Does anyone give a shit anymore?

There’s a book for sale in the little village where I live.

It’s aimed at kids and written by a local man. I’ve seen it in a couple of gift shops and the community centre. It costs £5.99.

I’m always interested in local writers so I had a quick scan through the pages. I was worried that the production levels seemed to be very basic but this concern was overridden by my admiration that the author had managed to get his story into print. Fair play to him, I thought. Anything that encourages children to read books must be welcomed.

I also considered if it might be something that my own son might like to read. But the back cover says it’s for kids aged 9-12. My boy is four. Come back in a few years.

As I’ve moved around recently I’ve seen the book in a shop every now and then. Sometimes I wonder if it’s selling a few copies, secretly hoping that parents are supporting a local author.

And that really ought to be the end of this story.

But yesterday morning I met a friend for coffee and he asked me if I was aware of the book. Then he asked me if I had read it. He knows my thoughts on the importance of good and clear communication and wanted to highlight that the book was full of errors.

I suggested he might be exaggerating so he produced his phone. He had made a note of all the mistakes he had spotted.

It was a long list.

Apostrophes missing or in the wrong place. Commas incorrectly used or not at all. Basic mistakes. A catalogue of grammatical and linguistic confusion.

Now I was intrigued. This was something I had to see for myself. I went straight to the community centre where the book is sold. I opened it at a random page. This is one of the first passages I read:

‘The beds are plain. That’s the only way to describe white quilts on single shite beds against white walls.’

Single shite beds.

Now, I’ve got no particular interest in naming the book or embarrassing the author here but I’m assuming this cannot have been his intended sentence.

I said earlier that the production values of the tome were low. But I’m assuming that there must have been some process that allowed it to be published. Surely someone, if only the author himself, must have read it before it was committed to print.

The errors are compounded by the fact that the book is targeted at children. A parent might buy it thinking that it will improve their son or daughter’s reading or writing skills.

The incident left me with a feeling which is depressingly familiar.

People who know me or this blog will be aware that I try to make a living in the communications business. A little bit of writing, some editing and proof reading, teaching writing skills to others.

Sometimes I’ll be sent or given a piece of text to comment upon. Maybe a news article or feature, a press release or manuscript. Sometimes a whole magazine to proof.

What I generally do is make a list of things that need fixed. Typos, grammar problems, spelling mistakes, logic flow, clumsy construction, sentences which make no sense.

I’ll communicate my findings to the author or publisher. Sometimes they listen. Sometimes they just ignore it.

I’ve seen press releases issued or articles appear in print containing mistakes which I’d previously pointed out needed to be corrected.

Tell someone that they’re not good at maths and they’ll probably laugh with you and agree. Tell them that their basic writing skills are poor and you risk making an enemy for life.

I was in the communications office of a major company recently (again I won’t be using the name). I was there to deliver some media training. It’s the sort of thing I do regularly. The company publishes an internal magazine, a short newsletter keeping employees up to date with relevant developments.

I was shown a draft of the coming edition. It was shocking. Just shocking. Riven with mistakes and inconsistencies. I took my red pen to the pages and soon they resembled a bloody mess.

With a growing sense of exasperation I went to the young man who was responsible for it and asked if it was too late to make changes. Had it already gone to press? He looked at me vacantly and shrugged his shoulders. I began to get angry and raised my voice.

‘Don’t you care that this is so bad!?’

Again he simply looked at me, an unmistakable trace of amusement in his eyes.

And suddenly it was clear. To borrow the parlance of our children’s author from earlier in this tale, he didn’t give a shit.

He worked for the company. I didn’t. He was laconic. I was apoplectic to the point that I was risking a coronary. I simply wanted the task to be done well.

And that’s it. Communication dominates society like never before. There is so much of it out there that we risk drowning in words.

Communication itself is the growth industry of our times. Governments and corporations pour money into controlling their message and protecting their image with countless press officers. Everyone with a smartphone now is a journalist or an author or (God forbid) a blogger.

But yet the respect and reverence given to the very medium itself seems more and more to be utterly lacking. Everyone is doing it. Most of them are doing it badly but most of them don’t know the difference so there’s no meritocracy. We’re all debased and impoverished by the very absence of respect given to working with words.

We are all in the gutter and it’s a cloudy fucking night.

Imagine such a slapdash attitude being taken in any other discipline. The mathematician who doesn’t care whether he’s got the decimal point in the right place. The surgeon who’s not quite sure which artery to cut so she just guesses.

And I’m not trying to make an elitist argument here. There’s no sense of exclusive entitlement. The language is for everyone and the more people who are encouraged to use it well the better society will be. That’s why I try to teach people how to write.

