Friday, July 13, 2012

Lead, led (very small rocks)

I would consider myself to be of above average literacy, despite what many would consider a poor start. From the beginning, my technical skill at writing was overshadowed by my eagerness to get the words down. Capital letters at the beginning of sentences and for proper nouns took me a long time to master, as did the usual spelling suspects - which tripped me up until I was ten or eleven; I never could see the point of that silent 'h'.


Grammar lessons at school were, if I'm being kind, somewhat ineffective. Although to be fair at least we had them. The English teacher was a terrifying man called Geoffrey Davies (or Sir, as we knew him), who was fond of harsh punishment and, like the vast majority of teachers at that horrible school, very unpredictable. His preferred method of teaching grammar was to take an item, for instance the noun, and write up a description of what it was - taken from some ancient grammar book first printed in the early nineteenth century - on the blackboard. At the start of term, we had all been provided with a small notebook - A6 or thereabouts in size - and for each week's grammar lesson, we would copy down what was written on the board into our grammar books. Once that was done, we would go on to something else, our teacher safe in the knowledge that we now knew and understood all there was to know and understand about nouns, adjectives, gerunds and so on. Grammar lessons were largely carried out in silence - I don't recall much in the way of explanation, example or, you know, teaching going on.


Occasionally, we would have our grammar books checked. This was not a test as such, but any spelling or grammatical errors we had made in transcription meant the whole passage would have to be written out again. And if we made mistakes the second time, then we would have to do it once more. And so on, and so on. The mistakes were never pointed out to us; we had to find them and correct them ourselves. how else were we ever going to learn, after all? It's perhaps a tribute to Mr Davies' perseverance (and my gadfly mind) that I spent an entire sunny afternoon writing the same passage over and over - if memory serves, in excess of forty times - until I finally got it all right. I'd spotted the original error quite early on, but with each hurried rewrite, I introduced more and more.


I was a voracious reader as a child. I devoured books, comics, magazines, anything I could get my hands on. My understanding of sentence structure, how to write, came from reading, not from lessons. I'm fairly sure I burned my grammar book the day I left that school, but I know for a fact that nothing in it had stuck in my mind. This, unfortunately, became very apparent at my next school. I knew the word adjective, but I couldn't point one out in a sentence. It used to frustrate my teachers that I could produce prose to a very high standard, and yet not parse a sentence if my life depended on it. Oddly enough, not one of them tried to teach me the rules of grammar, or even point me in the direction of a book that might do the job for them, so I muddled on, developing strategies in my English essays to avoid the need to name anything. That at least taught me how to write creatively.


Over time, things began to make sense. I can't remember when I was finally confident I knew when to use the word adjective (as opposed to knowing what an adjective was), but I suspect I was well into my twenties and happily producing novel-length fiction. Perhaps the most useful learning experience was being asked to run a series of report writing workshops. In preparing for that, I finally picked up a modern grammar book and was pleasantly surprised to find that I pretty much knew everything in it already. I'm no expert - I haven't the confidence to tell others how to do it - but I can muddle by a bit better now.


Spelling was slightly better taught. We had regular tests, and one teacher would even bribe us with the promise of a Mars bar to anyone who got all the words right. When you're twelve a Mars bar is a big deal, and I soon learned the awkward words like, well,  awkward, Wykehamist and accommodation.


But obviously not lead.


Well, I learned lead, as in with a lead pipe in the library. I learned lead as in I'm the male in this dance, so I'll lead.* Somewhere along the line, however, I failed to learn led, as in he led them up the garden path.


In my defence, I can say that I am consistent in this. Through all my self-published works (and the one I'm currently editing) - five novels and well over half a million words - I've consistently misspelled led as lead. My thanks then to all the readers who have emailed me to point this out. It has been corrected in the Inspector McLean books; Benfro will get the treatment when The Book of Souls is published in a few weeks.


There are almost certainly typos and speeling mistaks in this blog post, by the way. Now, how else can I embarrass myself in public?


*Dancing lessons in an all-male school necessitate some creative thinking, and tittering. Half of us had to take of our jumpers, and thus magically became girls. To this day I am far better at being led through a waltz than leading.

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4 Comments:

Blogger terlee said...

This was really funny; I'm still smiling.

The english language is so convoluted and peculiar, it's a wonder any of us can write at all.

Read and read. Why is it then lead and led? Who made up all this stuff anyway??

And don't get me started on Roman numerals. Centuries later and we're still using those ridiculous Roman numerals??

July 13, 2012 11:23 pm  
Blogger JamesO said...

Romans. What have they ever done for us, eh?

English is one of the most infuriating languages, but of course that complexity is what makes it so creative.

My other bugbears are its/it's and their/they're/there. I know perfectly well when to use each one, but sometimes when the fingers are flying over the keys, the wrong one comes out of them. Search and replace is a wonderful tool for finding and correcting them.

July 14, 2012 7:27 am  
Blogger terlee said...

Once--for some unknown reason--Microsoft Word decided to change every single it's to its in my manuscript. Naturally I didn't discover this until I was on the final draft. I had to go through each page to find them all. I briefly contemplated hunting down Bill Gates and doing bad, bad things to him.

July 14, 2012 10:33 pm  
Blogger Simon Haynes said...

mmm. Mars Bars. Now I have to go to the shops.

July 25, 2012 9:06 am  

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