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Much of the exasperation my teacher-friends express confuses me. “How can an essay have so many spelling errors in the spellcheck era?” grumbles one. “If I see one more its/it’s mistake I’m going to scream” tweets another. I sense real ire from these people, or at least intense distaste. The typos and misused words offend them. And this phenomenon isn’t relegated to teachers; I often find this sort of disdain on message boards, comment sections, or any part of the internet where language goes unchecked and unedited.
I don’t understand these reactions at all. First, what is the source of this irritation? Do these typos or errors make it more difficult to read, understand, or evaluate writing, either professionally or personally? I always know if “there” is supposed to be a possessive or a contraction—it never tricks me! Then again I’m a pretty good reader; I can look at words and suddenly I’ve read them, without saying them or anything. But I also assume that these grammar sticklers are good readers too.
Perhaps a contempt for the authors’ ignorance or carelessness? This seems more likely, but wouldn’t this acknowledgement of superiority bring a kind of joy? If you are using your education to enforce class boundaries though grammar, then appreciate the chance to do so! That Ivy League school tuaght you to catch errors like these!
More importantly, though: do most people not appreciate the beauty of the word-error? It lets us take a tiny break from the onslaught of discourse and appreciate the form of language! Each mistake is a tiny narrative: what caused the mistake: greasy fingers, too-loud Ke$ha, a phonetic misunderstanding? These errors bring the body, with all its flaws, back to language. I can’t be sure, but I’m pretty sure that French (post)structuralist Roland Barthes would appreciate a good typo. For example:
The pleasure of the text: like Bacon’s simulator, it can say: never apologize, never explain. It never denies anything: “I shall look away, that will henceforth be my sole negation.”
So begins his brilliant and confounding essay “The Pleasure of the Text,” which describes my attitude towards textual errors at every turn. Later he describes the “text of bliss,” which seems to refer to typos and their kin: “the text that imposes a state of loss, the text that discomforts (perhaps to the point of a certain boredom), unsettles the reader’s historical, cultural, psychological assumptions, the consistency of his tastes, values, memories, brings to a crisis his relation with language.” To borrow another Barthes phrase, this “rustle of language” caused by unintentional mistakes slows us down a step, and forces us to consider, and even enjoy, the human element that lies behind the words we read. Let me outline a few of the different kinds of language errors and elaborate their various pleasures.
This is the simplest textual mistake you can make. It presumably reveals no misunderstanding or ignorance on the part of the author. A simple slip of the finger creates an error in the text, but rarely clouds intelligibility whatsoever. But what flavor they can add to even the most mundane chats or texts! I long for the days before standardized spelling. “Teh” is a favorite of mine because it elicits such a strange, stupefying sound; it is the onomatopoeia for the typo. “Htat” and “htis” are also pleasant on the eye and ear, and doublle (or especially triple) lettters force the gaze to linger and appreciate the construction of words. Simple typos like this rarely bring moments of sublimity, but they do act as charming stumbling blocks that remind you that you are reading human words.
It seems to me that most people’s spoken vocabulary outnumbers their written vocabulary. The reverse can be true; for most of my school years I was afraid to mention faux pas or alma mater in conversation. But the (mis)transcription of speech to writing can serve as a joyful reminder of the shiftiness of language.
Some of these errors reflect an improper pronunciation into improper spelling: supposebly and expecially are favorites of mine. Does a student’s handwritten note that claims to have “expecially enjoyed” your class not drip with pathos? I could ask for nothing more evocative of the combination of empathy and despair that teaching rhetoric evokes.
Other examples consist of the author using a similar-sounding word (sometimes, but not always, a homonym) instead of the proper word. A remarkable number of these slips are Freudian: venerated becomes venereal; penal becomes penile. Once again, the body reasserts itself: how feudally we try to avoid our baseness with abstract nouns and latinate suffixes! Often these mistakes are mysteries to me; does the student who writes of “ejaculating refugees” actually say “evacuate” that way, or was it simply a typo? Or some dark, poetic metaphor?
