That word you keep using – I don’t think it means what you think it means …

Apologies to Princess Bride fans, but I couldn’t think of a better way to start this post!

This sign is displayed in a Costa Coffee toilet, and whatever they think it says, it actually states that the staff will (a) pull the cord and (b) enter the toilet. The implication is that, at any moment, a staff member lost for something to do will merrily yank the string and then surprise the customer by popping in and asking if they’d ‘like anything with that’ (apart from privacy, obviously).

It resonated with me because I’m in the middle of a nasty little battle with an American writer over the phrase ‘I could care less’. He insists on using it three times in a 3,500 word story. I am insisting it is changed to ‘I couldn’t care less’ or removed entirely. He says it’s acceptable street talk, I say that it may be, but acceptable street talk and the place I’m editing for have nothing in common. I will win, simply because our house style backs me up (language that is ambiguous or likely to confuse will be changed at the editors’ discretion) and because if I don’t edit his story, my co-editor will ask me why I’ve passed it over, and he’s even more of a stickler than I am!

The really annoying thing about this fight is that the writer just doesn’t understand that our publication isn’t a good fit for that kind of dialogue. There are plenty of places from McSweeney’s Internet Tendency down, where you could probably get such argot published without anybody demurring, but not with us. We do have an obligation to the writer: not to mangle or bowdlerise his story, but we also have an obligation to our readers: not to obfuscate language to the point that they have to stop and scratch their heads in dismay. Our readers expect a reasonably traditional style from this publication, and while the writer is entirely justified in putting up a case for his language use, anything that confuses the reader, inhibits the flow of the story, or damages the meaning of the piece is just wrong. I’ll win, but I hope he’ll come to see that I’m not ‘down’ on him, just down on sloppy writing.

And in other news, I have a short story live at East of the Web which is generating its own small controversy, it seems …

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