By Carmen Poon
Hi there. This month’s article is a bit different from the others I have written. The topic of this month’s contribution is writing. I remember a friend of mine who has a PHD once telling me that the writing process could be “almost painful”. She was right. Expressing oneself well in an engaging manner is not an easy task. When I began writing MMMMC, I didn’t think that my writing would be perfect, but I was fairly confident in my ability to express myself well via the written word with a minimum of errors. I was wrong. Things that seem clear as a mountain lake to the author can, in reality, be as murky as a swamp to a reader. Moreover, even professional writers can often overlook the most basic errors. There is a reason that even accomplished authors get people to read the initial drafts of their work, proofreading one’s own writing is really damned hard!
Yes siree, good proofreaders and editors are worth their weight in gold, because they save you embarrassment and make you look good in print! One of my university professors once told me that in the final reading of a manuscript she wrote, she and her husband, who was one of her proofreaders, discovered one such typographical error. The sentence was supposed to use the word “public” but instead it contained the word “pubic”. (YIKES!) She told me that several people had read the manuscript and all of them had missed the error until the final read before sending it to the publisher. Yep, the value of a good editor cannot be overemphasized!
When I started writing MMMMC I was doing all my own proofreading and editing. To my dismay, I often discovered my errors after the publication of each article. I look back on some of my first articles and I have to laugh at some of the errors that I made, while others just make me shake my head. As I have admitted in the past, I am a recovering perfectionist, so for me, errors of any kind are not easily accepted. Writing, I have learned, is a humbling experience and very therapeutic for my formerly perfection seeking soul.
Nonetheless, some errors I made just irked me. Those that have bothered me the most, are those that I feel I should have caught. And of all of those, I think the following is my favourite faux pas. In one of my earlier articles I was describing the experience of riding city buses here in Vallarta. I noted that each bus was decorated with a distinct flair reflecting the owner’s unique style. Unfortunately, instead of using the word “flair” I used the word “flare” as in a flame flaring up. Despite knowing the difference between the two words, I still missed the error completely. It wasn’t until a couple of readers left online comments, one of them asking dryly if the buses were on fire, that I realized my mistake! At the time I was horrified!
I think that each of us has that one friend whose grammar is impeccable, whose syntax is enviable, and whose punctuation is practically perfect. Being a student of languages I have many friends who fit that description, however, one still stands out from the rest. My friend Rosa is a Grammar Goddess. I know it sounds like I am exaggerating. I’m not. Rosa has been one of my regular readers since the beginning of MMMMC and after each article she would make suggestions and correct my errors. She had offered to proofread my work before it was published, but I had stubbornly refused. I didn’t want to be a bother. Not too long after my beautiful description of Puerto Vallarta’s buses “went up in flames”, I humbly accepted her help. Since then, she has meticulously edited my articles and helped me to develop my writing skills.
Since she began helping me, I find that I have become more mindful in my written work. I am more careful about my word choice and I often find myself asking, “does that word mean what I think it means?” or “is that verb conjugation correct?” Rosa assures me that my proofreading is improving, but I find that I am still learning things. For instance, I have discovered that I have been using the incorrect past tense of the verb “to lie” for pretty much my entire life! (Okay, not Earth shattering I admit, but when you are a “wanna be” author, basic errors with common verbs can shake your confidence.) The verb “to lie” means to tell an untruth or to stretch out horizontally. When you are using them in the present tense the verb forms are written exactly the same way. In the past tense, however, it is a whole different word game! To say that you told an untruth yesterday, you would say, “I lied to my teacher yesterday.” To say that you stretched your body out horizontally before going to sleep you would say, “Last night, I lay down on my bed.” Did you know that? I did not! For as long as I can remember, I have said (and written), “I lied down on my bed.” Little did I realize that what I have really been saying is, “I said an untruth down on my bed”! For those of you who learned the correct way to say “I lay on the beach yesterday”, I tip my hat to your superior grammatical knowledge and beg you to be patient with the rest of us who need to “unlearn what we have learned”. (Isn’t Yoda wonderful?)
My spelling is a source of constant constructive criticism from Rosa; my rather rebellious mixture of American and British spellings basically makes her teeth grind. Rosa is a tough traditionalist when it comes to word usage and spelling, often citing the Oxford dictionary or some Oxford professor she knows to support her suggestion. In fact, she is not the first person to point out that I have no regard for following one standardized spelling system. This used to concern me, and for a while I thought about “fixing it”, but upon reflection I think that my mixed spelling style is part of being a Canadian writer. Traditionally, Canadian spelling was supposed to follow the British spelling norms, but with the overwhelming presence of American media, Canadians are exposed to American spellings all the time. Sooooo, for me a mix of the two is very “Canadian”. It is both a nod to our connection to the UK as a Commonwealth Nation as well as a recognition of our close proximity to the United States. It might seem a little muddled, but for me that is part of being Canadian. Okay, I admit that an acclaimed Canadian author like Margaret Atwood probably wouldn’t mix her spelling norms, but I kind of like my confused little orthographic rebellion.
Not surprisingly, Rosa is an avid reader who always has a book on hand. She enjoys all types of literature, but her true love is poetry. Poetry certainly is not my forte, but her friendship and candid criticism inspired me so, I decided to take a crack at it. The results are not going to rival Pablo Neruda, but I certainly had some fun playing with the alliteration. I hope that you have as much fun reading my poem as I had writing it. If any of you feel moved to write your own poems I would love to read them. Please share them! Oh, and if you are wondering if Rosa edited this article and poem dedicated to her, basically spoiling the surprise, the answer is YES! I learned my lesson.
Ode to Red-Penned Rosa
(Grammarian of the Wild Frontier)
Righteous Rosa of the Red Pen,
Rigorously rights grammatical wrongs,
Roots out redundancy and
Rallies others toward
Refined written expression.
Rescuing wretched writing, she
Raises it from rough ruins,
Refurbishing it and,
Revealing its rudimentary radiance.
Reverently written by Carmen Poon, May 2017
I know most people find the subject of grammar about as pleasant as having a wisdom tooth pulled, so I greatly pared down my grammatical explanation. For those of you who are closeted grammar lovers, however, here is a website that I consulted. This article clearly explains the correct forms of the verb “lie” when talking about telling a fib or stretching out for a siesta. They also explain the verb “to lay”, meaning “to put” or “to place”. Yes I know, absolutely scintillating stuff!
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