My working life has a safety aspect that talks about habit forming. It only takes a few repetitions to form a habit, but it can take much longer to reverse a bad one. I’ve been doing some background reading on good English, grammar and rhetoric, and one book, a spectacular piece by N.M.Gwynne called Gwynne’s Grammar, mentions something similar: “Traditional wisdom has it that it takes fourteen times longer to learn something correctly, after first having learnt it incorrectly, than to learn it correctly the first time.” Reading this made me wonder just how many bad habits exist in my writing, or how much a lack of knowledge might be letting me down or slowing the pace of my development.
I’m not dwelling on this too heavily as a negative, just an interesting point which also raises wider questions about personal interpretation, the positive affirmation of negative actions, and even to an extent, brainwashing. But that’s a tangent for another post perhaps.
My work life centers around visual design, but I find myself called upon to help with content development, refinement, editing and proofreading. In all these areas I am hardly more qualified than the originators but being reasonably well read I’ve proved myself capable and authoritative enough to pass muster. My own insecurities and a need to justify my work beyond my own sense of right and wrong, honed through a lifetime of reading, has led me back to the very basics.
I can’t tell you what a delightful eye opener it has been. Gwynne’s Grammar is a superb reference, it also contains a very lightly edited reproduction of Strunk’s Guide to Style, first printed in 1918. As useful and enjoyable as the comprehensive definitions are the author’s own observations on the value of good grammar, a broad vocabulary and proper punctuation. The justifications are well considered, beautifully articulated, and enthusiastically persuasive. I suppose I should not be surprised.
Gwynne suggests that the book be committed to memory, something that, referencing the title of this post, may take some time. The prospect is one I look forward to nevertheless. Further reading is promised beyond the appendices, I have yet to arrive at those however if the prospect of polishing up your understanding of the written language excites you then I can also fully recommend you look at the works of Mark Forsyth. If a word geek lurks within you then these books will surely lure him into the light.
Finally I have a mental image of Messrs. Gwynne and Forsyth tutting at my shoulder at the contents of this post. In the unlikely event of your seeing this, please be gentle, I’ve thirteen more tries to get your wisdom to sink in, until then I would be honored to reproduce this post with your corrections.