11 May 2004

Demanding Proofs

The heating was broken at work today, so that all the radiators were radiating away at maximum temperature. This isn't what you want in the South of England in mid-May, and the entire place was like a sauna, only with fewer nude Scandinavian businessmen.

To make matters worse, I was having to proofread the college magazine. This is a job that seems to fall to me twice a year on the grounds that, as a junior member of the library staff, I'm evidently the best-qualified person. (Well, perhaps it's more the three English degrees and the writing career, but even so.)

Certainly the chap who actually writes and edits the magazine has a grasp of punctuation, syntax, spelling and prose style poorer even than that of some of the English teachers. Apart from his scattershot approach to consistency in terms of brackets and quotation marks, his random deployment of dashes, commas, full stops and (since he spotted me using them in the final text) semicolons, is a wonder to behold. Sentences such as "[Student's Name] will study Theology, a subject which he says seems to add sense to life -- and death, at Random College Oxford" are not uncommon.

Most of the time I can convert such material into language, by carefully deploying punctuation of my own, along with the substitution and insertion of minor words. There are occasions, when a tiny intervention suddenly turns a string of gibberish into a surprisingly coherent sentence, which can feel elegantly satisfying (albeit more like the processes usually known as "editing" or "co-authoring" than as "proofreading").

However, I have my limits. Primarily, in this case, limits of knowledge. The sports reports are coded in dense jargon which I can't begin to unpack, resulting in sentences which -- while clearly a mess -- can't be turned into anything approaching English, at least not by me. Some of them achieve a pleasingly mesmeric effect by their constant repetition of words like "match" or "jump", but to me they might as well be automatic writing.

I don't have the necessary comprehension skills to tackle "England North v England South trials", "the England (January 1st) XV in the A.E.R. Festival" or "the Centenary of the Gloucestershire Schools". (I mean, what? Have there only been schools in Gloucestershire since 1904? Eh?) I was alarmed enough the other day, when I heard that the Prime Minister of Thailand was buying Liverpool, and imagined him dismantling the Liver Building and the Cathedrals for shipping to the Far East.

I don't mean to give the man who writes this stuff a mauling. He writes as he speaks, and his conversation is, in fact, perfectly comprehensible -- indeed, he's a good communicator, lively, charismatic and (if you happen to like that sort of thing) good company. He probably leaps out of bed in the mornings, eager to face his day of communicating.

It's just that he has no conception of the gulf between spoken and written English... which is what people like me are useful for, I suppose. Hey ho.

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