04 February 2009

Rant: What's happening with the editorial world?

I love the English language.  I'm simultaneously proud and intrigued with how malleable it is. Its definitions and pronunciations shift through time and it's infinitely stretchy and accommodating, adapting words from every known language and claiming them for its own.  I'm definitely a curmudgeon, though, when it comes to certain standards of language and grammar and I find myself increasingly frustrated with new books where I find the editing standards to be sub-par.  Or rather, the copy-editing *and* the editing.  I know that English grammar isn't taught the way it used to be, but I don't know what's happening with the education of our editors these days.

Take, for example, the new book called The Piano Teacher.  It's a lovely debut of intertwining stories set in Hong Kong during and after World War II.  The story line is intriguing, delving into the mysteries of identity when one is stuck halfway between the worlds of Europe and Asia and it takes a hard look at the choices people are sometimes forced to make to save themselves or their loved ones.  Unfortunately, I wasn't able to appreciate fully just how good this book is because I was constantly distracted by grammatical errors peppered throughout the book.  

I don't really blame the author--her job is to craft the story, not polish it up.  But who did the copy editing?  And when the copy editor didn't catch the mistakes, why didn't the editor?  I don't know the name of the particular rule that was broken every few pages, but it's the rule regarding gerunds (the -ing form of a verb that acts as a noun) and how they require the possessive form of a pronoun.  Ugh, I'm not explaining myself well, so I'll use an example:

The book's lack of precise editing led to my appreciating the book less that I expected.  
The book's lack of precise editing led to me appreciating the book less than I expected.  

The first example is correct.  "Appreciating" is a noun and therefore requires an adjective as a modifier, hence my, the possessive, is the correct way to write the sentence.  So back to The Piano Teacher...page after page I saw the same grammar rule being broken.  I don't mind it so much when it happens in dialogue--not everybody speaks according to the proper rules of grammar, after all, and in many cases it wouldn't be at all appropriate for a character to speak properly.  But when it happens in the voice of the omniscient narrator, I really do have a problem with it.  Like I said, I'm a curmudgeon, but I find this mistake is being made in nearly every book I read.  Maybe this rule has changed over time and I've just not been made aware of it?  Maybe our poor educational system is so overburdened that generations of students are getting sub-par grammatical educations.  Lord knows that the children in my life can barely identify the parts of speech, much less tell me how they should be used.  But it's the copy editor's job to know grammar rules inside and out--why does this particular rule continue to slip through the cracks?  

There's a book coming out from a new writer this summer that is original and fresh called The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet by Reif Larsen.  It's the story of a 12 year old genius who lands an award from the Smithsonian for his extraordinary cartographic abilities.  T. S.  maps out every detail of his life, even making charts for things you might not think were quantifiable, such as the 5 types of boredom that his sister experiences on a regular basis.  He's a boy who is on speaking terms with geology, chemistry, and physics well above his grade level, a boy who studies the flora and fauna of his native Montana.  He is a boy, then, who clearly would never refer to a certain migrating bird as a Canadian goose.  He would know that the correct name is actually Canada goose.  And he would know that in the language of physics that there is no such thing as deceleration; instead, because it's a vector quantity, it's known as negative acceleration.  These are just two of many editorial oversights in this new book (hey, the book isn't published until June--maybe the publishers will see this blog and correct the mistakes before then!), which is too bad because I think this book is going to make a big splash.  

The book itself has a larger than average trim size because both margins are filled with T. S.'s drawings and musings.  The drawings add another layer for the reader to appreciate and ponder, and the five years that it took Larsen to put the book together show.  It's a fascinating first book full of humor and heartbreak, alternating between moments of suspense and moments of sweetness.  I think it's going to be a big seller and I would love to invite the author to our store and be able to introduce him to our customers.  So isn't a shame that Larsen's editor isn't doing a thorough job?  

I wonder if editors are taking on so many acquisitions that they just can't do justice to all of the books assigned to them.  I wonder if I'm just hopelessly critical.   Who can say?  Maybe it's just time for me to learn to let things go.  

What about you, dear reader?  What sorts of grammatical things set your teeth on edge when you're reading?  Share them here.  Commiserate with or chastise me--I'm curious to know your thoughts.  


  1. Hi Reader/Traveler,

    Yes, I have two grammatical pet peeves and they happen to be (1) the misuse of the apostrophe, particularly when someone is referring to a plural...or even just the word "thanks"......with an apostrophe inserted...."thank's"...What's up with that??

    And (2) the other very common error is when the nominative case is substituted incorrectly for the objective case after a preposition, such as: "with her and I" or "to her and I".......both of which make me cringe.

    So......hope you like my comments....I remain yours very truly, your humble maternal parent

  2. Em:
    Yes, you are hopelessly critical. And thank the goddesses for that! :)

    I am an English curmudgeon, like you. Ask Holly - my ever so patient wife - who tolerates my mocking of her Massachusetts-ian way of not using the word with when appropriate, such as: "When I'm done this, I'll do that." ARGH! Talk about a pet peeve! :)

    Your humbled co-curmudgeon.


Please, sir, may I have some more? (Comments, that is!)