Friday, 22 October 2010

Red Pens And Acceleration

People didn't stick their heads into ovens with the gas on, jump in front of subway trains or come plummeting like dead weights out of hotel windows with a whoosh!, accelerating at the rate of sixteen feet per second to land with a hideous plop! on the sidewalk and die disgustingly there in public like an alpaca sack full of hairy strawberry ice cream, bleeding, pink toes awry.
   - Catch-22, Joseph Heller

I was a proof reader once. Perhaps, dear reader, you have noticed all the typos that wriggle their way into this blog and think that I can't have been much of a proof reader. However, it is a truth universally acknowledged that it is impossible to proof your own writing. The writer remembers what he meant to write, and therefore sees what he meant to write. That's why people need proofers: proofers are other people.

Anyway, I know how a proofer's mind works. I know the mistakes he is looking out for: the missing prepositions, the incorrect numbers, the words the words written twice. This last error is terribly common with writers who were distracted for a second and then continued to type.

That's why I'm pretty sure that the mistake in the paragraph above is the fault not of Joseph Heller, but of some poor proofer who doesn't remember his physics.

...accelerating at the rate of sixteen feet per second....

Your speed is measured in distance per time (e.g. 5 miles per hour). Your acceleration is measured in speed gained over a period of time (e.g. 20 mph per hour). If, dear suicidal, you jump out of a hotel window you will accelerate at sixteen feet per second per second.

And the chap who proofs the coroner's report will tut and tush and take out his red pen and strike out the last two words.

The proofer who adds a mistake to his text is, of course, going straight to hell, where he will be scribbled over in red by a hundred demons who will pluck missing commas from his nether-regions.

A friend of mine once tipped his chair too far back, keeled over, and fell on his arse. Rather than looking foolish, though, he picked himself up, smiled and nodded sagely and muttered, almost to himself, as though recording the result of a successful experiment "9.8 metres per second per second."

Whenever you drop something, dear clumsy reader, it is an infinitely reusable line.


  1. What I really like is when someone talks about 'knots per hour', and then someone else says, 'there's no such thing as knots per hour', and then you can say, 'Ah, but there is! It's a measure of acceleration'. And then you can feel really clever. Unfortunately this has never actually happened to me, but I'm ready if the circumstance should arise.

  2. Oh, the things people should say! I have volumes of such comebacks just waiting for the appropriate straight man.