Monday, January 22, 2007

The Author's Voice

Here's my question. I suppose it's not too technical, but I have been wondering exactly how bendable some of these rules of grammar are. I know that recently (as in the few decades) grammatical aspects such as the comma have had more open "rules" about placement, but I am more curious about dangling modifiers and the like; the words. Where do you draw the line between style or voice and what is just clearly wrong? How much can one argue that, even though a phrase is incorrect technically, it should be allowed into a publication because it's part of the author's voice. I would think it all depends strictly on the context, but is that always true? (or true at all?) Would it be okay to leave an unclear phrase in a piece if the mistake has so ingrained itself into the common language that it would make more sense to the reader left as it is?

(from Claire)


Pat said...

I've uploaded, to the Files section of the home page for the course, a file called errors.pdf. It's a web page, in PDF, from a site I used to maintain. Everyone, please print it out, read it, and bring it to class.

How we copyedit depends in large part on who our readers are. The readers of the journal I work for are college educated, have high expectations, and are familiar with writing in literary genres. For this reason, we spend a lot of time on copyediting and proofreading.

I do remember, though, having a disagreement with the head of MANOA about a book review. I felt the reviewer's style needed to be edited, and he wanted to retain the bold, quirky way in which she expressed herself. Because he felt strongly about this, I did little editing on the piece, and it ran pretty much the way the reviewer gave it to us. I wonder to myself what our readers thought, but no one said anything about the piece. We also ran a short story without any terminal punctuation; I'll try to remember to distribute it so that you can see the effect of this literary choice.

Bending grammar rules is another thing. Consider the following:

Incorrect: He is taller than me.
Correct: He is taller than I am.

Incorrect: Everyone says they love Christmas.
Correct: Everyone loves Christmas.
Awkward but correct: Everyone says he or she loves Christmas.
Correct: People say they love Christmas.

Publishing work with grammatical errors simply reinforces the acceptance—and acceptability—of such errors. This leads not only to ignorance of correct grammar but also to criticism of people when they use grammar correctly. For instance, "you and I" is thought to be formal style; that is, many people think that you use "you and I" regardless of the sentence construction. "He gave the book to you and I" is not formal style; it is grammatically incorrect, and there is no reason why the error should not be corrected.

At MANOA, we have also published work containing pidgin; in fact, I copyedited the pidgin dialogue in a short story that opened one of our issues. As I recall, the author accepted the editing in almost every place it was done. I was not turning the pidgin into standard English but trying to follow the rules implicit in (1) the author's rendering of it and (2) my understanding of it as a spoken and written language. If anyone is interested in seeing the result, please let me know, and I'll make a copy of the story for you.

Ritchie Mae said...

How is this incorrect?
Everyone says they love Christmas.

Compared to the other sentences?
Everyone loves Christmas.
Everyone says he or she loves Christmas.
People say they love Christmas.

Pat said...

Think of it as a formula:

Everyone = pronoun (singular)
says = verb (singular)
they = pronoun (plural)
love = verb (plural)

The formula should read this way:

Everyone = pronoun (singular)
says = verb (singular)
he or she = pronoun (singular)
loves = verb (singular)

An alternative is to make everything plural:

People = noun (plural)
say = verb (plural)
they = pronoun (plural)
love = verb (plural)