If it isn’t broken…

Ex-librarian and incunabula collector J. K. Emery tells of his attempt at trying to fix something that was not out of order. He was reading galley proofs for a poetry magazine, and chanced upon the name “e e cummings”.

Out came his blue pencil, and in went the upper case initials. Mr. Cummings returned the proofs to publisher Alan Swallow with a note expressing his displeasure in non-poetic terms, says Mr Emery. This reminds me of an incident wherein a boy called Iain was asked by a teacher to write his name down a hundred times – one of those hackneyed penalties for misbehaviour in class – in the office of the Headmistress. In walked a teacher, who sought to embarrass the boy further. “You don’t even know how to write tour name!” she exclaimed. The boy, as it turned out, spelled his name the Scots way, just as I spell mine the Maltese way. Incidentally, I get several mails a day with it badly written. Don’t our hands itch to re-align slightly out-of-kilter picture frames in restaurants? Or to re-arrange the trinkets in other people’s display cabinets? But we don’t – because it would be rude to do so. I will avoid all reference to how people who are supposed to be proofreading and editing copy change terminology and wording; because their English or Maltese are not up to scratch and they do not bother to check with  reference works (or the authors). Every day, the papers are filled with “suggestions” about “the only way” certain things ought to be done – according to the views of the writer. Obvious errors of judgement or policy are not pointed out, for fear of reprisals from the persons who made them, if they happen to be in a position of power. These, in their turn, think they can get away with it – and sometimes, alas, they do. Not that long ago, I took part in an essay-writing contest. We were invited to the prize-giving get-together, during which the prize-winner had to be announced. But before that we were treated to a very insulting speech by the organiser. He ranted on and on about how none of the people who entered the contest could probably speak grammatical English, let alone write it…. excepting for the winner…. She, as it turned out, was, at the cafeteria of the same building, languidly sipping a cappuccino with her husband and son, at the table right next to a friend of mine who had accompanied me, but preferred to wait downstairs.

Lo and behold, this lady’s mobile telephone suddenly rang, and she air-kissed her husband and son and hurried upstairs, just as the speech was ending.

The first prize was hers; yet when she read her essay… it was so trite, so stupid, sand o ungrammatical… that I wondered if it was actually in English or pidgin. Just in case you are wondering – her accent was terrible, too. The lads across the aisle from me were sniggering outright; for them, as for me, the pathetic insults of the organiser had ceased to have any meaning, thanks to the unintentional entertainment.

This organisation has since lost all credibility with me, because it broke further something that was already beyond repair. Sometimes, however, editing takes on a more serious tone.

Most of us receive several e-mails a week, the intention of which would be to take foreign celebrities and local personalities down a peg or two. One of this involved a particularly nasty entry about someone whom I do not even know – but the fact that it had been created, and furthermore, was doing the rounds “just for a laugh”, irritated my “do as you would be done by” principles. Guns blazing I wrote to the administration of the site, saying that the (unsigned) entry was a blatant lie from beginning to end.

Moreover, I added, the words in italics were simply anglicised rude words in Maltese – something that they could not have known.

The entry was removed, and to date has not been replaced – not even by the innocuous truth. In this case, I had stuck my neck out to mend something that not even the person who was lampooned had sought to do. Then, of course, there are those vile campaigns (“petitions” that have no legal force whatsoever) fuelled by spleen, aimed at specific people. These include comments such as “petetic progeame” (I kid you not!), and are created whenever someone takes it into his mind to mend something that is no concern of his…. Envy also leads people to write denigrating comments in online editions of newspapers – and, again, the chances are that the English in which they do it is atrocious.

Why do we try to correct things, when we have not been asked to do so? Could it be simply the desire to appear “better” than the person whom we are criticising? Is it an honest, innate wish to “help out”? Or is it just because we are seeking an excuse to avoid those ominous four-letter words, “real work”?


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