Currying favour with your readers

Originally published on The Editors’ Weekly

Editing and writing have a lot in common with cooking. For one thing, people come to a text, as to a restaurant, with certain expectations and ideals, and you should satisfy them. You don’t have to give them something completely predictable – especially if you’re in a line more artistic than industrial – but you do want to curry their favour.

That puts me in mind of a recipe in the Larousse Gastronomique, 1977 English edition: “Chicken curry (Plumerey’s recipe).” The listed ingredients are two chickens (cut up), butter, 500 grams of diced uncooked ham, a tablespoon of flour, light veal stock to moisten, a bouquet garni (a standard French seasoning made of a bundle of herbs), and two teaspoons of curry powder.

I don’t think you’ll be served that recipe at any restaurant today. It would seem weirdly out of place (and just weird) in a French restaurant, and it would get the chef in an Indian restaurant fired. But there was a time when French cuisine was considered by many to be the apex of the culinary world, and anything you might eat could be “improved” by a French touch. Even curry.

Likewise, there was a time when a single standard prevailed throughout most of literature. Even if a given work didn’t meet that standard, it was understood that that was what it was aiming for. Certain things were simply infra dig, my dears. Other standards were sub-standard. It was important to show you had the right sort of education.

That time is past. Just as we no longer consider French ingredients and techniques the basis of all the best food, we – or many of us, anyway – are now wise enough not to think that starchy formal English is necessary or even appropriate everywhere. There are, alas, still some people who believe that an overarching consistent adherence to a single standard is the goal of writing and editing. If a writer aiming a rambunctious piece at an informal audience puts “There’s a couple things you should know,” such an editor will tut-tut and change it to “There are a couple of things you ought to know” – or “a few things” if there are more than two. Never mind that that changes the flavour completely; somehow, a palate that can’t taste the difference is supposed to be better.

And perhaps such an editor would be pleased to be served a curry cooked to the standards of Carême. For everyone else, let’s use appropriate ingredients and techniques. English – like any living language – has a multitude of styles suited for different contexts and people. When we recognize that and work with it, we aren’t letting go of rules, we’re choosing which rules to use to suit the occasion. When people come to a French restaurant, give them the best French cuisine, sure. When they come to a chain restaurant, give them a consistent demotic product. And if they’re after good barbecue, or tortellini, or nuer pad prik, or vindaloo, leave Larousse on the shelf.

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2 responses to “Currying favour with your readers

  1. Why “demotic,” a word I’ve never come across before? Wouldn’t “popular” have been easier for readers?

    • I used demotic because it was more appropriate than popular. The two words are not entirely interchangeable. If I had said popular it would have been saying that the food at those restaurants is liked by more people and, by implication, that the food at fancy restaurants is unpopular, which would carry a tone of judgement and valuation I didn’t want. If I had said common it would have been a comment on the frequency of the food in use and would also have carried classist overtones. I said demotic because I meant that it is oriented towards the greater masses, just as colloquial (demotic) language is.

      One of the key points I make over and over in this blog is that subtle differences in usage matter. “Synonyms” are not synonymous; even the slightest differences have effects. And this blog is not intended for people who aren’t interested in new words and can’t be bothered to look things up. It is aimed at people who really enjoy words, who enjoy learning new things, and who like looking things up. If you go to an Indian restaurant, expect spicy food.

      There are many language blogs that approach matters at the elementary level for readers who struggle or simply can’t be bothered to make the effort. I’m not interested in adding to that crowd and I have tried to cultivate an audience who are a bit more advanced. Also, the original blog that the article was written for, the blog of Editors Canada, is aimed at language professionals, and any editor who doesn’t like meeting new words and can’t be bothered to look up a new word should consider a different line of work. Yes, editors often work to make text easier for readers; there are many contexts where you don’t want to make the reader reach for a dictionary. But it is up to an editor to understand the text – and to have a good mind for the effects of choices of different words.

      The short answer, then, is that demotic is the word I wanted, popular is not, and if it makes you reach for your dictionary, I don’t consider that a bad thing.

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