Travis Hardin Home : Essays : Your Students Must Improve There Spelling 

by Travis Hardin, 22 April 2012

A. What happened? Its effect.Grammar Police Special Apostrophe Unit

It was a humorous post on a private Facebook group, a funny drawing posted about misuse of the language, a post that seemed to invite comments by one of that club of people who remembers their classroom and their subsequent study, and have a pretty good grasp of Standard English. Many in what I'll call “The English Club” like to have fun with the language (see, for example, Richard Lederer) and find humor in overly pedantic as well as overly lax interpretations of the way our common language should be spoken and written. But none in that club is angry.

I responded in a clubby way, “deputize me – I want to serve a couple of warrants.” A member of the group who tries to mark every fire hydrant attacked my post, saying in a crude way that language should have no rules and those who thought so were acting superior and like pedants. The non-sequitir put a stop to any civil or fun comments. This paper carries on the discussion that could not proceed on line.

I am learning about that forum that sticking your head out of the ground gets it whacked. The participants have many things in common and most are an educated and sensitive lot. But I am learning that a few uncivil persons prevail there. The repellant behavior is puzzling – but it happens in other organizations too.

Got (do you have any) Milk?Sniping in on-line forums is not inevitable. My wife Louise posted the cartoon (right) on her own Facebook wall a few days later and wrote, “I would give her a medal.”

Response was uniformly agreeable:

Sandy __, Garth ___ and 8 others like this.

Peggy ____My absolute pet peeve!!!!!

Martha____ One of my (many) pet peeves is when a teacher or administrator tells a group of students, "You done good!"

Kathy ____ I'm an OCD picky grammarian, myself!

Martha ____ I know an administrator who wrote the following in an email to a teacher, "Your students must improve there spelling." No joke! lol

Mark ____ ha3...

Rose______ I are an inganeer. The problem is?

Notice that no one thought it was necessary to contradict.

B. The legitimacy & importance of language alone and as a foundation for advanced skills.

What I will attempt to show is that language usage is a craft that is both an academic discipline like biology (for example) and is a foundation for advanced writing disciplines as biology is to medicine.

English is a non-prescriptive language. However the generally accepted rules of language support the disciplines that forms the foundation for many important functions of society. Put another way, there are many occupations that require good knowledge of and use of written English. Literacy has acquired a broad definition these days. Halting reading with the ability to sign one's name will not make one literate any more. Our collective Wikipedia writers at “Literacy” define the word as “the ability to read for knowledge and write coherently and think critically about the written word.” “Literacy,” they say, “encompasses a complex set of abilities to understand and use the dominant symbol systems of a culture for personal and community development.”

David Crystal, writing in the 1987 Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language observes that “written language is likely to be more formal than spoken language and is more likely to provide the standard that society values. It also has a special status, mainly deriving from its permanence.”

Written language is more formal for good reason. There are many spoken versions of English, but there is only one written English (with graduations for formality and variations for discipline). Written English is meant to be understood nationally and internationally, therefore it must follow rules that are universally taught wherever written English is taught. Not only professional writers need to write for the world – formal language touches the private individual when Internet blogging and other commentary being generated by ordinary people goes worldwide. To the language lover, the problem seen on the Web is that people often never go to their grammar books or dictionaries. Instead they seem to copy the spelling and usage of random others they find on the Internet. This must be the way people began adding apostrophes to form plurals, especially proper names, or in the USA reverted to British spelling, abandoning Webster's sensible and time-honored simplifications. A degenerative cycle is seen by the language lover in that the more common the wild forms become on the Web, the more adverse examples they provide to emulate.

Some of the disciplines, human achievements, and practical arts that rest on a good knowledge of language include the law in particular. Law uses language precisely, with its and's, or's, and not's as precise as Boolean logic. Imprecise statutes or contracts are the stuff of uncertainty and endless lawsuits. In legal fields alone the professionals whose craft must necessarily be language are lawyers, judges, legislators, legislative aids, law clerks and secretaries, law librarians, and legislative reference librarians. Illustrating the importance of written language, contracts usually must be written to be legally binding.

Standards, such as IEEE or ANSI, have meaning due to their standard structure, such as standard outlined paragraphs, and due to the indexing system of all the volumes. Constructing and following such systems require verbal and organizational standardization – a kind of literacy. required in engineering.

Other advanced work built upon a foundation of language are novel, mystery, and non-fiction writing; poetry, drama, play, and screenplay writing; journalism; product documentation; advertising; brochures. Even on restaurant menus most people expect spelling and punctuation to be standard.

Also requiring a language foundation are patent applications; bid specifications; laws and legislation; and any field in which the language has to be unambiguous.

As an mere electronics technician I once wrote a bid request for a mile of road repair. It required the precise language of contracts in which words have standard meanings. In that job I wrote a number of “how-to” technical procedures including a paper for non-specialists on operating a million-dollar remote control television transmitter which they would never see. I got nothing more than satisfaction that my competence with the language helped produce confidence and avoided malfunction and catastrophe.

