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The Rim Worlds

... out on the Galactic Rim things are very iffy and if you fart really hard your're liable to blow yourself on to an Alternate Time Track.

A Bertram Chandler.

The Mentor

Grimesish Grumberlings, The Misplaced Apostrophe and Other Crimes

Not long ago I received a freebie.

Normally people who give me books endear themselves to me but, in this case, the donor incurred my scorn and derision. The gift came from a small publishing house in Illinois U.S.A. which has just brought out, as a wild venture on their part, a science fiction novel. They are sending copies to members of SFWA, hoping, in return, to get approbatory remarks which can be used as part and parcel of the back-cover blurbs. Well, insofar as the book itself is concerned, I applied what I call my unfamiliar-author-on-the-shelves-of-the-public-library test. I read the first page and found nothing, either in style or content, to annoy me. So, when I have the time, I shall read the, entire book and, possibly, say something kind about it, I was not hooked, neither was I put off.

It was the accompanying letter from the editor of The Haven Corporation which annoyed me. Editors are supposed to be literate people, capable of correcting errors made by writers. But this dim bitch, in her first paragraph, wrote “it’s” instead of the correct, possessive “its” and in her second paragraph split an infinitive. (Now and again, I admit, a split infinitive - but not as split by the perpetrators of STAR TREK! - sounds less clumsy than an unsplit one, but this was not such a case.) And in the previous letter, about the yet-to-be-read masterpiece, she wrote “who’s” instead of “whose”.

Who shall guard the guardians?

(When I try to say it in Latin I always make a balls of it.)

The misuse of apostrophes, either as quotation marks or to indicate the possessive case, is far too common. There is one way - and a money-making way - in which this crime could be stamped out. The Commonwealth, we are told, is in the red. So is the City. Why not a fine for every public exhibition of a signwriter’s gross ignorance? I should be happy to be an inspector, for a small commission rather than a salary, employed to bring such malefactors to justice. Misspellings could also incur a fine.

Barely a stone’s throw from where I am sitting is a pleasant inner city lane in which are various shops. One is the Village Pie Shop. It displays a sign - ‘Hot’‘Pies’, What does that mean? Are the pies in actuality only luke-warm? Are the pies not real pies? (As a matter of fact they aren’t. Very rarely, these decadent days, does one find a real meat pie containing identifiable pieces of meat, mushrooms and whatever. The Village Pie shop purveys pastry cases filled with pre-digested sludge.)

Show Her That You CareThere is a sex shop, All the year round it has a sign in its window - SHOW HER THAT YOU REALLY CARE - GIVE HER A VIBRATOR FOR X’MAS. There is a shop selling all sorts of odds and ends, including secondhand magazines, books and records, These latter are advertised by the sign in the window as LP’s..

Why must people put ’ in so many places where it does not belong?

I was very annoyed a while back when I engaged professional typists to produce from a somewhat shaggy cc of the manuscript of KELLY COUNTRY something fit for human consumption. I was guaranteed “a perfect copy”. I should have insisted on having that guarantee in writing. Apart from all sorts of misspellings - such as “breast” for “brest” - the shambling subhumans at their keyboards (all right, give them an infinitude of time and they’ll write all of Shakespeare’s plays) saw fit to correct my punctuation. In my foreword I referred to “the 1880s” and “the 1920s”. What I got in the “perfect copy” was “the 1880’s” and “the 1920’s”.

All right, all right. I’m a nitpicking bastard. (But somebody has to try to maintain standards.) I was a nitpicking bastard even before I became a full-time writer, when I was just a shipmaster who wrote the occasional short story in an off moment.

I recall, some many years ago, when I was shown a handsomely lettered sign advertising the summer sailings of the old Taroona, the Bass Strait passenger ferry operated by the Union Steam Ship Company before the service was taken over by the Australian National Line with their Princess of Tasmania. Anyhow, one of USSCo’s junior managers asked my opinion of this work of art. It promised EXHILARATED SERVICE I asked, “Is there to be free booze and bulkhead-to-bulkhead sex?” “What do you mean, Bertie?” “What do you mean?” It turned out that what was meant was “ACCELERATED SERVICE”....

What appalled me was that nobody in that huge office, from the general manager down to the office boy, had spotted that inexcusable error.

Of course I was also a pain in the arse to my officers. Now and again one of them would bring me a letter, painfully pecked out on the ship’s typewriter, for my autograph. (Some of them couldn’t even maintain a straight margin on the left hand side of the page, and the less said about spelling and punctuation errors the better.) I would say, “I can’t put my name to this. I have my reputation to consider. Take it away and do it properly.” The second attempt would be no better than the first. Finally, “You sign it. I’ll initial it just to show that I’ve read it. But I will not sign such an exhibition of illiteracy.” Then, in a pained voice, my victim would say, “But, sir, you’re a writer... You know all about these things.” To which I would reply, “You went to at least as good a school as I did and, furthermore, you’re a certificated officer, which indicates that you reached a fairly high educational level. Why the hell can’t you show it?”

Another sore point would be the Bridge Log Book kept by the duty officers at sea or in port, initialed by them at the end of each watch and, eventually, every page signed by the master after perusal. It would be hard for even the most subliterate to make a mess of routine entries — courses steered, wind and weather, air and sea temperatures and all the rest of it. But, to give my young gentlemen credit, they did their best.

One common wrath—evoker was the misuse of quotation marks.

For example, now and again I would visit some port for which I did not hold a pilotage exemption certificate, in which case I would engage a harbour pilot. Herewith a typical entry: 0845 Pilot "Smith" boarded.

Me: What’s his real name?
Officer responsible: What do you mean, sir?
Me: Why is he using an alias?
OR: What do you mean sir?
Me: Why the fuck have you put his name between quotation marks?
OR: Oh. To... er... make it stand out, sir.
Me: Why?
OR: I... I don’t know sir.
Me: Furthermore, if you must emphasize something, make it stand out, as you put it, you underline it. You don’t put it in quotes.
OR: Oh.

Finally they would learn my little ways and then I would get another bunch of officers and I would have to start again.

It could be argued, of course, that a ship’s officer is paid for his seamanlike and navigational skills and not for his ability to cope with the English language.

But this letter is just what an editor is paid for.

I feel that the lady in Illinois is getting money under false pretences.

Originally Published in The Mentor No: 46 - Oct 1983