Nonstandard Usage Detracts from Novel

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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.

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20 thoughts on “Nonstandard Usage Detracts from Novel”

  1. Sharon Lee and Steve Miller write amazingly readable science fiction. But it seems each book they ‘pick’ some error, and repeat it throughout the book. In one they throw in ‘precede’ all over, such as (not a quote) “Jethry preceded into the next compartment.” Precede is a relationship work, where one event or person or object moves or occurs before another. The word expected was ‘proceed’, “Jethry proceeded into the next compartment.” Proceed is an orderly action, taken in proper or expected sequence.

    I think what we are seeing is a false economy. In order to save time and money, authors and editors are relying on software to catch typing errors. I have used Microsoft Word’s grammar hints to rid a document of the dreaded ‘passive voice.’ Grammar checking is tough, and time consuming. And always a bit incomplete. But cheap and apparently a good thing. Hey, if the computer checks the document, it must be right!

    The other thing I think is going on is a secondary effect of the ‘false economy’. There is so much bad usage in print, that finding proofreaders that accurately trigger on subtle mistakes must be harder to find. The bad usage re-trains otherwise competent proof readers to accept poor writing.

    Plus, the editor and author have to balance time needed to correct poor usage, against time invested in a project to get the document to a public that apparently doesn’t care, since they accept and buy, and seldom complain, about all the poor usage out there.

    I cannot remember the last time I saw a book review that commented about poor language usage, I haven’t seen the New York Times mention a book was selling well enough in their local bookstore to make the best seller’s list, but they left it off because of poor language usage.

    The deliberate use of poor English structure and word choice to annoy, rebel, shock, or gather attention by advertisers and musicians makes the problem worse. ‘Whole Language’ misuse in schools ripples through families and cities.

    Yep. I think the situation is the same as it was when I was in school (1960’s). The English teacher fought a mostly losing battle back then to identify and promote correct English usage. I think we are in about the same state today – a few stalwart defenders of the language holding the barbarians at the gates. I have just gained a bit broader perspective and a couple of years experience since then.

  2. This is such a relief to me!

    Out here in my “real life,” I seem to be the only person who ever becomes enraged over such glaring mistakes– usually because I’m the only one who notices them. I’m so grateful to be in the company of others who feel as I do on the subject! Every book I’ve read lately has contained at least one blatant error (usually quite a few) in spelling or usage, and I find it extremely distracting when I’m trying to enjoy a story or absorb useful information. I just can’t understand how it’s possible that no one around me is picking up on these mistakes when they seem so obvious to me.
    I also, rightly or wrongly, tend to equate verbal skill and eloquence with overall intelligence– so careless writers, beware! 🙂

    I’m with Brad on this one, more than ready to be one of the “few stalwart defenders of the language holding the barbarians at the gates.” At least there will still be SOME of us who remember how it’s really done!

  3. I am not a native English speaker, but I believe I can acquit the editor, at least, of this sentence:
    “The jewels of Meroe, like its gold, was a legend with a source in truth for once. (jewels were)”

    Recently, I was browsing through “A history of western philosophy” by Bertrand Russell, when I stumbled over the following sentence:
    “Euclid’s Elements is certainly one of the greatest books ever written, and one of the most perfect monuments of the Greek intellect”, p. 211. In the book the word “Elements” is put into italics, in my opinion, signifying that “Elements”, though formally plural, is considered as a single object, a book. I believe that it is the case with “the jewels of Meroe” as well.
    Not that I can acquit the author of making his reader wonder at what the author meant.


  4. Ah, I just wish I were so innocent as to cast a stone – any stone – even a small one. It doesn’t even have to be the first.

    Except that I was born and educated in the U. S., I would certainly claim that my English skills had been intercepted by the T. S. A. along with my nail clippers and my personal copy of the “Clue Train Manifesto”.

    But the reality is that I tried, but failed, at trying to get the T. S. A. dweeb to take the Manifesto from me. My hopes that he would at least scan it for dirty pictures and a word or two would seep in unannounced were dashed.

    Instead, they dumped my low-dose aspirin throughout the bag and passed it on through to Miami.

    I, on the other hand, went to Ft. Lauderdale.

  5. Grigory, There are several levels of reading. At the simplest, surface layer is the page and the print, and the reader scans the print to discover the story. Poor language usage and misused words can usually be unraveled to find the intended meaning – but sometimes the ambiguous interpretation is never really clear.