Using another personal example of the usefulness of a certain kind of literacy, I represented myself about 1990 in a divorce hearing before a master in Pennsylvania. My wife's lawyer was “the best in the county.” Thanks to a lawyer friend who taught me how to research and gave me a freelance job researching for her, I questioned, cross-examined, presented evidence, and cited precedents. After the opposition had packed up and left, the court recorder turned to me and said, “That was the most impressive pro se I have ever seen” The master nodded in agreement. I don't know if the outcome was more favorable as a result, but I appreciated the recognition of my exacting work.

Cambridge's Crystal adds that importantly, recording the facts as in record keeping, historical records, geographical surveys, business accounts, and scientific reports (says Crystal) is an essential domain of language use, for the availability of this material guarantees the knowledge-base of subsequent generations, which is a prerequisite of social development. Crystal points to sacred writings as an essential part of the identity and authority of a religious tradition.

In spoken English, television reporters, newscasters and news readers have a teaching function. They influence ordinary people to speak as they do. Newsreaders are reading written language, and that links written and spoken language, which are so different. “Radio announcer English” has been the standard English heard and learned nationwide for many decades. (See Appendix 1.) (“The General American accent is most closely related to a generalized Midwestern accent and is spoken particularly by many newscasters. Walter Cronkite is a good example of a broadcaster using this accent. This has led the accent to sometimes be referred to as a "newscaster accent" or "television English" – “General American” at Wikipedia.)

Speaking, persuading, or campaigning in public are advanced skills built on the foundation of language. So are teaching, administering, governing, and stage and film acting.

C. About the hobby of words and wordplay.

We who have done our homework (literally, and for 12 to 14 years) and who think we are fair at English usage and at detecting “something not quite right” in the speech or writing of ourselves or of others comprise an informal “English Club.” We actually enjoy listing to and reading language – even proofreading it -- as a hobby. We like sharing this hobby with kindred company, because the flaws we hear are often unintentionally hilarious. Sometimes they are pitiable. And yes, we like the fun and competition much like watchers of “Jeopardy” like it. And we like Jeopardy. Critical listening and reading is enjoyable, a game. Often such people like recreational wordplay. Surely everyone has enjoyed “things schoolchildren write” and similar pass-arounds. That's what we enjoy.

We of “The English Club” each have different peeves. I might take note every day of what I regard as a bad habit by my wife (silently of course) while at the same time, in her own right as a language hobbyist and watchdog, she rolls her eyes (unseen of course) for my very different errors. Any number can play. We all are defending the honor and integrety of the mother tongue while having a good time doing it.

Outsiders might see us as believing we are better than they. They may perceive correctly in this narrow area. Aren't those who are good at some discipline by definition better at it than others who are not good at it? Why does that make some people bitter? When I overhear a group discussing taxonomy or "the CSS pseudo-class of an element" (for example), I don't get angry with them for displaying their knowledge. I'm happy that somebody has that knowledge, because I don't. In many areas I have woeful ignorance and I do not claim the right to judge those who know more.

The “English Club” language criticism hobbyist recognizes that spoken language is casual, but some missteps can be funny. Some can be dreadful. We savor both within the club.

However it is for professionals who should know better that the most potent ridicule is reserved. Good-naturedly, of course. I find the greatest irony not in people who never claim they're experts or champions of the language, but in seeing the work of professional writers who have the craft of writing as their main profession. They include teachers and news reporters. While there are still many writers, proofreaders, and editors adhering to Standard English (to name a few publications at random: Wired magazine, Atlantic magazine, Rolling Stone magazine, the Washington Post newspaper, the New York Times), there are yet other professionals using the craft of writing who are exasperating, funny, maddening, or objects of amazement. They might include reporters at smaller newspapers, television and cable reporters and news readers -- and the funniest, local television news reporters. (Reporters in the computer age edit their own copy – in at least some places.)

There were great past practitioners of the art of criticism. I've been told about a Huntsville Mensa member named Al Matthews who always carried around several pens. Whenever he picked up a magazine or newspaper, whether at home, in the doctor's office, or elsewhere, he marked and corrected the mistakes. Very few pages remained unmarked when he was done. After moving to North Carolina to retire with his wife Mary, he still got the newsletter from North Alabama Mensa (which was always proofread locally) so that, every month, he could correct the newsletter editor and email her the errors he found. One editor kept and framed the one sacred edition in which Al did not find any mistakes. Al Matthews is spoken of with fondness, not with bitterness. Al corrected me one time via email, saying of the plural, “It's Matthewses.” He is correct, and I am better off being reminded of the correct form that I had forgotten: Most nouns (even proper ones) ending in 's' take an 'es' plural.

