One of the risks of calling this enterprise SHEER HUBRIS PRESS is that there’s a little extra irony — a wonderful soupçon of inevitability, really — when I screw up.
Only on this last revision of The Awful Mess: A Love Story did Amazon’s converter notify me of a spelling error I didn’t even realize was a spelling error. And I’m an English teacher and a former editor! (No, I won’t tell you what it is. You get extra points if you can find it, but it’s already gone in the Kindle store.) Alas, it was NOT caught before I’d ordered my book proofs. That’s expensive and time-consuming, because it means another round of proofs.
Most of the stuff I caught this time around was minor. There were words not italicized when I wanted them to be, and some inconsistent use of italics in general (I won’t pretend to have fixed that). There was a scene in which my heroine managed to fit “showers” into a space of time that would only allow one. There was a comma outside single quote marks. (The horror!)
Then there was my panic attack about apparently skipping an entire chapter in my chapter numbering. Thankfully, the guy working on the book told me my numbering was fine, since I later found the missing chapter under the desk, where it had hidden after Bo knocked over my neat stack of pages. (He’s not a great office assistant.)
I also developed some concerns about my use or non-use of the subjunctive tense. But this one’s a little tougher, because there’s an argument to be made that English is gradually losing this tense. I’m not saying that’s a good thing, but it’s something I have observed in common practice. And that’s how English always evolves — in common practice.
This section reserved for grammar nerds
Generally speaking, if you construct a conditional sentence about something that is not true, the subjunctive tense (or mood) is required. In other words, if Arthur says “It would be much worse if I was taking this kind of interest in you and you were in my church,” I’m pretty sure he is being ungrammatical.
I believe that “was” should be a “were” because Mary is not, in fact, in his church. Though since he is interested in her in fact and it’s in a compound sentence, I suppose we could debate the matter — after all, the second part could be subjunctive rather than just straight past tense, and English isn’t mathematics with handy parentheses to help us figure out in which order to solve the equation. That’s why I didn’t do it the first time. But being consistent with tense within a sentence is a good thing. So I edited that one this time around.
I did this since Arthur is clearly well-educated, so he should probably use the subjunctive instinctively. However, people speaking are not always as grammatical as they are on paper. So … I don’t know. Honestly, I think I could have gotten away with it. (Feel free to weigh in.)
Later, I’m quite certain I could have gotten away with it if Annie had said, “Maybe if he was about twenty years younger and not so damned religious.” Annie has already confessed that she hates writing and can’t spell. She probably wouldn’t know the subjunctive tense if it came up to her in a bar and bit her on the butt. However, in my book she actually says “…were about twenty years younger.” That’s because I used it unconsciously. Should I have? Probably not. But I left it as it was.
The reality is that 99% of readers won’t notice a missing subjunctive tense and 50% of the remaining 1% won’t care even if they do.
The challenge of regional colloquialisms
At another point I wimped out on something I had done intentionally wrong in the book, and had always meant to include somehow because it was something I so enjoyed hearing when I lived there. Many New Hampshire residents routinely employ the double negative. For example, you might hear:
“I need to make a trip to Keene.”
“So don’t I!”
I wanted Winslow to sound at least a little local and at one point I had him saying, “So hasn’t everybody.” But then I just couldn’t stick to it. People who were not familiar with the local grammar would think I’d made a mistake. Maybe if I’d found a way to get Bert to say something like that, I could have stuck to it. Maybe if I’d added something like, “lapsing into the local dialect, Winslow said, ‘So hasn’t everybody’.” But that would have taken people out of the flow of the narrative. So he just says, “So has everybody.”
Sometimes it might make sense to do things wrong on purpose. For example, every once in a while I have found that there is really no good way to avoid an instance of poor agreement like “Your child never knows when they might be called upon to perform” without resorting to an awkward “he or she, ” which is one of the clunkiest constructions in the English language, and one that very few people use it in common speech. In my days in educational publishing we used to take pains to alternate between the he and she, always choosing the less gender-stereotypical gender. (“Your child may wish to become an engineer. So she needs to…”) Usually I try to find a way to avoid the problem, but in advertising we’ve sometimes just knowingly committed the error instead.
Other times, I’m the stickler. I can remember an unexpectedly bitter debate once with another writer who declared that semi-colons should never be used in dialogue. I disagreed. If we’re going to punctuate based on what people are actually thinking as they speak, there’s not much call for any punctuation. But people are reading our dialogue, not listening to it. Even in a script, actors have to read that dialogue and make sense of it. Punctuation is simply there to help our words make sense. Semi-colons are a useful part of the arsenal of sense-making. Of course, I also know from my students that there an awful lot of people who have no idea when they should be fired.
English is always flowing and changing. Consider the news that “selfie” has been added to the Oxford Dictionaries. Or just watch your local evening news, or commercials. Certainly our local stations appear to have decided that copy editors are a luxury they can’t afford anymore. Brian Williams also seems to delight in constructions like “What about them Red Sox,” though I hope that’s just his idea of sounding cool.
I wasn’t trying to be cool with my errors, and I have no excuse other than trying to do all this stuff myself. Someday, I hope to make enough money at this to be able to hire the most tight-assed proofreader in the universe to check my work. In the meantime, I make do with what I have at hand: me, the friends who read my early drafts, and a few sharp-eyed readers who are willing to share.
Do feel free to help me out with that by catching my errors.By the laws of irony, there should be at least one or two in this very blog post.
This week my book has a wonderful new cover — if it ever shows up. Amazon is taking a very long time to update it. It appears that they require actual humans to look at new covers before they publish them now, which is probably smart given that it has a (tastefully) naked person on the cover.
For those of you who are waiting on the paperback, I’m sorry. Thanks to that spelling error, I now have to do another round of proofs, which also requires waiting for book proofs to arrive in the mail. Hopefully it will be available for order by the end of the week, but I can make no guarantees.