It’s just that….it’s just that how we do it has to matter.

We have to respect the form and treat it properly. And pass it on in good shape to the next generation.

And I’m not some grammar nazi foaming at the mouth over a simple apostrophe in the wrong place. There are some grammatical rules that are so obscure as to be baffling and too restrictive. More important is clear communication, good communication. Getting the point across in the most efficient and attractive way. Making yourself understood.

I make mistakes. A reader probably wouldn’t have to travel too far into my blog to find a word missing or a grammar mix-up. You might even find one or more in this post. I often find them myself. Then I fix them.

But the point is if you keep making the same mistakes over and over then it can only be that you don’t know what you are doing. Or you don’t care enough to check.

And the more this happens the muddier the puddle becomes. The intended meaning gets lost or confused. The reader loses faith or patience in the product.

A white bed becomes a shite bed.

Language is a leviathan. An organic, evolving thing. The spoken and written word were different a century ago. They will have altered again in another 100 years.

But the basic rules stay the same and should be respected. What do I want to say? What is the best way of saying it? What words and verbal images can assist? Then you write it. Then you read it and ask, is that the best way of saying it? Can I make it more efficient? More attractive? Think about the economy of language. Every word matters. Proper thought leads to proper language. Lazy thought leads to bad language.

Finish by reading it again and then asking yourself ‘Have I said something which is bloody stupid?’ (apologies to Orwell).

I was teaching a communications course in Belfast yesterday. I went straight to the class after checking out the infamous children’s book in the community centre.

It was a rare and enjoyable experience. A disparate group. There were a few students, some professionals. About half were young people from outside the UK or Ireland. They were all there because they wanted to be.

Another thing which united them was a desperation for information and knowledge. They picked my bones dry of anecdote and experience. Several times I was asked what is the most important thing about written communication. Every time I gave the same answer; get the basics right. Spelling, grammar, logic, flow. Write it, read it, improve it. And keep doing it. Master that and the whole exciting world of language can be explored.

The class went on for longer than I had expected. I couldn’t get away because the questions kept coming. They didn’t have experience but they had respect for the subject we were discussing. I probably learnt as much from them as they did from me.

When I eventually did leave I walked up the Stranmillis Road. Inevitably I stopped at a coffee shop. As I relaxed I felt more heartened. The day seemed a little brighter than before.

Was this the restorative power of mixing with some people who actually give a shit?

Or was it simply a very good coffee?

4 thoughts on “Does anyone give a shit anymore?

  1. I read and enjoy every single one of your posts Jonny. And whilst I’ve shed tears over your posts on mental health and laughed along with your innocently sarcastic air on the more light-hearted ones, THIS has been my favourite so far. Everyone’s a ‘writer’ nowadays but most (myself included) lack mastery over the specialist tool that is the English language. You my friend are a diamond in the rough. Imagining words were clay, you’re the best potter around; you possess the extraordinary gift of being able to craft words into a spectacular work of art.
    I’m lazy in terms of grammar, editing etc. My finger is too hasty to tap ‘publish’ and I don’t treat words with the respect and craftsmanship they deserve. I’m in awe of your gift. You can make the most ordinary topics leap out at a reader, grab them by the lapels of their coat and pull them in.
    Keep on upholding standards with that red pen of yours.
    I dread to think of the shite we would all be reading if it weren’t for writers like you.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I once wrote about “the demise of Cicero” in an essay. Prof Williams annotated with “do you mean ‘death’?” Result – one very bemused student. He was a great one for clarity!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Jonny,
    You have only to look at the rapid imposition of the Northern Ireland revised curriculum, with its hasty inclusion in statute, as a major source of problems with the use of language & SPG (spelling, punctuation & grammsr). The project began as a consequence of the GFA and has been described by one of its architects at CCEA as a Trojan horse.
    Since the revised curriculum forms part of ITT (Initial teacher training) our society is now reaping the consequences via a teaching profession content to make pupils entirely responsible for their learning. No wonder language problems are bubbling up everywhere. Take recent concerns over the marking and grading of GCSE & A-level English examination papers by CCEA. Their response was tardy, confusing and less than transparent while the media role exacerbated rather than assisted parents and their children. It may come as a surprise for you to learn that CCEA are now outside of Ofqual (the regulator of examinations) ; indeed they regulate themselves via one of their own senior managers.
    In answer to your post’s question: If our soi disant education leaders have abandoned accountability and left children to largely fend for themselves it should really come as no surprise to you that you picked up a book aimed at children which supplies, for a price, pages containing shite.
    Save the author further embarrassment and the public a potential waste of money and name them and their publisher before someone buys this product for a Christmas present. Christmas is stressful enough.

    Liked by 1 person

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