Standardized language considered doubleplusungood

A few days ago I received a PDF of the first pass of The Ionia Sanction. The first pass is not actually the first pass; it's more like the last pass. When a book is ready for the printers, the operations people typeset the entire book precisely as it will appear on the printed page. They send me a PDF, and that "first pass" is the final check before I say it's okay and they press the button to print real copies.

As soon as I opened the PDF I went straight to page 274, where I read this sentence:

"So you dealt with the farmer."

And I breathed a prayer of thanks to Editor Kathleen, because there's an irregular verb in that sentence. Yay!

One of the biggest differences between North American English and everyone else's, although it's hardly the most obvious point, is the ruthless elimination of irregular verbs. I guess there are still a few lurking around, but they're probably running scared.

I wrote that sentence as you see it. Irregular verbs are very normal to me and, frankly, sound better. Also, if you're writing historicals, irregular forms sound older to give a patina of age. The copyeditor, quite correctly and in accordance with the deified Chicago Manual of Style, struck through my lovely -t, and replaced it with an ugly -ed.

"So you dealed with the farmer."

This to me means the farmer is a pack of cards.

When I saw that change in the copyedits, I wrote in the margin that if I couldn't have the irregular form, then let me know and I'd rewrite the sentence to avoid the problem. Because the regular form sounds totally wrong. Very luckily for me -- and I suspect few authors have this luck -- my editor actually listened to my concerns. Thanks Kathleen!

I'll be in therapy for years to get over it, but I totally accept standardization as a general rule. That's what most of my audience are used to. Why make life hard for readers? That would be a crazy thing to do.

But the fact is, standardizing English also has the effect of sterilizing it. There's a subtle rhythm to good English prose that everyone responds to, even if many people can't hear it. If every word follows the same pattern then it's like music with only one beat.

"So you dealt with the farmer."
"So you dealed with the farmer."

Say them both together and you'll hear the second is a beat longer. It lacks punch. The whole rhythm is changed when you standardize the language to a metronomic regularity. I'm sure most writers would agree that we hear the sound values before ever we write the words, and the rhythm matters a lot. Having the option to insert a punchy -t participle is an important part of the toolkit for controlling how the reader feels about what they're reading.

Does it really matter if we have two different past participles for the same word in a single book? The counter-argument goes that standardization makes text easier to read, but watch any teenager write a text message and you'll see that standardization is the last thing on their minds. Yet they understand each other just fine.

The greatest ever writer of the English language was a man who couldn't spell his own name the same way twice. Clearly standardization isn't necessary to quality!

22 comments:

Jennifer said...

I'm confused. I believe here in North America we do say "dealt." (I live in New England.) At least, I do, and I've never heard anyone say "dealed." And I didn't find "dealed" in a dictionary -- not even as a variant. And after I anointed myself with oil and consulted the Chicago Manual of Style, I didn't see what one might read there to make one change "dealt" to "dealed." But then, my fingers were oily so maybe I missed a page or two.

I checked one last source, Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of Usage, which says that even though other irreg verbs such as kneel and creep have "regular" variants, "deal" has always had "dealt" as its past form.

So thank goodness you caught this and succeeded in having it changed back to the way you wrote it. Not only is it better for all the reasons you list, but it's actually, um, right.

Gary Corby said...

Hi Jennifer, that's very interesting, because copyedits always regularize the verbs.

As an example, on the first page of Pericles Commission I had a sentence that began, "I knelt..." and this was changed to, "I kneeled..."

Jennifer said...

Hi Gary,
I can see changing "knelt" to "kneeled" (altho, between you and me, I would have written "knelt" too), but I'm really skeptical about "dealed." I am going to have to go check all my other dictionaries and see if any of them have it. And I will be very curious to read the input from your other readers.

In any event, another interesting blog post. Thanks for the brain food.
Jennifer

Sarah W said...

I'm from the Midwest US and I'd agree with Jennifer, even if she hadn't found proof. I can't imagine a situation in which I'd use "dealed." It isn't right.

I have problems with kneeled, too---though my children use it all hte time. Knelt sounds better to me.

Botanist said...

Wow! I think I'd have been dealt a coronary if I'd knelt at the altar of such ugly standardization.

Yes, the rhythm of the sentence is utterly different. The second (corrected) version just sounds wrong. Glad you won out on this one, Gary.

Gary Corby said...

Hmm, I just checked a few of my books sourced from the US, and they all run regular verbs. Is this a situation where common usage disagrees with formal rule?

David Kazzie said...

Interesting. "Dealed" is such a strange form of the word that I initially thought that's the "irregular" version you wanted to use.

Either way: "Dealt" is superior.

Steph Schmidt said...

Knelt and dealt are what I prefer, as someone in California. But we're the weirdos who have sun so who knows. I think this is an instance of a group of copy editors scheming to make it better in their eyes and the rest of the world not going with it.

