When I started my old job working in the production of closed captions for the telly, I was fairly confident of my knowledge of the English language. I knew the difference between it’s and its, who’s and whose, and other sorts of things that Lynn Truss wailed about in “Eats, Shoots and Leaves”.
And I knew that my job would involve getting all my work edited and corrected, and that I’d receive a list of all the mistakes I’d made with explanations of what I did wrong. I figured I’d maybe make one or two mistakes per episode, and that would be it.
But then I got back the edit notes to the very first episode of Shortie I’d captioned and… it was three pages long. I felt dumb and illiterate. I was sure someone would soon drag me into their office and tell me it had been a terrible mistake and it was back to the dole for me.
However, that didn’t happen. Instead I got better and better. I learned about comma splices and attributive hyphens and the difference between “my pimp Carlos” and “my pimp, Carlos”. But I still got things wrong; I still made mistakes.
What I came to realise is that English is hard. It’s a bastard mongrel of a language. It has all these bits and pieces from all over the place, so while there are lots of rules that children quickly pick up really quickly, there are all these annoying exceptions that you have to memorise – like that the plural of child is children, not childs.
But then there’s the curious thing about English – you can mess with it and it still makes sense. Having excellent grammar and spelling is just a bit of oil to lubricate the works and make the message flow out clearly. But if you don’t oil it, the message is sill there and it still makes sense… eventually.
As much fun as it is to laugh at the poorly constructed ‘about me’ statements on NZDating.com, if I read that HuGGGy1 says he “enjoy sports like dinner concerts im reliable watching videos”, it might take me a while to work out what he’s trying (oh, he’s trying) to say, but eventually I can get the message.
To be really good at English, you have to be a total nerd. You have to practise, practise and practise and train your brain to do things in a certain way. You know how really good musicians have got that way because they’ve spent hours and hours practising? It’s the same thing with English.
And I’ve come out the other side of it realising that it’s more fun being the guy in a punk band who can’t really play his guitar but is having heaps of fun bashing out some tunes with his friends, rather than the lone guitarist spending hours in his room practising a lightning-fast guitar solo but missing out on life.
After I left captioning and returned to a world where I wasn’t surrounded by professional word nerds, I had to tame myself. I was back in a reality where people don’t always like having their spelling or grammar corrected. I’m sure they fear it makes them seem stupid or illiterate, so I want to say, “No! It’s not you! We’re all like this! Perfect English is really hard!”
Free your semi-colon and your arse will follow.