    For some, there is enjoyment in reading stories. The story they find in a book touches something for them, reinforcing or teaching about people, or about ideas, sometimes about themselves. The story is rewarding, on a different level than scanning the print to discover the story. Not everyone have ever discovered this level, very few find this in every story. They enjoy the story telling as much as the story.

    Some people find a story as one element in a larger grouping. They enjoy the story, they find it meaningful in their lives and their hearts. They also find the story adds to other stories, to what they know of people, and of the world, and of themselves. And they enjoy how this story enlarges and embellishes their minds and hearts.

    For some a mis-spelled work, or the wrong word spelled correctly, sentences put together wrongly, are distractions. Minor or not, a distraction is wasted time in reading the story, or dismay to those experiencing the story. For those building and interpreting the story in light of other stories and other information and feelings, this unwarranted distraction can be trivial, or dismaying.

    Too much time has nothing to do with the disrespect and distraction the author, the editor, and the publisher pass on to each and every reader.

    Readers just developing their skills may not understand why they find a particular page or story confusing. Some few will take notes and bring the glitches to the publisher’s attention. Others will, perhaps unfairly, disparage the author or publisher for shoddy work. A critic, especially, will be distracted by grammar and word usage mistakes – resulting in a focus on mistakes and flaws instead of appreciation of the story.

    And that is the real cost of poor language usage. A fully restored, mint condition 1968 Ford Mustang car may be a great ride. But patch a scratch on the front fender with Krylon spray paint, and the scratch is all anyone will ever see. Whether a book or article is a labor of love or a mundane hack piece to meet a deadline or request, mistakes can hide the value of the piece – robbing the reader of the worth of the piece.

    And, yes, some people do have too much time on their hands.

  6. Grigory, for a non-native speaker of English, your perception and understanding of the language is impressive!

    Your explanation of Bertrand Russell’s use of the singular to describe a book, is quite accurate and shows your sophisticated appreciation of your acquired tongue. However, “the jewels of Meroe” are not a commonly-recognized singular item, and should take the plural, as Brad points out.

  7. If “the jewels of Meroe” is not a proper name, then it should have taken a plural verb.
    Brad and Luke, thank you for a clarification!

  8. //”On the other hand, I’ve got four pages of notes to draw on for future articles.”//

    Ahem … “I’ve got” is better written “I have,” right? Otherwise, you’re writing “I have got,” which is not only redundant, but awkward (and incorrect).

    Or am I being picky? 🙂

  9. Tom,
    Considering the context, yes, you’re being too picky. I would not use the “got” construction in a more formal context. I was being cheeky. (or trying to be.)

    I don’t understand what sentence you want help in completing.
    “Now at least good sense prevails.” is a complete sentence. It could use some commas: “Now, at least, good sense prevails.”

  10. RE: “The gig is up,” thought Lucy. Maybe, just maybe, Lucy is a female musician and the crowds just aren’t showing up at the Holiday Inn as expected.

  11. I must say, i have been quite impressed by the comments, they were themselves very educative and I could not help but say kudos to all contributors.

  12. Keep fighting the good fight. It seems currently fashionable to ignore errors in spelling and grammar in informal communication, to eschew the “spelling flame” in Internet communications, and this is understandable, I suppose. However, people who make their living with words shouldn’t misuse them. How would one regard a carpenter who drove nails with his combination square?

    I tire of reading my local newspaper and gagging on accounts of people “honing in on” the cause of some problem, and of two disparate things being “one in the same”. Wordsmiths should know better. I write to editors all the time about the misuse of “affect” and “effect”. I always suggest that, if they’re in doubt as to which to use as a verb and which to use as a noun, to substitute the word “impact” as either verb or noun to carry approximately the proper meaning. I know that the noun “affect” has a special meaning in psychology, but if someone is writing about that use, they had better know what they’re talking about.

    So — press on. I hope your writing reaches more eyes than mine does. We need a spokesman such as yourself in the defense of our language.

  13. My dear Meave, you (like I) are a narrow-minded, racially-stunted, anal-retentive ol’ poop. (insert immense grin here) You aren’t a fan of ebonics, I’d bet. Insisting that authors, writers, students, and graffiti artists follow the established rules of grammar, spelling, context, and proper word selection is a draconian policy intended to keep “da po n disenfranchised slaves in da ghetto”. (I hope my sarcasm is sufficient here to indicate my true feelings in the matter.) After all, if some oh-so-intelligent college professor writes in his book that “I’ve got a celery stalk stuck sideways up my nostril” is an acceptable way to convey “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times,” who are WE, uneducated, unenlightened, ignorant peons that we are, to disagree?

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