Comment | What Matters in Print: Do You Mean “Uninterested” or “Disinterested”?

Nigel Jarrett on the decline of print media.

Bernard Levin once railed against slapdash editing in books. He included some of the major publishing houses in his tirade, which coincided with a decline – noted by those who may have missed the solecisms he’d highlighted – in the quality of binding, particularly where stitching of pages had given way to cheaper, but patently inferior, glue. I am always buying secondhand books printed in the early decades of the 20th century which look as though they will outlive me. I reach for one at random, my hand obviously and appositely guided by some Levinesque spectre. It is Essays In The Art Of Writing, by Robert Louis Stevenson, published by Chatto & Windus in 1917. I can’t believe I’m only its second owner. It is hermetically sealed against destruction and, for sure, its contents won’t confuse a transitive verb with its intransitive sibling.

When I was a daily-newspaper sub-editor, I was appalled at the gaffes of this sort that regularly slipped into print. My astonishment was compounded by the redundant and wasteful character of newspaper production before old-style ‘hot metal’ printers became obsolete. A reporter typed something which was then sub-edited after being ‘tasted’ for its news value and length. (Tasting was a specialised editorial task which, on the basis of professional self-respect alone, included a modicum of grammar-checking.) The ‘subbed’ text was then ‘set’ again by a Linotype operator, often a wiseacre who liked nothing better than spotting a split infinitive, or worse, and bringing it physically to the chief sub’s attention, the offending article held tight in his ink-stained mitt after a long journey from below stairs. It was always embarrassing because he was invariably right. And it was always a ‘he’.

Nor did the repetitive checks end there. Linotyped reports were scrutinised by proof-readers (always accompanied by a supine ‘proof-holder’), then, in theory, pored over by a ‘stone sub’ when the report was in place on the page and finally checked in the page’s printed form. And still the unrelated participles got through. My theory, which applies to Levin’s trawl of book howlers as well as to those famously pointed out by Lynne Truss and his other outraged heirs, is that the rash of illiteracy they reflect – one hopes it is a rash and not a terminal condition – originates with the elevation of the unread to positions of power in publishing and the coincidental triumph of form over content. To my further amazement, few of those newspaper barbarisms were ever commented on by the editor and brought to the perpetrators’ notice. Perhaps there were so many of them (culprits) that the editor couldn’t be bothered. Or, maybe, bad grammar wouldn’t have registered anyway, so superior were the claims of page design and other journalistic skills as newspapers battled to retain dwindling readerships.

As I recall, Levin didn’t get worked up about the errors he complained of. In that, he was much like those other aloof keepers of the literacy flame, Fowler and Partridge, who commonly refer to them as though they were perpetrated by the lower orders and not to be considered a threat. (‘Keepers of the flame’ is a cliché, but at least I know that; employing it is a matter of choice.) Truss, in her book Eats, Shoots and Leaves, admits to recoiling every time she sees a ‘Pick You’re Own’ sign outside a market garden, but in other respects implies that books, especially hers, are free of improper usage. This one must have been, because its subject-matter demanded that it should be doubtless tooth-combed with the tenacity of the legendary text-checkers on the New Yorker. (Americans, by the way, would insist on Eats, Shoots, and Leaves.) I’m not so sure about others, or about the capacity of the book trade in its printed paper form to withstand it. The use of a comma rather than a full-stop to separate two sentences is so common that it is now become almost acceptable, even though it can never make sense linguistically. Mis-spellings are rife: ‘miniscule’ for ‘minuscule’ is one of he most common.

Add to all this fourth-rate grasp of good English, simple, machine-made carelessness. A double space between the end of a sentence and the beginning of the next might be acceptable if it were consistent. It hardly ever is. I’ve just read a book from a reputable publisher which has all varieties of terminal-sentence gap: single, double and none-at-all. This could and should be picked up by a proof-reader, but, like other mechanical tasks associated with producing readable text, ‘proofing’ has become de-skilled. On newspapers, if a story did not fit a space, the sentences of the final two paragraphs could each be made into paragraphs of their own, even though none had earned the right – ‘slugging out’, it was called. Such lazy practices have not yet established themselves widely in book production. As print newspapers (but not, interestingly, magazines) continue their slide to oblivion, it is on books (magazines as well) that we should concentrate in our search for and elimination of howlers. One still sees ‘hair-brained’ in place of the intended ‘hare-brained’ in newspaper headlines. It’s the hare that comes up with the mad scheme, not the hair, whatever the offending writer thinks that is.

The point about all this is the need for error-free consistency. One might argue that writers who establish their own, experimental, style (say, in abandoning capital letters and all but the most essential punctuation) should still be subject to uniform proof-reading: if they decide to end their sentences with a forward slash rather than a full point, then no full point should appear as a terminal sentence-marker. Hugh Kenner, for one, has written entertainingly on the need to make sense, through accurate editing, of Joyce’s Ulysses, perhaps the classic case of a writer making up rules which the editor must learn before considering a single proof mark. (Joyce, of course, admitted that in writing Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, he had guaranteed years of work for forensic academics.)

It’s perhaps no coincidence that the decline of book-editing skills is on parallel track with the impoverishment of the book as a palpable object, as Levin also noted. Books by American publishers always used to proclaim at the start that they were printed on acid-free paper. This evidently led to an increase in longevity. I remember buying the American edition of Peter Taylor’s novel A Summons to Memphis in the late 1980s. When it went missing from my shelves its pages were still crisp and bleach-white, unlike the replacement English edition, published at virtually the same time, which I bought as a brown-as-bracken replacement. Paperbacks, which Levin and his ilk would probably have condemned but for different, cultural reasons, no longer seem to last till the time for re-reading, when they often fall apart in chunks. The wider reading public these cheaper editions were intended to reach surely deserved better; today, that’s almost all of us.

W.H Auden rated the ability to distinguish between ‘uninterested’ and ‘disinterested’ as more important than many other accomplishments required by poesy, on the basis, one assumes, that without proper understanding of terms one was incapable of clarifying ideas. The writer who opens a non-defining subordinate clause with a comma but fails to close it with one so that it drifts on to the end of the sentence is guilty of sloppiness; the one who separates off a defining clause with commas at all is uncomprehending. Writing one thing and knowingly meaning another is a disquieting act; doing it unknowingly is the rot setting in. The latter is no less serious than the attribution of pedantry to the person who points out such matters. That this essay is in need of editing I have no doubt; but at least I’ve tried to expunge it of serious wrongdoing.


Nigel Jarrett is a freelance writer and regular contributor to the Wales Arts Review. He is a poet, novelist, and story writer. His latest collection of stories, Who Killed Emil Kreisler?, was published last year. He is a winner of the Rhys Davies prize for short fiction and, in 2016, the inaugural Templar Shorts award. He also writes and reviews for Jazz Journal.