CBS Sunday Morning did a segment this morning about President Roosevelt’s speech to the congress about the attack on Pearl Harbor. The state department had presented him with seventeen pages starting with the history of our relations with Japan from the beginning. Roosevelt’s final speech was a fraction of that and is remembered right up there with the Gettysburg address. Why does that matter to writers?
In grad school I had a wonderful professor—she did a seminar on James Joyce that turned me into a fan—who used to beat me about the head and shoulders when I chose the wrong word. I don’t mean using ‘infer’ when I meant ‘imply.’ Everybody knows that one. I tend to be a facile writer and let the words flow (when they flow, which isn’t always). It’s easy to pick the first word that pops into the writer’s head that sounds pretty good. According to my professor, that is not good enough. And she’s right. Roosevelt changed one word to “infamy” in his speech. A day that will live in infamy. And it is remembered.
At the first of the Christmas parties last night a group of writers got into a discussion about punctuation. Only writers would think punctuation would be a viable subject at a party. I read a great deal on Kindle. Sometimes I wish I could download a book, correct it and send it back to its author. So many have no idea how to punctuate compound or complex sentences. And they put commas between the subject and predicate. Misplaced modifiers, though not punctuation, lead to some hilarious sentences. At our critique group we look out for these ‘gotchas’ and hoot and holler and fall about when we find them.
One guest, a retired journalist, said that the reason newspapers are so badly edited these days is that editors have been fired. I prefer the British term “made redundant,” but the result is the same. “Rewrite Men” have been gone since computers replaced typewriters. Now the picky, picky, pick veteran editors have been replaced by Roboeditor somewhere in Virginia. So far, machines don’t think quite as well as the editors they replaced.
Does any of this matter? It does to me. I am no more perfect than any other writer, but at least I give it a shot. We do not want to become the ‘post literate’ society.