First, a PSA: Grantville Gazette VI, edited by Eric Flint and published by Baen Books, is on the stands now. It contains my story Suite for Four Hands, which is part of a series of stories exploring how musicians of the early 17th century might react if the music of the late 20th century was dropped in their laps. Check it out.
Now, on with today’s post.
What do the following words have in common?
Slept, dreamt, leapt, burnt, dwellt, swept.
They are all representatives of a class of irregular verbs. Four of them are also examples of a trend by American publishers to ‘regularize’ many irregular verbs in American usage. You’ve seen it, even though it may not have registered with you. Dreamed instead of dreamt, burned instead of burnt, dwelled instead of dwellt. (Slept and swept have somehow managed to avoid being replaced with sleeped and sweeped.)
This is apparently an American movement. The rest of the English-speaking world seems to be doing fine being irregular with irregular verbs. Now, I am not particularly an Anglophile. (But I’m not an Anglophobe, either.) Outside of Charles Dickens, C.S. Lewis, and J.R.R. Tolkien, I’m not especially fond of English writers per se. (And I’m not sure why I like Dickens-I just do.) Most of the ‘classics’ of English Literature leave me in a state of vast ennui. I will even admit to having successfully managed to avoid reading Shakespeare throughout my high school and college careers.
That said, I must stand up and shout against this trend in American publishing. Author C. J. Cherryh probably described the background and circumstances better than I can in a post a number of years ago. But regardless of the whys and wherefores of the trend, the fact remains that by removing the usage of these irregular verbs, publishers and copy-editors are removing tools from our writers’ tool chests. They are removing richness and flavor from our writing. They are, in fact, reducing our ability to write in distinctive styles. And I find that deplorable.
When I write, I quite frequently use particular words to create specific effects in the reader; ‘aural’ effects, for lack of a better term. In my mind, and to my ear, ‘dreamed’ has a different effect than ‘dreamt’. And I’m not rigidly locked in to one form or the other, although I have noticed that I tend to use ‘dreamed’ forms more in science fiction and ‘dreamt’ forms more in fantasy. But regardless of the genre, if I use one over the other, it’s because I want the effect of that specific word in the passage at hand.
I guess I’m funny that way. People can criticize my plots or my characterizations and I’ll listen with an open mind. And most of the time I’ll take criticism of my narrative and dialogue without getting particularly upset. But for some reason, if after due consideration I choose a specific word to create a particular effect, to have someone object to the use of that word really rubs my fur the wrong way. Of course, as a new author, the state of my fur may not be the copy-editor’s highest priority. Which, while probably appropriate from the consideration of publishing as a business, is unfortunate from the consideration of the craft and art of writing.
But today, the rise of e-publishing and the freedom it provides for self-publishing is creating changes in the traditional publishing models, and some of these arbitrary rules may not be a factor much longer. One can only hope.
So I sing the praise of irregular verbs! Join the chorus when it comes around.