Can't see the stars for the pixels

misterpip.jpgFirst, a declaration of assets: I enjoy thinking about linguistic niceties including grammar.

But I groan at every spate of letters to the editor about [tag]grammar[/tag] or punctuation. I'd rather consult my own reference books than be ticked off by Curmudgeon of Khandallah, thanks very much.

The latest bout in our local paper is classic. Readers were discussing two so-called "grammar mistakes" on the first page of Lloyd Jones' novel [tag]Mister Pip[/tag]. The letters' tone ranges from disgust that Jones could be so ignorant (in my day /world going to rack and ruin) to parental guidance (try harder next time dear).

What can you say?

The stunning Mister Pip won the 2006 Commonwealth Writers Prize and is on the long list for this year's Man Booker Prize. Lloyd Jones is a sophisticated and literate writer. So we can safely assume he knows the difference between a grammar mistake and a pedantic prejudice.

These people can't see the wood for the trees. It should be pretty obvious that Mister Pip is -- for heavens sakes -- fiction. Fiction entails layer upon layer of delicious, deliberate lies, in this case literary lies that prise apart filaments of narrative and truth. This particular story is about story.

The narrator is supposedly not Jones, but Matilda, a child at the time of Bougainville's 1990s civil war, recalling strange events years later as an educated young woman. So Jones chooses to write in a certain style that is right for Matilda with all her successive experiences of language, granted that her story is polished to enable smooth reading. The grammar of the narrative is far from accidental or naive.

In purpose-written web content we rarely encounter such subtle motivation or its effects. All the same, the danger of focusing on trivia is ever present, and the cost is high.

When you need feedback on business writing, don't show it to a grammar maniac. You want someone who can ask the hard questions. Not, 'Why have you split an infinitive, you wicked person?' but, 'Why did you even bother to write this pointless page?' You want someone who will cross out redundant paragraphs and pages, not just a redundant apostrophe.

Rachel McAlpine
Rachel McAlpine


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