressed with his fluency. Then I googled him and discovered that not only is he a native-born American, he has a degree from the University of Oxford (England), and teaches creative writing at an American university.
Now I’m asking, is it just me? Am I so out of touch as all that? Where was I when such strange usages as these became acceptable for educated writers?
Mind you, the novel was meticulously researched. I know that the author has done his homework because the subject of the novel is one with which I am familiar. He has even provided footnotes and an index! It is an impressive work. But the odd, unidiomatic English distracts the reader and detracts from the scholarship. And where was the editor?
Shouldn’t an editor have noticed this kind of thing:
The jewels of Meroe, like its gold, was a legend with a source in truth for once. (jewels were)
The gig is up, thought Lucy. (jig)
she met him…all rearing to go (raring)
In case it’s not obvious, I’ll explain what I mean about the examples quoted above:
1. She reached into her carpetbag to her side and found her ever-present notepad. The preposition “to” should be “at” and the two “hers” do not work.
Better: She reached into the carpetbag at her side…
2. This was the first unsolicited compliment her figure had ever gotten by a young man This was the first unsolicited compliment her figure had ever gotten from a young man. The “by” would work if the prepositional phrase stood next to compliment:
This was the first unsolicited compliment by a young man that her figure had ever gotten.
3. Pneumonia, thought Lucy calmly, and at the very least, flu. The character thinks she has contracted either pneumonia or the flu. Pneumonia is more serious than the flu so the sentence should read: Pneumonia, thought Lucy calmly, or at the very least, flu.
4. I weary of hearing about John and his sentinel at the cross.
The word sentinel means “someone who watches or guards.” The author uses this word more than once as if it meant the watching. (In another place he writes: Taxi, Signore?” asked … the cabdriver from his sentinel before the hotel.) The word wanted is vigil.
On the one hand, reading this novel has left me feeling very depressed. St. Martin’s Press is a publisher I associate with quality. If they can let such problematic writing pass into print, why am I beating my chops writing these articles about correct English usage?
On the other hand, I’ve got four pages of notes to draw on for future articles.
Browse all articles on the Expressions category or check the recommended content for you below:
Improve your English in 5 minutes a day! Subscribe to our Writing Tips and Exercises via Email
- You will improve your English in only 5 minutes per day, guaranteed!
- Subscribers get access to our archives with 800+ interactive exercises!
- You'll also get three bonus ebooks completely free!