Stephanie Thornton said...

I never would have used/said/written dealed. It's just wrong. As a matter of fact, Firefox just underlined it in red for me. Definitely the wrong word.

One nifty thing about English is that it totally ignores most of its rules at one point or another. I just read a lovely passage in Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel about that--I'm going to have to post about that when I get my copy back from the teacher I lent it to.

Amalia T. said...

I have never heard anyone use "dealed" ever, so why a copy-editor would change it to that is absolutely beyond me. BESIDES which, it's in dialogue, and imho voice should always win over regular vs. irregular verbage. If the character would say dealt, dealt is in. If the character would say knelt, knelt it must be!

Gary, thank you for sharing this story because I would never have imagined that would be the kind of issue that comes up at the copy-edit stage when the irregular usage is so regular!

Donna Hole said...

"dealed with the farmer" looked, and sounded, totally wrong to me. I think I would have made the same argument as you did Gary.

How awesome you're ready for printing already.

.....dhole

Ornithophobe said...

I'm a linguistics student living in Kentucky... and "dealed with the farmer" sounds downright foreign- as if the construction came from an adult English learner, maybe an immigrant. Was it intended in the sense, "you handled the farmer" (as in, the farmer was a problem, now he's not) or in the sense, "you struck a deal with the farmer"? In either case, "dealt with" is right and proper. I'm with you; "dealed" sounds like someone split a pack of cards.

dylan said...

Hi Gary

Here in New York there is a universal truism we were inoculated with at an early age, which relies for its sound and sense on two irregular verb forms:

"He who smelt it,
dealt it."

Would this bit of folk wisdom have had the same staying power, were it Chic-Manned into:

"He who smelled it,
dealed it"?

By the way, is:
"...a universal truism..."
correct, or should that properly have been written:
"...an universal truism..."?

Questions, questions.

dylan

annebingham said...

Weighing in from Wisconsin by way of central Ohio: everybody says "dealt." Nobody, but nobody, would say "dealed" in this context. I've never even heard it said regarding card games.

annebingham said...

I just checked a hard copy of Webster's Third, the unabridged dictionary copy editors in the US live and die by: "dealt" is given as the past tense. There is absolutely no mention of -ed as being acceptable as any form of past tense.

Your copy editor must have been having a bad day.

http://www.merriam-webster.com/cgi-bin/book.pl?w3.htm

annebingham said...

And Third gives "knelt or kneeled." Fight harder, Gary. You're the author, not the copy editor. You have rights in this, and I speak as a former copy editor!

There is such a thing as "house style" but again, authorial voice trumps house style. Talk with your agent about this.

Taymalin said...

As far as I can tell, dealed isn't a word at all.

Dylan: It's a universal, not an :)It's all about the sound. Universal starts with a vowel, but has a consonant sound. The other sound u makes (Under, for example) would require the n (as in, "it's an underreported issue"). Try saying them, if you use a and an wrong, it sounds wrong and is awkward to say.

Taymalin said...

I found one acceptable use of dealed--in wheeled and dealed.

Taymalin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Gary Corby said...

Wow, this is fascinating stuff. You've surprised me all, for which I thank you, because now I have some very interesting things to look into.

This is the real value of a blog...when my lovely readers teach me something. I shall indeed keep this in mind the next time copyedits come round.

One thing I should say is my copyeditors have done an immaculate job. They're following the rules with precision. It's the rules as I understand them that I think are too tight.

Could it be that standard literary English in North America has a disjoint with the language as she is spoken? I'd be fascinated to know what our NA friends think. Also, if you pick up a random recent book, does it seem regularized to you?

I don't have a copy of the Chicago Manual of Style. I'll have to drop by my local library and check this.

Taymalin said...

Keep in mind that North America is a bit divided. Americans have their way (and doubtless there are regional differences on some things), and Canadians...well, we're a bit confused. We're taught both American and British spellings in school, and consider both acceptable. Canadians in my part of the country are inundated with French (for the few who aren't French), so that confuses things a bit too, at least in the grammar.

I guess my point--which is getting lost in my rambling--is that standard literary English in Canada is a slightly different beast than in the USA. Though I do appreciate the use of NA rather than just the USA, because Canada is so often forgotten, which just adds to that terrible inferiority complex we seem to have, but will deny with proclamations that we're better then them (even though that's not really true ;) ).

And this is why I don't usually comment before noon. Sorry for the rambling Gary.

PS. Read the copy of the Pericles Commission I won, and absolutely loved it.

Gary Corby said...

Hi Taymalin,

I'm glad you liked the book!

Interesting ramblings of yours...I've wondered from time to time whether Canadians get schizophrenia from UK English, US English, and, no doubt, a healthy dose of French. Publishers there must suffer slightly.