If you don't feel kinship with me or the other hobbyists, you might find my thinking strange. Let me give you examples: I listen to myself speak and correct myself. When others speak I listen and correct them in my mind. And there are times I hear ambivalent meanings in others' expressions and I don't understand. At those times I'm glad the person isn't my commander in battle who has confused me with ambivalent instructions in life-and-death matters.

I am one of those people who very early in life believed in the prestige offered by the right language variety (as did Stephen Colbert), and because I willed myself to speak standard English (as I was taught in a Cherokee County, Alabama high school), when I left home at age 18, you will find me under diglossia in the Wikipedia article “Linguistic Prescription,” where its writers inform us that “Linguistic prestige is a central research topic within sociolinguistics. Notions of linguistic prestige apply to different dialects of the same language and also to separate, distinct languages in multilingual regions. Prestige level disparity often leads to the phenomenon known as diglossia, wherein speakers make a conscious decision not to use a dialect of language with a prestige level perceived to be lower than that of an alternative dialect or language in certain social contexts, even if this "lower prestige" language is their native one.”

Back to language's entertaining aspects: I propose an entertaining game for people who enjoy language, a challenge between two people who claim competent language skills. One is required to examine a complicated item and speak its description to a second person over the telephone or in person, such that the second person can reconstruct it in his mind and perhaps also in reality with the right tools. (See radio announcers in Appendix 1.) In this game math skills and higher mathematics would be a big asset (in that formulas and fragments can describe shapes on a graph). I have played the game with others who did not know I was playing the game in the course of describing some item, but this is the first time I have proposed it. Take it and refine it to the point where success can be quantified and scored, perhaps by limiting the item to be transmitted to a two-dimensional drawing. Let's do it!

D. How to minimize conflict Facebook-wise, and in Facebook groups

I've spoken of language freaks as “The English Club.” Those not in the club can feel slighted. I would like to use the situation I began with to suggest a way to minimize conflict on Facebook. (To those who say “Why do you want to minimize conflict?” I would say “It was nice knowing you back when you were civil.”)

My own first rule is do not contradict except in circumstances where the subject is more important than a friendship. A poster is looking for someone to laugh, agree, sympathize, commiserate, or inspire. Therefore I let like-minded people enjoy their own pleasures. I never fool myself into thinking I can change minds.

My second rule is never to start a disagreement with a friend of a friend. Friends of friends may be near strangers to your friend, much more so to you. Their religious and political views are unknown to you. It is a hopeless busybody who attempts to censor friends of friends. I say this from observation.

In private forums such as found on Facebook there are posts by people I don't know. Not all of them are my “friend.” My third rule applies to those forums. The rule is, I post once and do not reply to insults or taunts (phishing). (Kinda hard to do, but it's best.)

There is a destructive trend in a Facebook forum I know of to pursue any disagreement to great detail, becoming more critical until all but one are driven away, then that one. It's a great pity to see those who with great effort organize groups only to drive people away from them with their own habitual incivility.

As I examined the particular Facebook forum I saw that a few people were always uncivil, attacking original comments as personal insults. A few people over a series of 30 or 40 posts wring out every difference with whoever remained, down to the last syllable, leaving not resolution but enemies.

Please consider civility.

Appendix 1

Selections from “Announcer's test” at Wikipedia:

Announcer's tests originated in the early days of radio broadcasting, circa 1920. The tests involve retention, memory, repetition, enunciation, diction, and using every letter in the alphabet a variety of times ... In approximately 1930, CBS Radio established a school for announcers. The school was headed by Frank Vizetelly, who trained announcers to develop voices that were "clear, clean-cut, pleasant, and carry with them the additional charm of personal magnetism." At about the same time, NBC Radio published standard pronunciation guidelines for its sponsors ... Another test for an announcer candidate might be to "describe the studio in which you are seated so that a listener can readily visualize it."

One of the more well known tests originated at Radio Central New York in the early 1940s as a cold reading test given to prospective radio talent to demonstrate their speaking ability. Del Moore, a long time friend of Jerry Lewis', took this test at Radio Central New York in 1941, and passed it on to him. Jerry has performed this test on radio, television and stage for many years, and it has become a favorite tongue-twister (and memory challenge) for his fans around the world.

    *      One hen
    *      Two ducks
    *      Three squawking geese
    *      Four Limerick oysters
    *      Five corpulent porpoises
    *      Six pairs of Don Alverzo's tweezers
    *      Seven thousand Macedonians in full battle array
    *      Eight brass monkeys from the ancient, sacred crypts of Egypt
    *      Nine apathetic, sympathetic, diabetic old men on roller skates with a marked propensity towards procrastination and sloth
    *      Ten lyrical, spherical, diabolical denizens of the deep who haul stall around the corner of the quo of the quay of the quivery, all at the same time.

There are many variations to this version, many having been passed from one person to another by word of mouth.


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