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In The Beginning Was The Word

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Dave Langford in Ranting Pedant mode after reading a particularly barbarously-written sf convention flyer. Ian Sorensen would probably like me to mention that the guilty committee members did not in fact include him.

The one thing on which fans of every persuasion seem to agree is that the British Eastercon is a showcase event. Its productions are expected to have a certain, as it were, class. Look at all those nicely-printed publications from Contrivance....

It was with a heavy heart that I scanned a recent leaflet for the 1991 convention, Speculation. Could this be the doing of Ian "Publications" Sorensen, a man who (I believe) holds responsibility for educating our defenceless young? Apologies to Ian and the other Speculators for my reproduction without permission of almost an entire page from this publicity exercise. Apart from a cross-head, there are no internal omissions. Here it comes:

1) The theme of the programme is 'What is Good SF?' all else will follow from this.

A new sentence should start (with a capital letter) at all; alternatively, insert a semicolon or colon after the phrase in quotes.

2) There will be a Main Programme and not a number of streams.

This poses a spurious either/or choice: one of a number of streams could well be a Main Programme.... (I could quibble about Main Programme being a tautology in the absence of secondary streams, but see below.)

3) I mean* what is the point?

A comma is wanted after mean, please. (Henceforth I'll merely stick in an asterisk where it seems that a comma would improve things. Life is too short.) What's a sole first-person pronoun doing here in a statement from a committee which elsewhere calls itself we? Because We mean would sound odd... which in itself should have been the tip-off that I mean is just a bit of, you know, well, um, I mean, conversational padding, superfluous in written prose.

4) If we feel an item is good enough to exist on our programme* then why detract from it by running something as an alternative.

This, like the last sentence, ends as a rhetorical question and should conclude with a question mark. In the if/then construction, either we feel should be omitted or the why should become why should we.

Of course the logic of this begs to be satirized. "If Watneys Red Barrel is good enough to exist in our convention bar, why detract from it by offering an alternative?"

5) BUT we will be running modules, complementary to the main programme, which will introduce, reflect and expand on issues/themes raised in the main programme.

The sentence is passable, though the repetition of main programme could have been avoided, and modules is a dire and empty word which sounds like obfuscation. (If the term must stand, how about the more self-defining "complementary programme modules"?) Could the trouble here be that, having just made a big thing about having a single programme, the writer wants to camouflage the fact that these "complementary" strands of intersecting programme will in part conflict with the "main" one? Special credit is awarded here for the rare correct spelling of complementary.

It has been put to me that the woolly diction of these references to the programme is an attempt to project reassurances in every direction. Apparently, if you say "written SF" or "a single programme", the message is "no costumes", and fans who like dressing up recoil in horror. Conversely, "multi-stream programming" carries the opposite message, and alienates a different sector of the audience. So far, phrases like "complementary modules" have no hidden meaning at all... and some people might be tempted to omit the word "hidden".

6) There will be at least 10 of these modules* which will cross the main programme. ie. some portion of them will appear as a main programme item.

This could use a colon instead of the first full stop. Actually it could use a total rewrite to improve the clarity while getting rid of that horrid little ie. and the numerical confusion of the final phrase. For example: There will be at least ten of these modules, which will "cross" the main programme: that is, one section of each module will be a main programme item.

7) (see opposite page for examples)

Since this parenthesis is outside the previous sentence, the phrase should begin with a capital S and end with a full stop just before the right-hand bracket. (The opposite page of the leaflet has a "flow chart" diagram which does make some sense of the foggy description.)

8) In addition to these interwoven strands of programming will be the usual boltholes for those who truly want them, such as a video room (although we don't promise to show the just the usual things!) and a gaming room if anyone still wants such a place.

This probably needs a there after the word programming. The extra the in the parenthesis is obviously just a typing error. The closing such a place reads oddly and seems to be a hasty variation to avoid echoing the earlier things: it would be better to change things instead, perhaps to stuff, and leave thing as a more natural-sounding last word. A determined quibbler would add that the diagram shows the programme strands as intersecting and not interwoven (the latter presumably requires three dimensions).

Readers are left to guess whether the remark about the gaming room is an expression of stunned disbelief that anyone could wish for such a peculiar thing, or an implied request for feedback.

