The faulty magic of spellchecker

magic wandIn my limited free time, I’ve been reading a novel by an Indie author on my Kindle, and although the story is fine, I have to say that I am finding it just a tad irritating. Although we turn out books often with no budget and very limited returns, I think Indie authors still really need to do their best to make sure that the book reads just as well as one produced by a commercial publisher. In this case, the spelling is driving me bonkers! It really interrupts the flow of a passage when you have to stop and decide whether the author is getting a bit funky with a metaphor, or if they have just bungled the spelling.

This book has not only the ubiquitous ‘your’ instead of ‘you’re’, but also walking across a sandy ‘dessert’, and lifting his ‘shinning’ knife. Ouch! I can understand how the proofreader would have missed ‘mummer’ for ‘murmur’.

I’m not saying that my own work is perfect – every time I reread it I seem to find something which makes me cringe – but sometimes it seems as if people are relying on the computer’s spellchecker alone. Unfortunately, nothing replaces human eyes for picking up these bloopers. In an early draft of my novel, a character entered through the French ‘widow’ (window), which was rather unfortunate for both of them!

Enough ranting for now. I’ll calm down and keep reading, and perhaps you can join me in Visualising Whirled Peas.

Book Review: Embassytown by China Mieville


‘Embassytown’ is the first of China Mieville’s books that I’ve read, but based on this sample, I’d certainly be interested in trying some more of his work.
That said, at first I was far from convinced. It starts off with a lot of apparently made-up words and concepts without explanation, which is one of my pet peeves of sci-fi. Call me dull, but I don’t find this kind of thing intriguing. I’m torn instead between irritation that I don’t understand what the author is talking about, and a sneaking suspicion that they are doing it to seem clever.

Courtesy of

Courtesy of

However, in this case, once you plough on through the first few chapters, it is hard to see how Mieville could have written this story without the jargon, and remained true to the voice of his narrator, Avice. It is a slow seduction of a book. After a while, you realise that it is genuinely hard to put down, and that all the strange terms are second nature to you.
To give you some idea of the story, Avice comes from Embassytown – a place on the edge of the navigable universe. It’s a place very much locked within its own boundaries, both physical and political, as the human inhabitants are there only by the generosity of their very alien Hosts. Even the atmosphere is rigged up within the city to be breathable by humans, but it’s a tiny bubble of humanity in a very alien world. One oddity of the Hosts is that they speak with two voices simultaneously, and there must be a mind behind the words. Generations of Ambassadors – perfect human clones – have been bred to be able to speak to the Hosts with minds so close that they are effectively one soul. When a new Ambassador comes from their ruling planet and speaks Language, everything goes horribly wrong.
In fact, over and over again, just when things can’t seem to get any worse, they do. It does keep you on tenterhooks.
This is a highly political story, and also one which at its core has a fairly technical linguistic point. The story is not short of action, but it’s certainly not for dummies either. I think this would actually be a terrific book to study at school, although the act of studying it might kill the story, because there are so many aspects of society, empire, and political systems which could be studied, on top of the impressive world building and finesse of linguistics.

The scope of imagination which Mieville brings to this book is truly awe-inspiring, and I’d highly recommend it.

My rating: 5 stars


Cultural sensitivities

Courtesy of

Courtesy of

It’s easy to make the mistake of thinking that all English-speaking places have more or less the same take on things, but I am occasionally reminded of the advice that was given to someone I know when they were moving to the U.S.:

It will be easier if you think of Americans as aliens who speak English.

I realise that this may be an incendiary comment to some people, but the logic behind it is reasonably sensible. There are undeniable cultural differences between nations, and trying to pretend that we are all the same might not only make you miserable when you can’t understand why people react or act in a certain way, but also denies the richness and diversity of all those nations. How dull would it be if we really were all the same?

However, as an author, there are certain pitfalls which I think it pays to be aware of, even if we decide to ignore them.

