Daily Archives: 16 May 2010

Why, how or what?

This is the last of these posts for a while, I promise. Mireille Juchau isn’t an easy writer, but she is rewarding. ‘Habitat Group’, her story in the current Heat, compresses a great complexity of relationships into an astonishingly small span. But it  begins:

Josie looks out from the treehouse, across the roofs and conifer spires to the grand home hovering in shreds of fog. Through its high window she sees a framed picture changing form – now a plane of radium green, now a dappled mercury lake. Pain knives her belly.

Why knives rather than the accepted usage, knifes? I can’t think of a reason why someone would make that choice deliberately, unless perhaps to say subliminally about spelling conventions what a recent commenter here said explicitly about syntax: ‘your correct syntax is […] synthetic and immutable and already outmoded.’ I don’t believe this story is intended to make any such statement, even though there’s a tremour a couple of pages later. There is no why, no meaning-making intent.

How did it happen? None of three spellcheckers easily available to me rejects knifes (though WordPress rejects both gages and pavo). It could be a typo, as v is very close to  f on the qwerty keyboard. It could be a moment’s inattention on the writer’s part or a product of an education that didn’t insist on relentlessly testing spelling, backed up by similar moments of inattention or educational deficits in the copy editor and everyone else who read the text on the way to publication. However, it’s almost certainly accidental, and accidents will always happen.

What effect does it have? It’s immediate effect on me is to throw me into proofreader mode, so unless I lay the book aside and come back to it with a fresh mind in a couple of days, I read on, distracted by every instance where I would have made a different judgment on the commas. Fourteen pages later, for example, in John Mateer’s poem, ‘Pieta’, a prostitute smiles ‘discretely’ at her customer, and I’m irritated that my first response is to think it’s a misspelling – when in fact it’s a finely judged and unusual use of the word. This immediate effect is what prompts me to blog about these things. But there are other, more serious effects, of which three come to mind. First, Heat is a serious, often groundbreaking literary journal, and the routine occurrence of these and less obvious errors makes it look amateurish and second rate. Second, these errors are likely to spread confusion among young readers. I realise this is not as big a deal as it would be in a children’s magazine, but it is still a consideration. Third, they contribute to a general falling off of precision in the use of language and in thinking, of which it is a symptom.

Haven’t I got better things to do with my time, you might ask, than blog about other people’s spelling mistakes? Well, yes, I have. I will pass over any remaining errors of the sort in this issue of Heat in silence. The silence will also apply to eccentric, inconsistent and North American use of commas and other punctuation. Sydney is hosting the Biennale, the Writers Festival and – soon – Vivid. I’m sure I’ll find something to write about there.