When I was little, I read everything. Cereal boxes while I ate breakfast. The back of the toothpaste tube while I brushed my teeth. The shampoo bottle while I washed my hair. (If I didn’t single-handedly cause the drought that hit Southern California in the mid ’70s, I at least contributed to it.) Terms like sodium lauryl sulfate, partially hydrogenated oil and effective decay-preventive dentifrice were cemented in my brain long before I had any use for them.
If I saw something in print (or on a sign, or as a caption on television, etc.), I thought it must be correct. So when I first began noticing errors in printed materials, it was disconcerting. I’d wonder, “Have I been wrong all this time?” Eventually, though, I figured out that mistakes sometimes just made it “out there.”
This idea was troubling, because I’d always regarded such materials as knowledge resources and reinforcers. Adults created them, after all. They were supposed to know everything!
So I grew up looking at anything and everything in print with a critical eye. The habit came in handy for me when I got my first job as a proofreader; other than that, it’s served me mainly as a source of frustration. Every time I see a mistake, I think, there are kids out there who will see this error, think it’s correct, and start speaking and writing this way. The thought is as horrifying to me as the old film footage of the exploding Hindenburg.
There’s no shortage of people who think it’s ridiculous to care about details like spelling, punctuation, and grammar, particularly now that so much communicating occurs via text shorthand. What they fail to consider is how small changes snowball into big ones over time. I suppose that, as long as humans can communicate with one another, that’s all that really matters. By the time we’ve devolved into speaking in grunts, I’ll be dead anyway.
But caring about it is too ingrained in me. I can’t shut it off. And what I find most disturbing are mistakes made by members of the news media. They’re supposed to be extra-careful, diligent, and dedicated to communicating the truth. Today, I started to read an article on the CBS website about a family whose daughter has been declared brain dead. The hospital says the girl is clinically dead, while the family believes she is alive, and wants to continue life support. Three sentences into the article, the writer states, “Timing is short for the family.”
What does this even mean? Yes, I can use my brain and context, and determine that the writer meant something more like, “Time is running out for the family,” or “The family doesn’t have much time to find a solution,” or “The McMaths’ daughter doesn’t have much time left.” But a better solution would have been for him or her to have used a complete, correctly worded sentence. Yes, I can figure out what he meant, but I’m an adult.
What about the children?!?
Later in the article, I stumbled over this sentence: “He said the hospital’s refusal to cooperate violated her family’s religious, due process rights and privacy rights.” By including the word “rights” after the word “process,” the writer has created a sentence that states the hospital’s actions have violated the family’s religious. You could also say the problem is lack of a noun like “rights” or “beliefs” following the word “religious.” (Six of one. . . . ) The clearest way to have delivered the information: “He said the hospital’s refusal to cooperate violated her family’s religious, due process and privacy rights.”
(Never mind the fact that the article’s headline failed to hyphenate “brain-dead.” Being a writer, I’ve come across lots of common points of confusion. Hyphenation is a BIG one. In my opinion, the reason hyphenation is such a confusing concept is that things are constantly being printed with hyphens where they don’t belong, and without hyphens where they need to be. If everything were printed correctly, people would naturally learn the rules.)
There’s one other worrisome source of fallacious information: bad teachers. I got lucky in that I had a lot of really great teachers, few bad teachers, and the intelligence to spot the difference. Not everyone is that lucky. (If they were, reporters would never make mistakes.)
I had one teacher in junior high who was just not the brightest crayon in the box. She taught social studies, and I remember once we were reading in class about Mexican President Venustiano Carranza. She couldn’t pronounce his name (how had she been a social studies teacher, covering the same material year after year, and not learned how to pronounce the man’s name?), and offered a dollar to whoever could pronounce it correctly.
A boy in my class, Roberto — who had recently moved to the U.S. from South America, and who spoke fluent Spanish — was the first to volunteer. He pronounced Carranza’s name perfectly, as one would expect. Hell, it’s not that difficult. It’s pronounced exactly the way it’s spelled: Ven-us-ti-an-o. Sound it out, as teachers used to say.
“Wrong!” our educator replied. It was so hard not to yell out what I was thinking: “No, he’s not! And if you don’t know how the name is pronounced, how would you know if he’s wrong?”
A visibly confused Roberto sat back down, and a kid named Mike stood up to give it a shot. Armed with the “knowledge” that “Ven-us-ti-an-o” was incorrect, he shouted out confidently, “VenusTANZIO!”
“Yes!” cried our teacher, smiling and holding out the dollar for Mike to claim as his prize.
Dammit, that dollar belonged to Roberto. I was seething.
At lunch, I brought up this travesty of justice to a group of classmates, one of whom was Sue, known as the class “brain.” Sue believed 100% that our teacher was correct. I said that no, she was not. “Sound out the name,” I explained to Sue. “There’s no ‘z’ in it!” Her reply: “That’s just how it’s pronounced!”
U.S. education system: 1
The human race: 0.
If I were a math person, I’d calculate what that dollar would be worth today, had it been saved in an interest-bearing account, to figure out what was owed to Roberto. Probably something around $1.50. The effects of the confusion that teacher left in her wake, however, can’t be calculated.
I’m lucky I don’t have children, as are their would-be teachers. The first time my kid came home with a note from the school that included a typo, or saying his teacher gave a Starbuck’s card to the kid who “correctly” pronounced Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s name as “Ahdeminejad,” I’d be on the phone. The second time, I’d be in the principal’s office. No one, myself included, wants to think about what would have happened at strike three.
It would have been twelve very long years for all concerned.
P.S. For anyone who doubts my assertion that grammar mistakes made by the press influence our belief as to what is correct and what isn’t, see if you can spot the grammatical error in the following sentence from a radio station news blurb:
The problem with that directive is that there are so many types of machines, it is easier to just declare that none of them are allowed.