In my novel, The Artemis Effect, I chose to set the story in three nations: Australia, the U.S. and Britain. Now, as I live in Australia, I was fairly confident of not tripping up too badly there. The others I felt I had to be more careful with, even though I have lived for years in the UK, and have spent a fair bit of time in America. Only my readers will be able to advise me how badly I screwed up the cultural mores of those places.;)

One of the first pieces of feedback I received when the book came out was from a distant relative in New York. She said that she really enjoyed the book, but had to decipher some of the terms I’d used, such as ‘the boot of the car’ (as trunk). Now this was something that my editor and me thought about carefully when we were finishing the book, as it is available in the US. Should we Americanize the spelling and vocabulary? I know that many authors do, and I’ve read specific reference from Neil Gaiman that he has assistance to do this, and so doesn’t accidentally call a ‘sidewalk’ a ‘footpath’. In our case, we decided that as we were unlikely to be able to pick up everything, it was best to stick to Australian spelling and vocabulary except where absolutely necessary. The risk of doing it so that it didn’t read properly in either nation was too great.

Another book I’ve read recently has a different cultural issue: that of humour. Now everyone has a different sense of humour, and some poor people have none at all. However, as a gross generalisation, there are cultural differences in humour, although they are probably getting increasingly blurred as mass media makes everything available to everyone. However, in my eyes at least, the Brits often have a blacker sense of humour than the rest of us, and Australians have quite a dry sense of humour. The book I mentioned above, although beautifully written, had what seemed to me quite an American sense of humour. I could see that it was funny, but it just didn’t make me spontaneously hoot and snort with laughter.

Even countries as culturally close as Australia and New Zealand have different vocabulary, and of course we have great fun mocking one another’s accents. Fush and chups, anyone? A casual kiwi I used to work with, who always wore those shoes made of flat rubber to work, strenuously denied that he wore ‘thongs’. He said that a thong wouldn’t suit him (as in skimpy underwear), but he liked his ‘flip flops’. Likewise, no Australian talks about ‘jandals’, ‘trundlers’ or ‘chilly bins’. To us, they are ‘sandals’, ‘trolleys’ and ‘eskis’. I’m not 100% sure what an eski is to someone from the U.S., but I can tell you that the term ‘fanny bag’ makes anyone from Australia or Britain blush.

What can we do as authors in an increasingly international book market? We could have different editions for each country I suppose, with suitable vocabulary and grammar, but the amount of work would be phenomenal.

Vive la difference, I say.

Revive the Jollux!

It’s often been said that the richness and depth of the English language is being lost, through lack of education, falling literacy rates, and advertising which caters to the lowest common denominator. To counter this trend, I found some suggestions of twenty great English words we shouldn’t forget in this article:

20 obsolete English words that should make a comeback | Matador Network.

I have to single out Jollux as my favorite – we really need this word back in our lexicon. For once, a non-derogatory word for someone large and lively!

Noun – Slang phrase used in the late 18th century to describe a “fat person” – Although I’m not sure whether this word was used crudely or in more of a lighthearted manner, to me it sounds like a nicer way to refer to someone who is overweight. “Fat” has such a negative connotation in English.

I’m also a fan of Kench, which seems to me a good description perhaps of those inadvertent snorty noise people sometimes make. As in ‘Did you kench?’

Verb intr. – “To laugh loudly” – This Middle English word sounds like it would do well in describing one of those times when you inadvertently laugh out loud while reading a text message in class and manage to thoroughly embarrass yourself.

And finally: Jargogle. Just pronouncing this one is quite enough to jargogle you.

Verb trans. – “To confuse, jumble” – First of all this word is just fun to say in its various forms. John Locke used the word in a 1692 publication, writing “I fear, that the jumbling of those good and plausible Words in your Head..might a little jargogle your Thoughts…”

So get out there, all you jolluxes, and jargogle people until they kench! 🙂

Dawn French - a wonderful jollux