9) There will be events each evening* ranging from a shocks of Rob Holdstock's, our Guest of Honour, work to an awards banquet.

Oh dear, what a truly vile sentence. Change shocks to showcase (I presume -- is this the work of some crazed spell-check program?), and rearrange that diabolical closing phrase to something like our Guest of Honour Rob Holdstock's work.

10) The first programme sub-committee meeting was held in May. Amid scenes of creativity not seen since the Renaissance. The overall structure and concept of the programme was developed.

The second "sentence" is a cruelly detached clause which should have been left linked by a comma to the first or (much better) the third. In the third sentence, concept should probably be something like philosophy. And while you can say that one thing was developed, two things were developed. (To throw in a more rarefied and artsy-fartsy point, prose looks nicer on the page with a minimum of hyphenations: there's nothing wrong with subcommittee.)

11) These are some of the comments from the committee members at the end of the meeting.

The of the is redundant, and so is the second the. Why not write Here are some committee members' comments on the meeting? Since this sentence introduces a list, it would be slightly better to end it with a colon.

12) We're going to link all the ways to present 'SF' and attempt to ricochet ideas through films, books, comics, music, games, horror and back again, to you. Bringing in everything from mythic archetypes to star trek (in the same panel?...). (Kevin Anderson)

Things ricochet off other things, not through them. The second sentence lacks a verb (it's another detached clause). A million media fans have doubtless stamped off in disgust at the failure to make Star Trek a capitalized proper name.

13) This is going to be a GOOD convention! (Caroline Mullan)

Omit the space before the exclamation mark. Capitalizing words for mere emphasis always looks a mite sleazy and low-budget, by the way (there's another example at 5 above).

It's nice, I suppose, to be told by a committee member that the convention will be good. After all, Caroline could so easily have said, "This is going to be a LOUSY convention!"

14) I didn't expect a meeting like that! The programme should reflect the times. 1992 and the move towards European unity. Equally the failure to establish a genuine British identity* eg. American dominance. (Mike Dickinson)

Here are two more "sentences" (the third and fourth) without operative verbs. Yes, people do talk in unpunctuated fragments, but reporters are expected to produce a better-tidied transcript than this. My old English teacher would have hit me in the mouth for writing eg. within direct speech, though I can imagine Mike saying it. Surely American dominance is not an example of failure to establish a British identity, but a possible cause of that supposed failure?

What was it about the meeting that so surprised Mike, I wonder? It might have been unusually good or unusually awful....

15) The programme committee consists of fen from different flavours of Eastercons* eg. Beccon, Albacon, Unicon, Mexicon, Yorcon. The programme should include ideas from all of these. (Henry Balen)

Here's another chap who uses eg. in conversation. Blame personal prejudice for my dislike of weary fannish jargon like fen in Eastercon literature. For preference, the list of conventions should end: Mexicon and Yorcon. [Some prefer Mexicon, and Yorcon, but no clarity is lost by omitting the serial comma in this case.]

Nasty critics might point out that the legendary traditions of Unicon and Mexicon do not include all that many Easter events....

I omit the final quotation on the page, a grammatical and plausibly punctuated remark contributed by syntax master Rob Holdstock. At last!

Now it does seem that for its actual progress reports, Speculation is tapping the mighty talents of Chris Atkinson. But this flyer for our 1991 "showcase" event is already loose in the world, leaving a trail of ruin and semi-literacy wherever it rampages. Mere lovers of SF and the English language could justifiably deduce, from stylistic evidence alone, that this Eastercon is not organized by or for "their sort of people". Surely the committee, including as it does several awesome fannish literati, could arrange a little joint consultation on its future publicity sheets.

Rather than pick on poor old Ian any more, I'll risk a spot of generalization. Con publications carry a surprising amount of writing which is only just barely functional (its defects sometimes thrown into hideous relief by hyper-literate outside contributions about the wonderful guests of honour). Judging from current debates, such sloppiness would no longer be tolerated in the vital con-running spheres of bid presentation or technical operations. Will no one say a word for the humble written word, and try to write it right?

First published in Conrunner 12 ed. Ian "It Wasn't Me!" Sorensen, 1989.


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This page updated on 09 July 1999