Wednesday, October 21

My Delirious Love-Affair with Language

Currently I'm contracting myself out (yes, that means I'm my own boss, my own company--so weird to think of it like that) as a proofreader/copyeditor.  People hear that and wince inwardly (or outwardly).  They imagine this must be among the most boring, tedious work in the world, and that I must have a huge stick up my ass.

I can't say one way or the other about the latter, but the work is far from boring.  I'm perhaps unique in that I have a real passion for it and, consequently, I enjoy the hell out of my job.  It's not that I get an endorphic rush out of telling people how wrong they are, correcting their spelling errors, stuff like that.  Most of the time spelling doesn't even come into it: the issues have to do with the slight nuance of one word choice over another, the structure of a sentence or a paragraph, the emotional feel of the text as it pertains to the message we're trying to get across.  I'm cleaning things up, making them look nice, not power-tripping over stupid people.

Because language bears such delicious nuance for me on multiple levels, I'm honored to be trained as its custodian.  And again, this does not mean that I browbeat people until they use formal grammatical structure, not at all: the context is the heart of the matter.  If you're speaking to an adolescent audience, a formal tone will be off-putting and repulse people from your message, even if you're trying to carry valuable information to them.  If you're submitting a job application or writing a column for the New York Times, a street-casual tone would be grossly inappropriate, by the same token, and I think no one needs that explained overmuch.  Rather than dressing language up in a suit and making it sit up straight, I want to see it dance, flow, transform.  I want to see it thrive in as many situations as possible.

Included is a picture of my personal little library at work.  The old Webster's New World dictionary doesn't have a lot of functional value, being several decades old--it does not reflect how people currently speak.  My mom gave it to me as a gesture of congratulations, both at landing this job and finally wrapping up my BA in Creative Writing.  When I need a dictionary, my go-to is Merriam-Webster's, as an American, though I do have access to the OED through my old school account and its etymological value is beyond reckoning.  I also have several style guides: Chicago, NYT, and AP.  Those are just basic, essential guides for professional writing and citation.  They're also a useful plea for sanity when you just want things to look nice, and that itself is the first rule of editing: it has to look nice.  My Copyediting guide also reminds me of the core editing lessons I learned in class.

I also have The Deluxe Transitive Vampire, an informative and fun guide to grammatical structure.  I can write a good sentence, but I can't identify the parts of speech very well.  I know adjectives and pronouns, but I'm not so clear on the past participle or subjunctive clause, and so I refer to this often.  Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog also serves this purpose, through the archaic practice of sentence diagrams.  I don't know how I got a passing grade in high school English, never having learned how to construct a sentence diagram.  Less useful is Sin and Syntax, a former textbook written by a woman who lends herself to judgment.  Her picture makes her look a little dumpy and plain, but she writes as though she were a full-blown sybaritic temptress.  The book is as much a guide to the language as it is her self-delusional manifesto of lush indulgence and sensual revelry.  The author's need to represent herself thusly actually distracts from the useful information in here, but there is useful information in here.

The Artful Nuance was a gift from my wife, and it frequently comes in handy.  It specializes in word choice between similar terms, helping to clarify which is closer to what you're trying to express.  The Idiot's book, Weird Word Origins, was a whimsy purchase I deeply regret.  Poorly researched and glazed in unevolved humor, this book so infuriated me that I set upon it with my red editor's pen and marked it all to hell.  Later, I realized I could have simply returned it to the store for a full refund.  I keep it on my shelf to remind myself to restrain my emotions, even in the face of the most egregious text.  At the other end of the spectrum is The Chronology of Words and Phrases, a gift from a friend who knows me quite well, evidently.  Reading this book, which explains the formation of various words throughout history with their colorful background stories, is like eating an entire box of chocolates all by myself.  I use it as a reward or a pick-me-up.  I don't read it straight through: I leaf through it and am inevitably delighted by whatever I find, wherever I land.

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