Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Plus Ca Change, Plus C'est La Meme Chose

Well my Italian dream is over and I’m back in London. One thing I won’t miss is The Great Anointing which I went through every morning. Since, genetically, I am really designed for the mild, wet climate of the west of Ireland, I had to start every day by coating myself with vast quantities of sun block which had the effect of making me look even whiter than I am. This, coupled with my Marks and Spencers hat marked me out as a tourist as effectively as if I’d had ‘Englishman on holiday’ tattooed across my forehead.

As a result, waiters and shopkeepers invariably spoke to me in English, despite my best efforts to talk to them in their native language. I did get a few opportunities to speak Italian however, including one whole afternoon when I had lunch with an Italian friend and was even obliged a couple of times to use the subjunctive. My Italian teacher, whose name is Laura, would have been extremely pleased. She is very strict about the subjunctive.

I mentioned this to a frighteningly intelligent friend of mine who has more degrees than a thermometer and writes books, the titles of which are completely beyond my comprehension. He frowned and said, ‘What’s the subjunctive?’ So, in case you share his grammatical blind spot, the subjunctive is a tense* that indicates doubt or hypothesis. The example commonly given is ‘If I were you’. Normally we don’t say ‘I were happy’, we say ‘I was happy’. So why do we say ‘If I were you’? Because we are using the subjunctive, of course.

Actually, nowadays, most people probably say ‘If I was you’ because, as Laura regularly points out with a curl of the lip, the use of the subjunctive in English is dying out. She clearly regards this as a sign of the degeneracy of the English language.

I don’t agree. I just see it as a sensible process of rationalisation. This is the way I look at it. If someone says to you…(Oh dear! Strictly speaking I should have written ‘If someone were to say to you’ since I am now hypothesising) – anyway, to hell with that. If someone says to you ‘If I were you’, there is no element of doubt, is there? You don’t think to yourself, ‘Gosh! Is he me? Am I really someone else?’ No, you understand that the person speaking is simply giving you a piece of advice. There’s no confusion; so why do you need to use a special tense?

The gradual disappearance of the subjunctive is one of the things that is often referred to as a kind of litmus test of grammatical awareness by people who complain about a decline in editing standards. Personally, I don’t think there’s been any such decline at all. My editor is prepared to accept ‘If I were you’ or ‘If I was you’. She knows the difference but accepts that the English language is in a constant state of change.

Since my return to England I have discovered that I am now in Wikipedia However, according to my entry I live in London with my wife and two daughters. This only goes to show what happens when there is no overall editorial control of a text. My daughters are in fact both married with homes of their own. Indeed, my elder daughter is thirty-one today. (Happy Birthday, Em!) Which is, coincidentally, about the age I feel inside.

Unfortunately my birth certificate is unequivocal on this point. I am, in reality, fifty-five and have been writing children’s books for more than a quarter of a century. If I delve into what Shakespeare called ‘the deep backward and abysm of time’ I can even remember one of the Great Milestones Of Publishing.

I had been invited to have lunch with my editor at Oxford University Press. We were just leaving the building for a restaurant when Ron, my editor, was hailed by another editor (whose name I never caught) but who was clearly enormously excited about something.

‘Look at this, Ron!’ the Other Editor said, taking a sheaf of paper out of a large brown envelope. ‘It’s just arrived from America.'
‘What is it?’ asked Ron. ‘A set of proofs?’
The Other Editor shook his head. ‘It’s a manuscript,’ he said.
‘But it’s practically perfect!’ exclaimed Ron in amazement. ‘You could publish it as it stands.’
‘I know,’ said the Other Editor. Speaking almost reverently he added, ‘It’s been done on a word processor.’
Ron thumbed through the manuscript in awed silence.
'This is the future,’ the Other Editor assured him. ‘They’ll all be like this soon.’
Ron shook his head in dismay. ‘Then we’ll be out of a job,’ he observed gloomily.

The Other Editor was right. Pretty soon every manuscript they received (including mine) was being produced on a computer. However, Ron’s gloomy prediction that there would be no more need for editors proved untrue. As in the English language, some things (like the subjunctive) change, but others remain the same.

Real editing, as opposed to straightforward copy editing, is about vision, about understanding the audience, about recognising a voice, developing a story, encouraging talent and fitting all this into the overall strategy of the publishing house. I think there are as many people who can do that today as there always have been.

* Of course strictly speaking it's a mood not a tense as I remembered after writing this but I'm afraid I'm not up to explaining the difference

1 comment:

Foxi Rosie said...

If I were you... I'd hold onto that thought.