Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Not exactly the same -- not even close!

I was editing a book proposal the other day and came upon this quote, attributed to Scott Fitzgerald:

"The true test of a first-rate mind is the ability to hold two contradictory ideas at the same time in the mind and still retain the capacity to act."

Fitzgerald was one of my favorite writers when I was a teenager and that did NOT sound like him --he wouldn't phrase anything so flabbily and clunkily. Besides, I was pretty sure I remembered that sentence (this is the kind of thing that sticks in my mind) and that what he actually wrote was:

"The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function."

I checked online -- they had it various ways (most correct, I should add). Then I checked my copy of THE CRACK UP AND OTHER ESSAYS and sure enough, there it was (my way). He went on to say:

"One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise."

I could blab on and on about this essay (one of the most brilliant, and emotionally honest, descriptions of being at the end emotionally I've ever read), but the point is: those two sentences are NOT exactly the same. They mean different things.

I wrote to the Web sites that had misquoted him and told them so, and am going to start doing this whenever I see favorite authors misquoted. It's a little thing, I know, it's one way to repay my favorite authors for the pleasure they've given me over the years. And (I hope this isn't pompous or grandiose) it's a way -- also very small -- to fight what's happening to the English language. Watching television with the kids I babysit shows me maybe the worst of that, but even on NPR, people use words carelessly sometimes.

If nothing else, writing these emails will make ME feel that I'm doing something about it, other than trying to write as well as I can myself. Every little bit helps!


Julie Hedlund said...

Good for you! Great words need defense against the mass destruction of language.

Anonymous said...

"Words strain, Crack and sometimes break, under the burden, Under the tension, slip, slide, perish, Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place, Will not stay still." T.S. Eliot

(Did I get it right?)

Libby Koponen said...

I don't know TS Elliot's work NEARLY well enough to know!

And by the way, I'm not saying that the language shouldn't live and grow, just that it deserves respect. Writers, especially, should "use the right word -- not its second cousin."

As I think Mark Twain said.

Paul Sand said...

The problem with Internet
quotations is that many are
not genuine.
(Abraham Lincoln)