Friday, 1 January 2010


So there I am, happily reading one of the books I was given for Christmas - William McCarthy's biography of Anna Laetitia Barbauld (see previous post) - when I come across something that stops me in my tracks and makes me feel I can hardly go on. What great offence has the author committed to induce this reaction? Why, he has used the word 'Commons' (as in 'House of') without the definite article. And he has done it more than once. Writing about the failed attempt to repeal the Test and Corporation Acts in 1790, McCarthy describes Edmund Burke giving a speech 'in Commons' and on the very next page he mentions Barbauld composing an address to the members 'of Commons'.

I had a similar experience recently with the biography of another eighteenth-century political figure: John Keane's life of Tom Paine, in which the author insists on writing about Paine's childhood in 'Norfolk County', as if he grew up in Virginia, rather than East Anglia. Elsewhere, he describes Paine journeying into 'county Kent'.

How could authors who have obviously done extensive research into their subjects and clearly spent a great deal of time in England working on their books, make such basic mistakes? In both cases, you can see how it has happened: a familiar American usage has been transposed to an unfamiliar British setting, with jarring results (in McCarthy's case, he has clearly used as his template the way Americans talk about Congress, minus the definite article - 'in Congress', 'members of Congress'). But that doesn't explain why it happened: why these esteemed authors didn't realise they were in error, and why their editors didn't see fit to correct them. (This isn't meant as an anti-American tirade, by the way: I'm sure British authors make similar mistakes when writing about US topics.)

And why does it matter so much to me as a reader, to the point where I feel reluctant to go on with books that I was finding completely absorbing until that moment? It's probably because I think of reading as a relationship of trust. When I start a new book, I'm looking to see whether I can have confidence in the author: if it's a work of non-fiction, confidence that they know their stuff, and if a novel, that they're not going to surprise me with an unbelievable plot twist or unconvincing character. Once that sense of confidence has been confirmed (I find this usually happens in the first two or three pages), I can let go and enjoy the book, trusting myself to the author's care, rather as a traveller has to put their complete trust in a ship's captain or airline pilot before relaxing and enjoying the journey.

Coming across the kind of basic mistake that I noted above can be enough to shake that trust and make me lose all my confidence in the author - and in the book. If the writer can get wrong something that is so fundamental, then who's to say there aren't other errors lying in wait for me? Should I start distrusting the author's more important claims about their subject? Writing is a kind of magic trick, in which the reader is lulled into suspending their knowledge that these words have been created by a human mind, and for a time believes that they have somehow emerged from the ether and are an emanation of objective truth. Finding a mistake, however trivial, destroys that illusion and reminds us, annoyingly, of the author's fallibility.

Or is it just that I'm neurotic and obsessive?


Minnie said...

'Neurotic' and 'obsessive' to value clarity and accuracy? I hardly think so. If these writers are essentially scholars, then surely one should expect them to adhere to higher standards than, say, historical novelists?
Always fascinated by cultural history & art's expression/interpretation of identity, I fell on Simon Schama's work on the subject expecting much enlightenment. Result? Excellent on Anselm Kiefer and German landscape/mindscape. But I nearly threw the book across the room when it came to ref to Raleigh. WR described as playing as a small boy in the Exe estuary - which, btw, is miles from WR's home, across difficult - and possibly even dangerous in parts - terrain (a day's walk each way, at least). So: WR played there as a boy? Nah - no chance (not unless he and chum went on w/e excursions with first class mounts + staging posts, which is similarly unlikely given his modest background).
Recently read an(American) historian writing on late 15th cent England and describing Reading as a 'mere day's ride from London'. Nearly 65 miles? Would love to have access to the same horses as her ...
No, you've correctly identified the crux of the matter - which is that trust is essential. A relationship of trust between reader and writer, once broken, is probably irreparable.

Martin Meenagh said...

But didn't the Americans pick up lots of their lingo from Northern Ireland and more traditional forms of English? Was the definite article much in use in the eighteenth century?

All the best

Martin said...

Thanks so much for the comments.

Minnie - I'm glad I'm not the only one - we pedants must stick together!

Martin - I don't think it's about a difference of usage - more about ignorance of (or not bothering to find out about) usage in the country you're writing about - which gives the reader the impression the writer has been slipshod in their research.

Happy New Year to you both!

Martin Meenagh said...

If you are neurotic and obsessive, I am too. I've stopped being annoyed by people using 'friends' language--as in 'can I get...' demands in shops rather than 'could I have...'. However, I have heard people asking 'can I meet with...', and have heard responses to questions like 'have you...' that contain the words 'I do'. All quite sad. Orwell wrote about it though, I think, when he conveyed his vivid impression of people in garages chewing gum and adopting American accents. I even hear students talking about how they are 'pissed' these days, by which they mean unhappy rather than healthily drunk. Tant pis....

It's not an Habermas point, I suppose, to note that language conveys meaning, embodies traditional understanding, and rests on convention. What these authors are doing, having come through academic factories with one form of cultural processing as it were, is being disrespectful by assuming that you have been assimilated to it too. That's a very American thing, but a modern academic thing too.

All I'd say is that--and you know this as well as I--when you allow the space behind your eyes to be filled with primary documents or the words of particular communities (like, say, lawyers) its not unusual to find yourself muttering a form of kaddish over the cornflakes.

What these people to whom you refer need is either an ethnic editor--darn capitalist self-editing academic publishing trade-- or a shared community with those for whom they are writing. With the end of Latin and humanism, that became difficult, and I suppose given how much money Americans have it therefore became more or less inevitable that English speakers without a second language had to put up with the occasional sillinesses of their worldview and their use of language.

There, that's my year off to an intelligible and rational start. Make these people learn Spanish or Latin or some classical language, and they will write better English. Just like the Irish and Indians do.