or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Wednesday, April 02, 2008


In David Crystal's endlessly fascinating Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, there's a two-page section called "Restricted English" (pp. 390-391 in the Second Edition) in which the author discusses little specialized universes of the language, "tightly constrained uses of English" in which

...little or no linguistic variation is permitted. The rules, which often have to be consciously learned, control everything that can be said intelligibly or acceptably.

These restricted Englishes include heraldic language ("When a bordure is bezante, billette or has similar markings, the number of bezants or billets, unless otherwise mentioned, is always eight."), recipe writing ("Using your favorite pesto recipe, blanch the basil in boiling water for a few seconds, shock it in cold water and then squeeze out the liquid. Blanch about 1/2 cup of fresh baby spinach per 3 cups of basil in the same manner. Process them with the other ingredients, adding up to 2 tablespoons ice water."), and what Crystal calls "knitwrite", the rather elliptical and condensed language of knitting patterns ("5th row: Sl1. K1. psso. Knit to 2 sts before marked st. Sl1. K1. psso. K1. K2tog. Knit to last 3 sts. Sl1. K1. psso. K1. 20 (24) sts.").

Each of these restricted Englishes assumes that you understand all the terms (particularly if the terms are used in ways that they aren't in standard English) and the manner in which they're strung together; otherwise, you're at a loss, though oftentimes you'll be provided a glossary.

Since these Englishes are generally so compact and so specific, there isn't any room for error, because there isn't any redundancy to act as error correction, as it does in the larger standard English. If a recipe tells you to add a tablespoonful of salt instead of the intended teaspoonful, you don't really have any way of telling that this is wrong until you put the result in your mouth.

Even if you don't know anything about knitting, can you see a huge glaring mistake in this picture? (Sorry it's so small: it's the biggest clear image I could find, and I'm not about to buy the book to scan it.)

If you can't see the mistake, here it is, circled.

I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw it. I showed it to two other knitters and they couldn't believe it, either; it's an incredibly obvious error, like painting your house green but accidentally doing one side in hot pink. Putting the image on the front cover of the pattern book is like painting in hot pink and not noticing.

It could be a typo in the pattern that the person knitting the sample executed faithfully, though I doubt it. I think it's a transcription error; the knitter, copying the written pattern in a different medium, simply made the garment wrong, executing a cable crossing in the wrong direction (they did a front cross instead of the correct and symmetrical back cross, meaning that the cables, which are meant to looked entwined and interwoven, don't weave around one another as they ought to). This sort of thing happens all the time during the knitting of something: I'm making a heavily cabled sweater right now and I did the same sort of incorrect crossing, but I spotted the mistake about five rows later and fixed it.

I still can't believe the mistake exists. Even if the pattern had said to work the cable as shown, the knitter should have been able to see that it was wrong, and should have fixed it (and then notified someone that the pattern was wrong--that's why I don't believe it's a typo). And even if that person happened to not notice the problem, someone else--the model, the stylist, the photographer, the book editor, someone--should have seen it. It could have been fixed on the spot by any reasonably talented knitter in an hour or so, and, failing that, it could have been Photoshopped into the correct position by the graphics people. I just don't get it.

A mistake on the front cover of a knitting publication is the equivalent of a big glaring typo on the front-page headline of a large newspaper. These things aren't supposed to happen. There are people who get paid to make sure they don't.


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