Sunday, August 16, 2009

A novel approach to language

Everyone makes typographical errors at some time, yes? What’s troubling me is that organizations that should not make them — book publishers — do.

We should be able to read a novel without finding egregious mistakes, don’t you agree? All right, I admit that some people feel that popular fiction need not be held to high standards. But c’mon, really? If it’s a book?

Let me give you a few examples that I’ve found in novels recently. And please keep in mind that these are from publishers with international reputations for high quality, not some DIY firm.

In fact, the mistakes I’ll tell you about are from the novels of New York Times best-selling authors. The first we’ll examine has written dozens of books, all best sellers and all published by leading publishing houses — Ballentine Books, Bantam Books, etc. I won’t tell you his name, but his initials are J.K., and these errors are to be found in every one of his books. Every one, I tell you.

Guess what? That’s the first one (I hope you got it). As we all know, “guess” is a command, not a question. So kill the question mark, J.K., and use a period. Here are some others. Let me combine them into one sentence for you, just for purposes of illustration. Here we go — I told the both of them to continue on, because they knew more about the agencies in the city than anyone.

Did you catch all of those mistakes? “Both” means “the two of,” so saying “the both of them” is like saying “the the two of them.” Kill the “the” before the “both.” Also, “continue” means “go on,” so “continue on” is the same as saying “go on on.” Stop it. The final error is trickier to explain, but stay with me.

The last portion of the illustrative sentence should have read this way: “they knew more about the agencies in the city than anyone else did,” or, more simply, “they knew more about the agencies in the city than anyone else.” It’s the “else” that’s crucial. You always want to be careful about including an “else” when you’re saying “more than anyone” or “better than anyone” or any other comparative statements with “anyone” in the mix.

Let’s say your goal is to say that Bob knows more about cooking than any other person you know. Bob, we assume, is a person. That is, Bob himself is an “anyone.” See? If you simply say that ole Bob knows more about cooking than anyone, that means more than ANYone! But wait – he is an anyone, so it makes no sense. (Are you confused yet?) If you’ll just toss that “else” in there, all becomes clear. Instead of saying that Bob knows more than anyone (in the world), say that Bob knows more than anyone else in the world.

If that’s still confusing (and if you care), let me know and I’ll tackle it again later. For now, I’ll stop. You’re welcome.

Now we come to a New York Times best-selling author from Greensboro, a brilliant and talented writer with the initials J.H., published by St. Martin’s Press. Check out these two sentences from his latest novel: (1) Detective Cross was in the yard; so was his wife and Gerald. (2) Yoakum lead the boy away.

You see the problems there, yes? You’d have said, “Detective Cross was in the yard; so were his wife and Gerald.” And I can almost guarantee that you and the author, if asked, would vote to substitute the verb “led” for the metal “lead.” My point is that these errors belong to the editor, who works for the publisher.

Maybe hard economic times at publishing houses have led (I was tempted) to using fewer editors. Are they getting the job done? I’d say no, but tell me if you disagree. Otherwise, I’ll continue on whining louder than anyone. (I had to, sorry.)