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Monday, January 28, 2008

Sloppy is as Sloppy Does

Let me tell you a story - one of three little stories today. Some months ago, the Wave-inatrix went to the dentist who solemnly examined my x-rays, bibbed me and got out the novocaine. Several sharp jabs into my tender gums later, he paused. Looked at the x-ray again. Consulted hurriedly with the nurse. Oh dear - seems he numbed the wrong side of my mouth. Whoops. In fact, ah geez, let's look at this x-ray again - there's no cavity to fill! Ohhhh drat. Didn't proceed with care, caution and precision. What has this got to do with language? What are the tools of a writer? Hint: what's black and white and misspelled all over?

I find it a matter of great curiosity that in the Information Age, fewer and fewer people take the time and trouble to use the language well. More and more, computers are part of our lives, as are cell phones, Ipods and countless other gadgets. Why, I mentioned just the other day that the number one top selling novel in Japan right now was written on a cell phone. I’m all for change – without it we have ceased to evolve as a culture. I’ll even go out on a limb and posit - no it’s not even a posit, it’s a fact – that the consumption of literary novels is on the wane. Things move differently now, faster, more visually. We download, upload and scan information quickly.

In some ways, screenwriting, with its shorthand and use of imagery is a perfect compliment to these changing times. Screenwriting is about concept – high, preferably, more than execution. Some screenwriters are so gifted in this particular medium that they can elevate script pages to a kind of shorthand, cinematic poetry.

But no matter how truncated and evolved our methods of communication become, both at work and at play – who doesn’t know what lol means? – good communication skills are still the bedrock of a better life.

The other day, I took a coupon for 50% off up to two dozen bagels to a bagel shop in my neighborhood. I ordered one dozen bagels. The clerk looked at my coupon, puzzled. No, she said. You have to get two dozen to use this coupon. It says up to two dozen, I pointed out. She shook her head. No, that means you have to GET two dozen. No, it means I couldn’t get two and a half or three dozen, but I can get anything UNDER two dozen. The manager had to be called in to resolve the matter.

Another story: I had to go to the AT&T Wireless store. I phoned ahead. Is it on the same side of the street as the Beverly Center? No, the clerk answered, it’s across the street. Oh – by the Sofitel Hotel? Yes – well, no, it’s across from the Sofitel. Well, that would put it on the same side of the street as the Beverly Center. No, it’s not on the same side of the street as the – I gave up. It was near the Beverly Center-esque, how hard would it be to find it?

I figure I wasted about fifteen minutes circling the block at one of the busiest intersections in LA at the busiest time of day – rush hour – when I found the store. It was on the north east corner of Beverly and La Cienega, diagonally across from the Beverly Center. Isn’t that simple? That little sentence? But the clerk couldn’t muster the precision to just say that.

Rouge Wavers know how once in awhile I talk about the funny malaprops I find in scripts. In a script, it’s either funny, lame, or just sad, ending up with your script getting a PASS, dependent upon the number of occurrences, but in day-to-day life, as you discuss your feelings with your therapist, the directions with a clerk, the crime to a policeman or the flight you need to board at the airport, language and the proper use of it is your friend.

My uncle, god bless him because I love him very much, lives in a rural area where language usage has taken the ol’ back door slide. You know, things like “I don’t got none.” Or “It don’t matter.” A number of years ago, my son, now almost 17, began to pick up his speech patterns, much to my dismay. I swiftly put an end to it. My son imitated his great uncle out of admiration and probably thought this manner of speaking was an affectation. It may have begun an as affection or adaptation to the aw shucks, we ain’t no city folk attitude that many rural dwellers hold dear, but over time it became indelibly ingrained. Over time “I don’t got none” lost its grating foreignness and it became normal. But the problem, as I counseled my son, is that misuse like that – whether verbally or in writing – makes you sound dumb. It just does. Even if you’re not.

Maintaining a certain fastidiousness with your language pays dividends in many ways – you look and feel smart, you’ll be a better writer, and you’ll be able to negotiate that kitchen remodel with the contractor in an efficient and rewarding manner.

What are some ways you can improve upon or maintain your facility with language? Play Scrabble. Write in longhand in your journal. Make it legible. Read The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Utne Reader or The Paris Review. Do crossword puzzles. Be aware of your speech and writing patterns. I don’t mean to imply that we should all go around sounding like Kelsey Grammar in Frasier; I don’t recommend pretension, but rather accuracy, description, vividness and proper usage when you speak – and write.

Now get back to work.

ShowHype: hype it up!

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JPS said...

Interesting post, Julie. Just to riff off one of your comments, literary fiction--known in the biz as midlist fiction (or as some of us call it, "da 'hood")--is still with us. Small print runs, low advances, but--big but--these are the books that win prizes, these are the authors that get interviewed by Terry Gross. With the proliferation of MFA programs in colleges, this is the kind of fiction graduates are learning how to write. So there's a sameness, as is evidenced by some of the fiction in the New Yorker.

But your point is well-made. What's happening now here and in the UK is a blurring, a movement towards genre by literary writers (spy fiction, crime novels, et al.), and an acceptance of numerous genre writers (Scotland's Ian Rankin comes to mind) as writers of genuine literature, per se. The Booker Prize-winning, very literary author John Banville is about to come out with his second detective novel (under the name Benjamin Black), in fact. They haven't yet begun awarding literary prizes (or even nominating them) for these crossover works, but in time I'm sure they will.

To return to your main point, these are genre works in which language plays a much greater role than as just the gasoline the plot runs on.

(Let's not forget that the great translator of Dante, Dorothy Sayers, was also the creator of the 1930s detective Lord Peter Whimsy. Crossover is good for you.)

Girl Clumsy said...

Hi Julie,

I completely agree with you. Many a time (in fact every day I would say) I get frustrated by grammatical errors. The most common - misplaced apostrophes:

agent fee's (I kid you not)

I work in radio news, and while listeners don't know whether I've said "its" or "it's", it's important to me for comprehension, so I can read the news with the correct intonations, pronounciations - so I can get the meaning across!

It frustrates me when people don't seem to notice or care that what they're reading is drivel - and it makes me particularly harsh on work experience students! ;)

Julie Gray said...

You know, GC, that's exactly what gets my goat - not CARING about language. We all make mistakes, my god, we're human. But I am a fan of Buddhism and the tenet that one should do everything with awareness, attention and reverence. I know it's not always easy to be reverent or aware when you're driving or doing dishes or other mundane, repetitive tasks and god knows we talk and write a great deal each day. But our words are the LAST thing that we should not be aware and grateful for. It's a little bit off-track but in a way, that is one of the lessons of THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY, is it not? Be aware and be grateful.