Recently I made a big gaffe in one of my columns. Despite the fact I read my columns over dozens of times, and then I have a peer edit, and then there's a Visual Thesaurus editor who reads and edits, I still misspelled the name of one of my favorite authors. (I also was chided for making up words, but as an author that's my creative prerogative and we can debate my taking that license another time.)
Oddly, I wasn't as upset as I normally would be. You see, I'm in good company. Before the NFC playoff game, the Green Bay newspaper spelled the city of Chicago C-h-i-c-a-c-o, and even though the misspelling was in the dominant headline not one person caught it until after the issue had already hit the newsstands.
If a major newspaper can screw up that badly, well, it made me feel a little better. Once in one of my books everyone missed that it said "pit car to pit road" instead of "pace car." I'm not alone. In fact, I'm actually part of what is becoming a majority of English language slackers.
Perhaps it begins in the schools. I've noticed lately that students seem to fail even basic proofreading. I clearly made the wrong assumption of my brilliance, and didn't verify names, something I constantly chide my yearbook students to do. However in our quest for higher-level thinking skills, we've somehow forgotten that the basics are essential and must be taught. If not, the results can be quite embarrassing, as I personally just proved. Yet how many didn't catch the name error? Our mind often fills in the blanks and corrects the mistakes.
It's hard to be meticulous, and one common goof that often slips by are the words it's and its. A local grocery store bought a half-page ad in a special advertising section in my hometown paper so that the store could entice customers to try "it's friendly staff."
It's easy to make these mistakes, yet we must grow out of them. Teachers are on the front line of this war. In a discussion on a national listserve I'm on, teachers shared these gems that they'd found in essays:
- Mary Shelley is an important figure in women's writhing.
- They stormed the beeches.
- Eugene O'Neill won four pullet surprises for his plays.
- Business tycoons have a tough time competing in today's doggy dog world.
- John Steinbeck wrote a wonderful book called Of My Cement.
- People should be able to count on their next store neighbors.
- Julius Caesar found he couldn't count on his closet friend, Mark Antony.
- Diana, Princess of Whales.
- The fryer in the Canterbury Tales.
- We take things for granite.
- Defiantly to blame
- Resuscitate the poems
These examples simply represent the tip of the iceberg. Many times student mistakes are poor word choice. However, more often I find that students simply pick the wrong word and then assume they know what they are saying. One of my favorites is when students use a lot, and they don't realize it's two words. So the spell check changes it to allot.
I am especially picky on the words their, there and they're. Students simply must know how to use these, and often, if spell check does flag the word, spell check simply wants the student to verify the sentence is correct. Kids have to be taught that spell check is not an automatic "make change." Many times when I'm writing I hit the ignore button. (And by the way, spell check doesn't catch names.)
Yet what I'm really worried about is that perhaps it's too late to save anyone, including me. Perhaps the English language is already dead, as the Washington Post's Gene Weingarten wrote Sept. 19, 2010, in his article titled "Goodbye, cruel words: English. It's dead to me."
Weingarten lamented that the "end came quietly on Aug. 21 on the letters page of The Washington Post. A reader castigated the newspaper for having written that Sasha Obama was the 'youngest' daughter of the president and first lady, rather than their 'younger' daughter. In so doing, however, the letter writer called the first couple the 'Obama's.' This, too, was published, constituting an illiterate proofreading of an illiterate criticism of an illiteracy. Moments later, already severely weakened, English died of shame."
Weingarten went on to state that the death of English took few by surprise, as the amount of proofreading errors found in other papers has already increased. Newspapers, to cut costs, have eliminated or reduced copyediting. He also states that English has become irrelevant, especially with young adults. After all, this is a generation of IDK and LOL. Even I admit to being sloppy with my Facebook posts. My phone hates the shift button, so I never use capitals. I've stopped worrying about it. I should, especially after providing so much entertainment value with my last column.
As an English teacher, I am on the front lines of the war against the demise of the English language and I too must be meticulous. While we as Americans seem to despise "drill and kill," sometimes we must practice and practice until our skills are perfected. Maybe showing kids that English matters is simply a matter of semantics. I like to use the analogy with my students that even Albert Pujols takes batting practice, LeBron James shoots free throws and Drew Brees makes passes. All of these top athletes still practice and hone their craft. They are ready when it comes crunch time. We need to have our students ready as well. After all, the cliché that practice pays off is true.
My daughter is editor of the yearbook. She copyedits everything twice, scouring for errors. She's gotten quite good at catching things that others miss. Because of this practical application, her English ACT score jumped five points to a 32. Her reading went up three to a 33. She's only a sophomore, with even more time to hone her skills. However, already she's proof that continual practice and application work. We must use everything in our arsenal to help students master not only writing, but also editing and proofreading.
We must not lose sight of the beauty of English language and we must reinforce with our students why perfecting our writing is important. Essays get them into college. Resumes get them interviews, and interviews jobs. Yes, our language is tricky with all its rules and regulations, but there is nothing like a well-crafted sentence. This building block is what sets us apart and makes us appear like the intelligent people we are. It would be a shame to lose it now, and that's one lesson I've learned personally.