Books written by Ray Sullivan

Saturday, 5 May 2012

Splitting the Indifference

Have you ever listened to natural conversations recorded without the people talking knowing about it?  It's the kind of jape kids used to do with their first cassette tape recorders, probably still do, but with an iPhone these days.  Apart from the incessant rustling of clothes, people coughing, chairs dragging on the kitchen tiles, the recordings are often full of ems, ahs, and thingymajigs.

The reality of it all is that natural speech is actually quite unnatural.  While a few of us (not, incidentally, including myself) are endowed with absolute clarity of thought transferred to pitch perfect delivery, most of us find ourselves wandering from one rambling thought to another from time to time.  While some of us say pacific when we mean specific, others mix up their iPod with someone else's iPad.  And then there are the sentences that just fade away, as if the speaker forgot what he was sayi.....  Where was I?

The reality is, though, that we are really quite good at filling in the gaps in natural speech.  Sure, we don't always get it right - British soap operas would lose fifty percent of their plot-lines if their characters didn't second guess words incorrectly!  But miss a flaming comma out of written speech, and you can expect to be hauled over the coals.  Pop one in where it isn't welcome and you can expect to be cast out into the cold.  Don't ask about the punishment for misplaced apostrophes - note, not apostrophe's!

OK, I may be a little touchy, I've just spent a lot of my free time lately proofing my five novels for the Createspace printing run and although the number of typos and grammatical errors have been relatively small in number, it was also a little disappointing.  To be fair, I've found that my writing style has changed over the last ten years and consequently, as I read through Parallel Lives, both the first book I wrote and the fifth I've proofed, I've realised that I punctuate differently these days. 

However, there is one writing trick I don't have to resort to these days, and that's the artificially split infinitive trick I developed while in the RAF.  My last role before I left the airforce was to write specifications to obtain project funding for sexy engineering equipment for use in aircraft engineering training, then to act as project liaison through to introduction to Service.  OK, sexy might be a tad subjective, but I did help secure funding for gear that has helped hundreds, possibly thousands, of technicians understand aircraft hydraulics (if you look carefully you will see a much younger me hiding behind a student in one photo) and flying control technology.  Some of the bids were in the million pound plus range and went through a robust vetting process, however at the other end of the scale there were pots of cash looking for an application to be spent on (remember, this was definitely pre credit crunch).  The trick was to have arguments written up and costed, waiting for the inevitable question - 'have you anything you need that will cost x pounds?'

For the strongest project bids, it was generally a painless process, however there was often a raft of project ideas that were harder to make a robust argument for.  The problem was, and probably still is, that the people holding the budgets often didn't have as strong a grasp on the technological merits, and could pass over a bid that didn't strike them as deserving.  Obviously, good writing coupled with strong arguments are key, but I had a secret weapon based on a weakness of the Officer training machine.

In the RAF, Officers are taught a lot of new skills, including how to read and write.  Sorry, I meant to include 'reports correctly' at the end of that  last sentence.  They are especially trained to check the written reports and project bids coming from the non-commissioned airmen.  They are also taught to check any report and keep on checking until they find a fault with it - it's a supremacy thing, I guess.  One part of their reading and writing training revolves around the split infinitive.  US readers can stop reading here as you dismissed the split infinitive to the garbage pile decades ago, correctly, I must say, however British military Officers and some academics still believe that it is more correct that Captain Kirk goes boldly rather than to boldly go. 

So, when compiling some of  my more dubious bids I would deliberately split an infinitive early on in my report.  Sure enough, I'd be summoned, have the offending split infinitive pointed out - circled in red usually - and once I'd resubmitted the amended report with the infinitive restored the bid would be signed off. 

If you're currently attempting to get a report past a British Officer, you might want to look at this article.


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