By Ian Hutson
I was incarcerated in a dozen very different schools as a child, and one of them was run by hippies. We attended the classes we felt like attending, generally did whatever we pleased and were encouraged to loosen our orange and purple Paisley pattern bandanas and expand our own minds. Ye gods, it was awful. Forget spelling they said, forget grammar and punctuation, just get those precious ideas and stories down in green crayon on recycled hand-laid ninety-percent hemp paper.
It didn’t seem to matter that thereafter no-one could decipher a word of it. I once dipped the school Tarantula into an inkwell and then set him free in the stationery cupboard. By the time the caretaker had recaptured him Mr. Creepy-Crawley had garnered two gold merit stars and a favourable mention in the school’s creative-writing hall of fame.
Language is a code and codes, like recipes for soufflé, have structure and format for a reason. The reason that they have structure and format is so that someone who has never met you or been in the same elementary spliff-rolling class on the rubber mats in the library building can understand what it is that you were trying to say.
The word “bring” is not the same as the word “take,” “couple” is not a rational number and quite frankly, without a properly formed phrase or adverb you might as well just Eat Fresh from a tin or Drive Safe in Ralph Nader’s Chevrolet Corvair.
It pains me to say it, and I do love my sitar and my quilted evening “smoking” kaftan, but the hippies were entirely wrong in these matters.
A commercial editor recently told me that his first action on any manuscript is to remove any and all italics from the text. When I asked what he used instead to change the inflection of the little voice in the readers’ heads, his eyes remained lifeless and his lips remained silent. He simply didn’t understand the question.
Had I not remembered an urgent need to go home and shampoo my parakeet I might have pressed him on other items of apparently non-essential punctuation and grammar. Question marks perhaps. or capital letters indicating the beginning of a sentence. Perhaps this “professional” editor also held prejudices against full stops and commas and paragraphs in particular parakeets’ bottoms require careful use of a proprietary medicated conditioner so one should always wear rubber gloves to avoid undue avian familiarity.
Statistical analysis might indicate that the spaces used between words constitute a veryinefficientuseofpreciousasciicodeandinternetbandwith, but I’d rather we retained that luxury.
What, I hear you ask wearily, has prompted this tirade? Nothing in particular. I’ve always been a boring old stickler for correct as possible language, make it as can we. I border on the 0CD (ouch, did someone just substitute a zero for a letter “O” there cozzit duzzunt mattah?). As rants go it’s very probably linked to just how comfortable I feel in my current work-in-progress, an anthology by the name of The Cat Wore Electric Goggles.
See? Even we duddy-fuddies sometimes slavishly follow new-fangled modern trends by putting capital letters where they really shouldn’t be.
This anthology, due out in springtime 2014, is a collection of science-fiction stories with a dated, nineteen-fifties flavour to them. All references to “nuclear” become “atomic” and “space ships” become “rockets,” and the construction itself includes sentences much, much longer than a tweet. The paragraphs run to more than a couple of lines and the plots hail from an age predating Hollywooden’s unhealthy preoccupation with prepo$terou$ LPG-fuelled explo$ion$, a blazing gun in every hand and an unspecified terrorist threat to the unquestioned establishment status quo around every box office corner. The individual titles in the anthology range from “The Maharaja of Mars” to “The Curse of The Mandarin,” and that should give you some inkling as to the contents. My goodness me, do I ever feel at home in this anthology, and I wasn’t even a twinkle in my Father’s Far-Eastern Cold-War diary during the first nine years of the nineteen-fifties, let alone born. Incidentally, it was a difficult birth because I refused to leave my typewriter behind or go easy on the carriage-returns during labour.
Is there a point to this blathering, I hear you cry as you reach for your computing mouse. Well the first point is to ask you to insert your own question mark into the previous sentence, should you think it needs one. There are plenty of spare question marks lying around, some folk sprinkle them everywhere? The main thrust, however, is as I said earlier—that the hippies were wrong. All of the characters in my anthology would have known so at a glance. The chaps and memsahibas adventuring within these stories may have possessed the imagination of a tapeworm, but they could tell you so on paper without forcing you into the clutches of Google Translate, Google Best Guess or Google Beats Me, and they had measurable attention spans.
Language isn’t the enemy and imagination is in no way constrained by it. There is, as yet, no charge for or tax upon the use of words or punctuation so why not go wild? Stroll around the museum of English (be that original English, US English or Global English), pick a few priceless words from the dusty displays and throw them into your work.
Be a rotter, be a bounder, be a cad. Be brave, be bold, be uggered.
Sharpen your chisels once in a while.
Be a writer, not a sound-biter.
Oh dear—those all read like sound-bites. What I mean to say is; you’re not in a maths class, you don’t always have to pare your language down to the lowest common denominator. Love the tools of your trade, relish diversity and carve the occasional Hollywooden script editor-annoying flourish. Language is a living, evolving beast—but there’s really no need to kill it stone dead and bury the remains before you move on to the next generational fad.
End of rant.
P.S. While I do the best that I can, I offer no guarantees or apologies in re my own grammar and punctuation and, accordingly, I hereby offer my throat to the wolves.
About the Author
Ian Hutson was born in England and has lived in peculiar places as diverse as Hong Kong and The Outer Hebrides in Scotland. He stands in awe of folk who write heavy, complicated plots since all of his writing is intended, mostly, for giggles. His favorite hats are the “smoking” cap, the tweed cap and the pith helmet, but he only wears one at a time.
Ian was thrown out of the British Civil Service, thrown out of several multinational corporations, and now works as an Edwardian photographer by day and a scribbler by night. His latest anthology, The Cat Wore Electric Goggles, is due to be published in the spring.