13 June 2007

Meatball Surgery

Okay, so much for leaping boldly into the modern computer world. My upgrades arrived, and alas there was some confusion regarding them, so I'm still about three years behind the times, but at least things are noticeably better. At least I can run more than two programmes at a time now. *shrug* It's proof-positive, though, that nothing ever goes as planned for the NSG Doc. C'est la vie, c'est la guerre....

Spent most of the past two days editing and recasting reports and was reminded of something which I had forgotten, namely the fundamental differences between one form of report and another. In my onetime field, repetition is a no-no, and structure & phrasing matter a lot. In other fields, however, especially science and social-science related fields, reports are all about repetition and jargon: all about, that is, using key words and phrases, shoehorning them in if necessary, and restating them as often as possible. Reminds me of an actor making his marks: make sure you step here, here and here; don't worry, it doesn't matter how you move between them, but dammit, make sure you hit those bloody marks. It was one of the first things I learned in academia, that what's acceptable, and often publishable, in the social-sciences-- for example-- wouldn't make even preliminary muster from a language-based, much less literary, standpoint. Sylvia, I'm sure, knows exactly what I mean--- and probably more intimately.

More than a decade ago, an anthropology student with an office across from mine asked me to edit a paper that she was submitting for publication. Going through it, I realized the thing was unreadable, and I set about trying to perform meatball surgery on it. Next time I saw this young woman, I apologized for taking so long (and, frankly, dreading having to relate the awful news), but she cut me short with her happy announcement that she had already submitted the piece and that it had been accepted. I smiled and was happy for her, of course, but you could have knocked me over with a feather.

As some of you reading this already know, I chagrin the social sciences, not because of what they study but because they actively encourage bad-- genuinely awful-- writing; illogical writing, mechanical writing, obtuse and professionally onanistic writing; writing that's based on the checklist, talking-point model. Coherence doesn't matter; language doesn't matter; and phrasing, well that matters less than nothing, if that's possible. Such writing is just point-form notes shoved into paragraphs when they really want nothing more than to remain point-form notes. Until one appreciates that sentences and paragraphs aren't just vague verbal forms, but units of logic, all those paragraphs are just going to be boxes into which as many objects as possible are carelessly shoved. Unfortunately, that's how most people think of paragraphs-- and sentences, for that matter-- because that's what they're taught to think, usually in high school. It's almost impossible to remedy that sort of thinking, especially when people get settled in their ways. Why care about grace, after all, if you're still making your marks? Who cares if you do so with the heavy footing of a Clydesdale?

It's a lesson I used to make, probably ad nauseam, to my students over the years, that language matters fundamentally because it's the central device of thought, in the same way that numbers are to a mathematician. Misplace a decimal, add a zero, miswrite an equation, and your answers will be skewed and almost certainly wrong. Same thing with language. Muck up the words, mash up the grammatical order, misplace punctuation, and your writing will collapse under the weight of your intentions and you'll be left standing on a pile of intellectual rubble. As Mr Eliot put it,

Words strain,
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still.

Few care about this sort of thing anymore, though, and those of us who do are often regarded as tight-arsed purists clinging to some long-dead notion that language is unmalleable. It's quite the opposite, in fact. Those of us that care about such stuff are all too aware of the mutability of language. Using language is like making a wish in a fairy tale: if you're not careful, you'll probably get something quite different than you expect. Semantics are everything. Just ask my computer.


And yes, this is all probably just post-editing whinge. Meatball surgery, after all, isn't about getting things right or even best; it's about getting your patients back out in the field as quickly as possible. The words "good enough," however, will always bug the living hell out of me, even when I have to say them. C'est la vie, c'est la....


sylvia said...

You know, I'd never thought of it like this before, but one of the great paradoxes of writing these days is that while we are all willing to accept that the language of computer code (whether it's Basic or C++ or SGML or whatever) is exacting -- that its syntax matters, that one character out of place will invalidate the whole thing -- so many of us refuse to believe the same of human language.

And to some extent the doubters are perfectly right: people are much cleverer than computers, able to infer the correct spelling from an incorrect one, interpolate the missing word that will make sense out of nonsense, tease meaning out of meaningless, because mangled, syntax. But that ability goes only so far, and every such inference and interpretation reduces -- sometimes drastically -- the degree of precision with which the destinataire receives and understands the sender's message. Some of the people I edit (virtually all of whom, by the way, have doctoral degrees in their various fields) appear to see scholarly communication as a massive game of Broken Telephone, in which it doesn't much matter what the person at the end of the line hears, as long as it's something.

Or possibly they think they're writing in Latin, where word order doesn't matter ...

j said...

scary isn't it, the computer's got higher standards than humans when it comes to language. scarier when you think that misinterpretation is so common when everything is perfect , imagine what it's like when everything's incomprehensible! maybe that comes from living in a world where people are willing to twist what their enemies said and invent when there isn't anything to twist.