Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Stet of mind

So many people have asked about this that I’m going to put it down right here in black and pinkish-yellow. ‘Stet’ is a proofreading term for ‘let it stand’, from the Latin stare, to stand. In the verb form it means ‘to ignore an alteration or correction made on a proof’, or ‘to write an instruction to ignore such an alteration’. As a noun it refers to a written instruction to ignore such an alteration. This column is called Stet because the editor said it’s supposed to run as it is, even though it will probably be unintelligible. He meant the column, not the name. I hope he’s feeling silly.

Stet is perhaps more technical a term than many, and it’s understandable that not everyone would know it. Nevertheless, it is also true that a surprising number of people hang about shuffling their feet and wondering what a word means, when they could simply crack open a dictionary and find out for themselves. I’m not passing judgement; some people are just afraid of thick books. (Try www.dictionary.com, you big babies.) The more plausible explanation, however, is that they aren’t as interested in language as they are in other basic skills, like sex and violence.

Say what you like—to each his own, different strokes for different folks—but the sad fact is that too many people simply never push themselves to become the fine obsessive-compulsive language extremists they could be. They’ll trot out all sorts of stuff about left brain versus right brain, then they’ll ask how much it really matters if they wrote it’s instead of its, and they will end up shouting at you to get out of their office; but as any supportive coach will tell you, if a misplaced apostrophe doesn’t turn your stomach, you’re just not trying.

Sticklers for language are often viewed as nitpicking crazies who should get a life. There is something to this. Sometimes a little voice in their own head tells them to get a life, but the other little voices usually drown it out. The question is, where would art be without neurosis? I’ve heard that many people never sneak out at night and drive around town correcting billboards with a giant pencil. What is with these people? Where is the fire in their belly?

On the other hand, if you’re going to be a stickler, do it right. Some years ago, a book called Eats, Shoots & Leaves made a big splash in the publishing world. It was a strident protest against what the author, Lynne Truss, saw as a depressing slide towards illiteracy in contemporary culture. Since it was all about the history of the comma and the rules governing semicolons and suchlike, and since it featured no sex or violence whatsoever, it came as a complete shock to everyone when the book shot to the top of the charts. One was tempted to conclude that Truss was wrong, and that people do harbour a deep respect for punctuation.

Except for two things: one, the book was riddled with dozens of the same horrible errors it so passionately denounced; and two, aside from the few party poopers who pointed this out, nobody noticed. It kept flying off the shelves, into rave reviews and into the collections of people who no doubt placed it next to other self-help books they never use, including Thick Books: From Fear to Empowerment in Ten Healing Steps.

On the upside, those of us who care about stuff like this are still lonely and broke, which gives us lots of time to work very hard. There’s always a silver lining.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

So you're the anti-entropy monster?

Nikhil said...

dear m,

I think you do disservice to atleast a few of the people who ask you what stet is.

I assumed STET was an unlisted anagram of your creation. so who better to go to than the source?

-n