It’s not ‘elitist’ to expect writers to know how to use English correctly.

My  frustration increases with ever-declining literacy levels. There’s no excuse for not getting it right: Word pulls you up when you make spelling mistakes or use wonky grammar or overloaded sentences. It takes seconds to google the meaning of a word. Many writers are so desperate to get their precious stories out there, they don’t care about whether or not they’ve used the tools of English correctly.

Why is this so important? Because if you’re expecting readers to spend their valuable time reading your writing, it should be easy for them to understand what you’ve written.  Spelling mistakes and grammar mistakes impede clarity. They mean your readers need to pause and think to make sure they’re following. If I’m sufficiently interested to read your words, don’t make it necessary for me to hop out of the imaginary journey you’ve invited me on.

Recently I read a  passage in a memoir where the writer mentions listening to the ‘bloodcurdling hot water system’. Does she mean the bloodcurdling sounds of the hot water system? I guess so, because she says she was ‘listening’. Even so, I had the briefest image of someone being scalded. It’s possible ‘the bloodcurdling hot water system’ means the hot water system produces water so hot that it’s bloodcurdling. How can a hot water system itself be ‘bloodcurdling’? Up to the point where I read this sentence, I was mentally enjoying the scene the writer had evoked. That pleasure’s part of the joy of reading. Then I was distracted and some of my delight in reading her words was diminished.

Well, it’s not all about you, I hear some people thinking. Yes, it is! It is always about your reader; your reader’s granting you their attention. In return, you give them your best, not a half-arsed first or second draft; you give them sentences you’ve developed and refined and made sure are correct so your reader enjoys the reading experience unhindered by confusion.

This isn’t about being old-fashioned or formal in your approach to writing: English changes every day. You can use unconventional language or unconventional spelling, as long as your meaning is clear. When you’re writing in English you have a vocabulary of half a million words at your disposal and conventions of grammar that allow for meticulous nuance in meaning. English is so powerful. Why not use the language to its fullest extent?

I’ve seen the phrase ‘bear witness’ written as ‘bare witness’ often lately, which tells me these writers don’t understand the meaning of the words they’re using.  If you don’t know what you want to say, why should anyone bother to read you? It’s rude and self-indulgent to expect anyone to care.


Check and Check Again

Have just finished reading UK writer Zadie Smith’s fifth book, Swing Time. I found it interesting but unmoving. A myriad themes are left flapping about in a circular and aimless wind. The novel is (amongst many other things a love letter to dance), written like a memoir on the part of an (annoyingly) unnamed narrator.  There’s a flatness to the storytelling plus an earnest tone to the whole thing, creating a sense that everything should mean more than it does. The social and political detail is interesting but I didn’t care about any of the personalities in the book. Too many parts and not enough whole.

I don’t intend to review Swing Time here; I mention it only because there is a glaring and quite astonishing mistake in her portrayal of one of the minor characters.

The themes Smith touches on this book include racial and socio-geo-political inequality. Despite writing in so much complex detail when it comes to ethnic subcultures,  Smith’s characterisation of Bahram, the Iranian owner of a pizza parlour, is right out of whack. He’s an unpleasant character, this Bahram. He’s bad tempered and racist. But that isn’t the issue. My problem is that he identifies as an Arab. At one point Smith even has Bahram waxing lyrical about Arabic culture.

Smith, who you’d think would surely know better, has conflated Persians with Arabs, a remarkable mistake. Persians are not Arabic: they are different ethnically, culturally and linguistically, although they share a religion and an alphabet.  All the Iranians I’ve ever known (I’ve taught English to many Iranians and was married to one) spend half their days explaining to people how they are NOT Arabs, in the same way Belgians spend their lives pointing out to everybody else how they’re neither French nor Dutch, or Portuguese that they aren’t Spanish.

There’s a complex tangle in the small segment of  Swing Time featuring Bahram,  around some convoluted, racially inspired loyalties on the part of the ethnically diverse staff members at the pizza joint while they’re watching Wimbledon. There’s something I missed at the point where the narrator takes umbrage and walks out of her job, but who cares?

Smith has another, African, character, later on in the book, chasten her narrator for casually implying in a conversation that small African countries are inter-changeable, which makes Bahram’s identifying as an Arab even more anomalous. I also don’t understand how this inaccurate characterisation got past all the readers, editors, proofers and so on in the book’s final stages.

I have a fantasy that Smith herself once worked for an awful Iranian boss and that writing him up like this, profiling him in the most offensive way possible, is her revenge.

It’s the sort of thing I’d do.


Note to self: Check, always check.

This morning I felt like sending a snippy superior message to someone advertising greeting cards. They’d made a card – aimed at gay boys and girls – with the text saying something like Recycle. Reuse. Repurpose. Rihanna.

Which is funny. Except all I could see was the ‘mistake’ in the spelling of her name.  Bloody hell, they can’t even get her name right, what is wrong with young people these days…  I’m ancient, you see, and haven’t listened to contemporary music since 1992. I have heard of Rihanna but if she knocked at my front door, I wouldn’t know who she was. I don’t know any of her songs.

