Respect & Imprecision

Normally, I let things slide. I don’t mind minor errors, I don’t try to argue with the fanatics and I look upon friend’s idiocies as endearing foibles. When I do argue, it doesn’t bother me, it’s just a laugh. Yet in the last few weeks, my prissiness has got the better of me and I’ve started correcting people, complaining when I felt complaints needed to be made. Price is right (no pun intended) that our society no longer prizes accuracy.

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11/11/2013. It’s worth noting here – this is the piece that almost got me fired from Future for insubordination. As I remember it, the day after I wrote this, I was called into an office by my editor, Steve Brown, and given a written warning for undermining him. In a later meeting, my publisher, James Binns, offered me lots of freelance work if I’d leave the company. I don’t necessarily hold the views I wrote, probably drunk and angry, in the piece at the time, but I defend my right to write them.

Alta L. Price on quibbles.

See, it’s a slippery slope. It could be argued that these aren’t matters of right and wrong, and are instead a question of imprecision. But they’re imprecisions I can’t deal with because, as I see it, these people approach their professions with imprecision, which implies that they neither respect nor love what they’re doing enough to care about getting it right.

Normally, I let things slide. I don’t mind minor errors, I don’t try to argue with the fanatics and I look upon friend’s idiocies as endearing foibles. When I do argue, it doesn’t bother me, it’s just a laugh. Yet in the last few weeks, my prissiness has got the better of me and I’ve started correcting people, complaining when I felt complaints needed to be made. Price is right (no pun intended) that our society no longer prizes accuracy. There’s almost a link between the lack of deference for linguistic standards and our society’s emphasis that everything is acceptable, a link even to *gasp* multiculturalism. Sounds like I’m being a bad liberal here, going against freedom doesn’t it? The claim is there is no standard, no norm but each individual has the right to do anything they want to; it lets people be sloppy, lets them claim that they’re ‘not wrong but just different.’ In terms of language, I’m afraid there is right and wrong and it’s a necessary moral system. Language is the essential tool for communicating ideas. If I mean something by a word and you mean something different by the same word, we find ourselves with an obstacle to communication.

Regarding his comments on “approaching professions with imprecision” I normally don’t love my profession; the standards for entry are far too low and set too low by our employers and it has fundamentally discouraged me over the years, making me not work as hard at my job as I could have and not respect myself or others for doing it. Eurogamer, notably, is one site that sets its standards relatively high and I have more respect for the people it employs. Edge magazine, despite my concerns over its increasingly populist focus, also has a care for correct, clear and useful language. However, Future’s magazines, particularly on the console side, seem to care little for talented writing and more for speed of copy production. If a job is advertised (which it often isn’t) we tend to employ the best of the limited selection of passable candidates who apply, rather than looking actively for an ideal candidate. I look at the sub-editors I admire, the ones who can turn lacklustre and poorly written copy into sparkling reams of perfectly fitted prose (their names reveal them to be uniformly women: Katharine Davies, Liz Raderecht, Vanessa Hards and Clare Lydon), and I find their numbers in decline and the respect for them sadly lacking. Those who are good are often discouraged by the mediocrity around them; our art staff, for example, are all immensely qualified and talented but it’s very rare that I see any of them doing original design or varying from templates. Notably our company pays its marketing and advertising personnel very well and promotes them to its top positions, seeing them as the key to larger profits. However, their profit is grounded in the editorial staff and if they’re no good or dissatisfied, and hence imprecise, then the magazine is no good.

Edit: So let’s trace that thought more clearly. I don’t like imprecisions in language because (wide reason) clear communication is necessary for the maintenance of society (assertion to be justified elsewhere) and because (narrow reason) words are my life. Imprecisions in language are on the rise because laxity is in general on the rise. Laxity is on the rise because our society made a choice in the 1960s to be more permissive and that choice accorded with the needs of the economy; that people’s history, knowledge and skills don’t matter so long as they can do the job that is available. Ah, balls, I’ve lost the thread again.

5 comments on “Respect & Imprecision”

  1. Would this be a bad time to note that “lets” in the context of “allows” doesn’t have an apostrophe?I’ve recently got to reading two magazines more closely, one very mainstream and in-your-face, the other more niche and intellectual. I’m finding the mainstream one wins dramatically in the precision stakes. Almost everything on the page is expertly judged to /specify/, not just intimate, what the game is and how it works, while the niche rag drowns in rambling blocks of longer but /less/ precise words. Simple, common language only becomes inadequate when the writer lapses into repeating a vocabulary of clichés, not because they’re tired but because they’re being used out of habit rather than their specific purpose. More elaborate and abstract writing has its own vocabulary of clichés too, though: they’re less tired because fewer publications write in this style, but they’re no less imprecise. I don’t think you have to like and respect other people who do your job to take pride in it yourself. In fact, I find the terrible attitude of a lot of journos on press trips actually spurs me to be more professional, attentive and respectful, and take my work there more seriously.

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  2. (Changed it, ta! Criticism always welcome.)I don’t really mind what intellectual depth a magazine writes to, though my prose will always tend to the purple. I just care that the words are being used to mean the ideas that they are commonly known to mean, so that the literature and science of today will keep meaning the same thing to suceeding generations. Yes, language changes with time; but there’s no reason to let it and reasons to stop it (consistency of idea communication). I agree, however, that the worst offenders against language are those who deliberately obscure the meanings of their sentences through needless obscurantism (there I go), which is why I have a particular distaste for academia. There’s a breed of academia, including philosophy and english literature, that maintains itself by spewing nonsense words out for every situation.I’ll quote Wikpedia on Logorrhoea then get back to the point.In his anecdote collection Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, the physicist and raconteur Richard Feynman describes a time when he participated in a multi-disciplinary conference discussing the nebulous topic “the ethics of equality”. Feynman was at first apprehensive, having read none of the books the conference organizers had recommended. A sociologist brought a paper he had written beforehand to the committee where Feynman served, asking everyone to read it. Feynman found it completely incomprehensible and feared that he was out of his depth—until he decided to pick one sentence at random and parse it until he understood. The sentence he chose (to the best of his recollection) was The individual member of the social community often receives his information via visual, symbolic channels.Feynman “translated” the sentence and discovered it meant “People read”. The rest of the paper soon made sense in the same fashion.Further examples are easy to create: Doctors say that the best way to lose weight is to eat less. The medical community indicates that downsizing average total daily intake is maximally efficacious in the field of proactive weight-reduction methodologies.’ He is the sort of person who will call a spade a spade. This man is a member of the personality class exhibiting the tendency to term a pedally operated humus redistribution device a pedally operated humus redistribution device.It’s not other people I have trouble with, though I will admit that I’d rather be the lazy bottom of a class of intellectuals, than lazy and mediocre amongst similar mediocrities (all this is theoretical, note); it’s the lack of respect for myself the job engenders that really causes problems. I find I can’t appreciate what I do, when what attracts praise or at criticism is so random. There seems no standard that carries from magazine to magazine (or indeed in websites) and the feedback from our readers is so limited, negative and mostly illiterate. The other writers on my magazine have stopped reading our forum, out of fear I think. So the readers don’t respect us and the management don’t respect us. Despite the approbation of our peers (or at least those, like yourself, who are respectable), it’s hard to maintain self-respect in the face of that. Anyway, I hope I’ve inspired you on a few press trips. 😉

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  3. “Sounds like I’m being a bad liberal here”I can just see the TV show now:”8.00pm, Wednesday on ITV 1! LIBERALS… FROM HELL!”

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