Saturday, September 5, 2009


This long weekend I am tackling the manuscript of my next book, The Finger: A Handbook, which has returned from the copy editor with gratifyingly few substantial alterations or corrections. The process is a humbling one, though, because I realize how completely I am still unaware of many of the strictly codified rules of American punctuation—and much else besides. The elegant notations in purple pencil of my invisible but kindly critic draw my attention to the fine distinctions between further and farther, for example, onwards/upwards and onward/upward, and, indeed, between between and among (or vice versa). Just now I am on my morning tea break, and I have decided that life is definitely too short to spend any amount of time sorting out the American way with which and that, or that and which—something an English friend and colleague of mine describes as the great American which hunt—especially when there are patient souls who are prepared to correct me. Because clearly I have developed the ineffable knack of getting it wrong each and every time. My purple critic—with whom I am rapidly developing a sort of bond—evidently has immense learning also, because at one point I refer to the sting of an ant—you’ll have to read my book to find that particular reference. The word sting is struck and replaced with bite. The marginal note reads “O.K?—no sting; it’s the formic acid in the bite that causes the burn.” To which, in the face of a statement at once so gentle but so compellingly authoritative, there can be no response more appropriate from authors, we solitary laborers in the vineyard of prose, than humility, gratitude, and a solemn resolve never again to make the same error. This is not to say that I have not from time to time rebelled. In a section where I remark, in relation to the opposability of the thumb, that this unique capacity has elevated us above all other mortal creatures, my purple companion asks in the margin “Best word?—One could argue, in ecological terms, that we’re actually parasites or a virus, for example.” I suppose it was wrong of me, but late last night I responded to this challenge with my soft jade-green colored pencil: “Speak for yourself!”

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