On authenticity and confusion

Tayari Jones is in the midst of revising her novel, Silver Girl, after receiving comments from her editor. Earlier this week, she wrote:

The use of freak in the Rick James sense of the word is perfectly in tune with the voice of my character—she’s a black girl growing up in Atlanta in the late-eighties. But at the same time, I don’t want to use a word in a context that will confuse a reader who isn’t from that place. If I change it, I will alter the voice, albeit in a minor way…

[T]he matter of regional or cultural English vernacular is that the reader sees my words and assumes that she knows what it is supposed to mean. If I see a Spanish word, I know it’s in another language, I either use context or I’ll google it. If it’s an English word, the reader may just be confused.

Ah, this is a subject that’s near and dear to my heart.

When I was a kid, I sometimes read British novels (like Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series). The thing about being Canadian is when we got British books like that, they generally were the British versions, which made for interesting reading…

As I’ve mentioned before, it took me forever to figure out that the kids in these stories weren’t running around with flaming sticks, i.e. that their “torches” were just flashlights. I never looked words like this up, because—as Tayari points out—I figured I already knew what they meant.

(When I finally figured it out, I was so disappointed! Flashlights! How boring! Now I think this story is hilarious; I’ve told it so many times that probably I’m the one being boring.)

But here’s the thing: if the language had been North-Americanized, those stories wouldn’t be nearly as memorable. Using the language the characters would use is part of the authenticity and flavor of the story. And even if readers misunderstand the occasional word, they’ll still get the gist of the story. My enjoyment of the stories wasn’t ruined because I pictured kids running around with flaming sticks or was perplexed by why boys would be wearing jumpers.

When I started copyediting Toasted Cheese, I made a deliberate decision not to North-Americanize British and Indian and Australian writing. To me, the words used and the way they are spelled is a part of the author’s voice. Stripping those characteristics away would lessen the work’s uniqueness, make it blander and more generic.

This is not to say I don’t make any style choices. Of course I do. Ellipses get three dots. Not four. Not fourteen. Em-dashes are flush to the words on either side (and they’re not one or two hyphens or an en-dash). I use single asterisk to indicate a break, not three or five or a line or a string of hyphens. I make an effort to ensure trademarked names are spelled correctly and capitalized. Etcetera.

And, obviously, actual spelling mistakes and typos and other usage errors are corrected. (Where the error is unintentional, rather than deliberately used for effect, of course.) You don’t get to spell “the” as “teh” unless your character is making an interwebs joke.


Perhaps coincidentally, later that same day, I ran across this post by Mark Liberman at Language Log, in which he wrote:

I’m not entirely sure why organizations and publications want to impose a house style, which imposes a consistent set of choices in cases where overall orthographic standards are open to various alternative outcomes.  I’m not saying that having a house style is a bad thing, or arguing against it,  I’m just sightly puzzled about why people care that all the articles in notable publication X should hyphenate and abbreviate according to one set of rules, while all the articles in esteemed publication Y consistently do it a different way.

In the comments, David L said:

It would be odd, to take an extreme example, for one story in a magazine to use British spelling and punctuation standards, and another to use American spelling and punctuation. … [Readers] would take the inconsistencies to imply a general carelessness about the way the magazine was put together. Which would imply a sloppiness, perhaps, about the content of the magazine, not just its appearance.

I’m not sure what’s so “extreme” about this. Presumably a piece written with American spelling would be written by an American and one using British spelling by a Brit. Presumably readers are smart enough to make the connection. They’re also presumably smart enough to distinguish a preference for one legitimate (i.e. in the dictionary) variation of a word over another from typos, misspellings, grammatical errors, factual errors (where pertinent), random font changes, etc.—in other words, the kinds of things that would actually imply sloppiness.

Helen DeWitt’s comment expands on what I was trying to get at above:

@David L, American publishers do like to eliminate British spelling. In a work of fiction, though, this is not necessarily a good thing. British usage differs from American in all kinds of ways; if a story uses British idiom, British spelling, punctuation and so on help to make the details of the text consistent with the setting. If the ‘surface’ is cleaned up to follow other conventions, this draws attention (for me, at least) to aspects of the text that were not meant to be foregrounded. An American story, similarly, which is dutifully conformed to British usage – ‘honour’ for ‘honor’, ‘licence’ for ‘license’ and so on, looks odd. It’s taken for granted, I believe, that proper names retain their original spelling: American newspapers refer to the Labour Party, British papers to the Department of Defense. It’s not clear to me why everything else is automatically up for grabs.

I won’t go as far as Stephen Jones who suggested that “it doesn’t matter a monkey’s toss if you have a word spelt the American way in one paragraph and the British in the next.” I do think there should be consistency within a piece as a general rule. But, as the comment above points out, there are exceptions, for example, where the difference in spelling is due to a direct quotation or proper name. So, the New York Times might speak of “labor” and the “Labour Party” in the same story.

Thinking about that, it’s interesting that when direct quoting from a printed source, we will maintain the spelling of the original. But when direct quoting from something someone said verbally, we’ll impose our own spelling on their words. Of course, there’s a certain amount of, well, you can’t expect to ask a person how they spell each any every word, but presumably, if a British person is speaking, it would seem likely that their vision of the words is more likely to match up with British conventions than American.

blahedo suggested that the imposition of a style was appropriate when precision was necessary, as “in academic publication, journalistic writing, and program documentation, and undoubtedly to others in legal writing and other precision endeavours” but not in others, such as fiction. S/he also notes, as somewhat of an aside, that

I picked up a variety of British spellings and usages for fairly arbitrary reasons when I was in college, and still use many of them—some just to be contrary and some because I find them more aesthetic, obviously a totally subjective judgement.

I’m going to suggest that what blahedo’s personal anecdote illustrates is that imposing an arbitrary style unnecessarily on writing actually makes it less precise, rather than more. The anecdote clearly illustrates that people don’t blindly follow American spelling conventions just because they’re American. They have personal preferences, quirks if you will. That’s part of their writing style. Maybe they like aesthetic rather than esthetic. Maybe they like aesthetic for one meaning of the word and esthetic for another. That’s precision. Maybe they think grey and gray are two different colors (or colours). That’s precision.

Near the end of the thread, Allan Edmands wrote:

Content, not form, is the point of communication (at least nonfiction communication). Therefore, form (typeface, margins, spelling, capitalization, punctuation, and all the other details ruled upon in style guidelines), though necessary for the infrastructure of the communication, should remain in the background in a predictable blandness; what should stand out for the intended audience is content … My experience has taught me that inconsistencies in these details can distract an audience from the content.

But for anyone who takes writing seriously, many of these choices are an integral part of the content, not mere “infrastructure.” Even people who are less invested in writing have firm preferences when it comes to certain words.

Here’s an example I think most people can relate to—and which goes back to Helen DeWitt’s comment about proper names being sacrosanct, while other words are not. Think about what you call your mother. Whether it’s mother or mom or mama or mum or momma or ma, I’m sure you have feelings about it that go deeper than considering it a mere spelling preference. It’s what you’ve called her your whole life. Now imagine writing something in which you reference your mother and having an editor change your spelling to their house style. This wouldn’t make things clearer or foreground the content. Rather, it would misrepresent the content—and your voice.