Anyway, a small voice said Folks get creative with spelling nowadays; let’s just check if that’s not how she does spell her name … Glad I did. Had I not, this would be a snooty blog about people ruining good jokes by bad spelling. And I would have looked stupid.






1066 and All That


Thinking about literary influences …

When I was very young (A.A. Milne being, of course, a literary influence), around nine, I bought, through our primary school book club, a copy of 1066 and All That.

Wait on – the Wikipedia entry’s right here:

‘1066 and All That: A Memorable History of England, comprising all the parts you can remember, including 103 Good Things, 5 Bad Kings and 2 Genuine Dates is a tongue-in-cheek reworking of the history of England. Written by W. C. Sellar and R. J. Yeatman and illustrated by John Reynolds, it first appeared serially in Punch magazine, and was published in book form by Methuen & Co. Ltd. in 1930.’

In Standard Three at Titirangi Primary School in 1970 pupils ordered paperback books through a catalogue. After saving up our cents in our Kashins – dark blue plastic elephant piggy banks distributed to school children by the Bank of Auckland – we  filled-out our book orders and brought our money to school to be posted off by the teachers. I was a good saver in those days. I bought quite a few books; this one I read over and over again.

My copy of 1066 and All That would have cost around 75c, which was considered a bit steep. (A packet of Du Maurier or Rothmans cigarettes was then about 25c; I was sent up the road to buy them for my mother’s husband and my grandmother, respectively. My grandmother moved on to Benson and Hedges and when I took up smoking they were what I started on.)

Without understanding much of it, way before I appreciated what the year 1066 meant in terms of history, I was entranced by the word play in the writing. I was pleased with myself for getting the jokes, when I did. On the back of the book a mock publisher’s blurb read ‘This slim volume…’, referring to both the thinness of the book and its lightweight content.

The only other time I’d come across double meanings of this order was when I visited my childhood friend Sarah. Near the front door of her house there was a sign on the wall which read ‘No knives or stilettos.’ Sarah’s mother Eileen explained it to me: there was a type of knife known as a stiletto, a sharp thin knife meant for stabbing people, not filleting fish. The joke was that stilettos were also shoes with pointy heels (how we loved them in the 80s) and she didn’t want anyone walking over her floorboards in them. Or, obviously, bringing knives into the house. I was bothered by the notice; it was a sinister adult joke, bringing with it the thought that someone might otherwise come in with a knife.

Nobody around me used language in the silly, punning way of 1066. The book was funny in new a way. It was comical and to me, at nine, sophisticated. You could describe it as ‘Pythonesque’, which covers ‘silly’ and the piss-taking of traditional approaches to English history.

History was, and can be still, presented as a monolithic set of circumstances, as a linear series of external events involving countries, dates, governance, war, colonial expansion, exploits, seafaring, adventuring, exploration, exploitation, inventions, imperialism and other manly concerns. Women didn’t figure, unless they were queens or notable consorts, or perhaps the odd nurse, like the marvelously named Florence Nightingale. (The marvelously named Florence Nightingale. See how I’m expressing myself here?  In the style of the time.)

Within 1066 and All That history was subverted, buggered about with. Reduced, its serious balloon popped. History was a tool with which to have fun with language.  ‘Maharajahs, jhams and jhellies’ is a phrase that sticks, nearly 50 years later.

Sellar and Yeatman, a couple of chaps writing before WWII, gave a little girl in West Auckland an appreciation of a subtle, wordy, smart-arsey humour, like that of Edward Lear or Edward Gorey, but rollicking.

I can’t recall the last time I read 1066 and All That. My copy should still be in my mother’s garage; I hope so.

A while ago, I had a go at stand-up comedy. I wasn’t half bad, but I didn’t elicit belly laughs. A few sniggers and chuckles. A friend of mine, herself a successful comic, gave me some feedback: “It’s too intellectual, too cerebral, too wordy. You should swear more.”

Blame Sellar and Yeatman.


So you’re passionate? Yawn…

If I need someone to do something for me, on a professional level, I mean, I don’t care how they feel about it. I don’t care whether they bounce out of bed like a jack-in-a-box at 6 am to do it, or not. I care about the quality of work they do and whether they deliver, and deliver on time. They don’t have to love what they do. They sure as hell have to do it well.

We live in a world where people claim to be passionate about working in call centres – “I’m passionate about customer service!!!” Really? You lie.

Personal passions can shift and meander; mine sure have, although they always revolve around storytelling in one way or another, whether it’s visual storytelling or creating narrative using language.

I’m not going to sell you my writing or drawing services cos I feel passionate about doing these things, although I really do. Most of the time. Nearly all the time, actually, but that’s beside the point. I may not feel fire in my belly for a project, but I care about doing the best job on it I can.  If you’re hiring me, that’s what you want to be assured of.

I’m sick of hearing how passionate people are about their thing. Can’t we simply be dedicated, meticulous and committed to quality? Passion once belonged in the bedroom. Time to put it back.