The love song of J. Alfred Proofreader

Contributed by Myles Dungan

Medieval_writing_deskI’m old enough to have done Latin for the Leaving Certificate at a time when it was de rigeur. I missed out on Greek – I will never know at what cost. Which means I am also old enough to have been taught English grammar and punctuation as an integral part of the learning of that subject. So why have I never managed to quite get the colon or the semi colon, other than in this . . . : ) . . . context? Why am I always confused about words like ‘government’? Do they require a capital letter or should they be represented in lower case? Is it Lord Lieutenant, or lord lieutenant, or even Lord lieutenant, or maybe lord Lieutenant? Perhaps its even Lord LieuTenant. All right, I’m just being silly now. Is it New York Times or New York Times, the Times, or The Times? Well connected or well-connected?  And what do I do about words like ‘sympathise’? I’ve just written the word with a final ‘s’ and my computer programme has changed it to a ‘z’. I will now proceed to creep up on it and catch it unawares, delete the ‘z’ while hollering ‘death to America’ like some crazed Al Qaeda bomber and consign the zed (or is it zee) to my trash. (And yes, I have got English-English as my default but it seems to make no difference) The problem is that if I’m quoting from a 19th century letter, as I am wont to do, the ‘s’ and the ‘z’ seem to be random and interchangeable. Even Gladstone, in personal correspondence, used the form ‘sympathize’  (the computer liked that version).

There is, of course, help at hand to those who do not suffer from a profound disability. But because I’m colour blind (or am I colour-blind or even color-blind?) I was unaware until informed of the fact very recently that the little squiggly lines that appear under incorrect renderings of words or phrases on Word programmes (sorry – programs) come in red AND green. You could have knocked me over with a square bracket (or is it a square-bracket? – and when do I use square brackets as opposed to the curvy ones? Best be on the safe side)] However – to de-digress – one coloured squiggle, apparently, denotes a spelling solecism and the other a grammatical error. I’m not sure which is which but then that doesn’t really matter where I’m concerned as I wouldn’t be able to tell them apart anyway. It always used to puzzle me when one of those infuriating lines would appear under a correctly spelt word. Little did I know that I had actually been nabbed by the grammar constabulary rather than the spelling police ([ or should that be Spelling Police? ])

Of course, when you are writing for a publisher there is a simple solution. Ignore all fiddly rules of grammar and punctuation, toss out the semi-colon or include supernumerary colons to your heart’s content, and leave the resulting mess to your editor. As long as you can tell your ‘principle’ from your ‘principal’ or your ‘their’ from your ‘there’ or even your ‘they’re’ sure its not too embarrassing at the end of the day Brian. Its just that, at some point in the future ([{ or should that be ‘going forward’?)]} I will be required to write a thesis. That’s when my latent paranoia will clash with my anger issues and I can see myself using one of these things . . . > (which look quite dangerous) on those smug, self-satisfied bloody colons in a vicious exhibition of grammacide . . .  >:

Does anybody know if you’re allowed hire a freelance proofreader to run the rule over a thesis? I’ll pay. Anything!

Myles Dungan has just published two books, The Captain and the King: William O’Shea, Parnell and Late Victorian Ireland (New Island) and Conspiracy: Irish Political Trials (RIA/RTE) and is doing a PhD in TCD.

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