The misused word/grammar error
These mistakes seem to inspire the most contempt in readers. So many OKCupid profiles forbid anyone “who doesn’t know the difference between its and it’s” from messaging. I can only assume that these banal criteria serve as one easily enforced method of determining the class and education level of a potential mate. I wonder how effectively most readers judge someone “sounding smart” through pronoun choice, though; a recent OKC study showed that men are more likely to receive responses if they use the word “whom,” whether they use it correctly or not. This news isn’t particularly depressing for me, but it shows what using proper pronouns/contractions/whatever is good for: a display of class/education/power that makes one more attractive (to a certain kind of person). I’m all for empowerment, and that is how I teach grammar to my students: a familiarity with non-communicative grammatical nuance has no value in itself, but it could be essential for a job or OKCupid message, so you probably want to learn it.
HOWEVER, I see the misuse of its/it’s and there/their/they’re as an act of rebellion, and I regularly include these tiny revolts into my everyday discourse. The increased usage of written (typed) communication by the uneducated, the young, and the disenfranchised is leading to a quick-moving destandardization of English (I’ll get into txtspk some other day). Do you really want to be a part of the old guard, enforcing prejudice against those who don’t know or don’t care about your rules of grammar or typography? Do you value a pristine text more than the people who create it? Or, to put it another way, there are to kinds of people in the world: those that see language as a test, and those who see language as a game. Ones alot more fun.
My Grandmother Washes Her Feet in the Sink of the Bathroom at Sears
by Mohja Kahf
to wash them in the ritual washing for prayer,
because she has to pray in the store or miss
the mandatory prayer time for Muslims
She does it with great poise, balancing
herself with one plump matronly arm
against the automated hot-air hand dryer,
after having removed her support knee-highs
and laid them aside, folded in thirds,
and given me her purse and her packages to hold
so she can accomplish this august ritual
and get back to the ritual of shopping for housewares
Respectable Sears matrons shake their heads and frown
as they notice what my grandmother is doing,
an affront to American porcelain,
a contamination of American Standards
by something foreign and unhygienic
requiring civic action and possible use of disinfectant spray
They fluster about and flutter their hands and I can see
a clash of civilizations brewing in the Sears bathroom
My grandmother, though she speaks no English,
catches their meaning and her look in the mirror says,
I have washed my feet over Iznik tile in Istanbul
with water from the world’s ancient irrigation systems
I have washed my feet in the bathhouses of Damascus
over painted bowls imported from China
among the best families of Aleppo
And if you Americans knew anything
about civilization and cleanliness,
you’d make wider washbins, anyway
My grandmother knows one culture—the right one,
as do these matrons of the Middle West. For them,
my grandmother might as well have been squatting
in the mud over a rusty tin in vaguely tropical squalor,
Mexican or Middle Eastern, it doesn’t matter which,
when she lifts her well-groomed foot and puts it over the edge.
“You can’t do that,” one of the women protests,
turning to me, “Tell her she can’t do that.”
“We wash our feet five times a day,”
my grandmother declares hotly in Arabic.
“My feet are cleaner than their sink.
Worried about their sink, are they? I
should worry about my feet!”
My grandmother nudges me, “Go on, tell them.”
Standing between the door and the mirror, I can see
at multiple angles, my grandmother and the other shoppers,
all of them decent and goodhearted women, diligent
in cleanliness, grooming, and decorum
Even now my grandmother, not to be rushed,
is delicately drying her pumps with tissues from her purse
For my grandmother always wears well-turned pumps
that match her purse, I think in case someone
from one of the best families of Aleppo
should run into her—here, in front of the Kenmore display
I smile at the midwestern women
as if my grandmother has just said something lovely about them
and shrug at my grandmother as if they
had just apologized through me
No one is fooled, but I
hold the door open for everyone
and we all emerge on the sales floor
and lose ourselves in the great common ground
of housewares on markdown.
“This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals—sounds that say listen to this, it is important.”
– timeless advice from the late gary provost. he shows how variety is not only the spice of writing, but the spice of communication. throughout the day, look out for the rhythm in people’s speech/writing. note who’s conducting orchestras with their words and whose notes are falling flat. via nikyatu.
in this multimedia-driven age, schools should place the same emphasis on visual literacy as they do written. we need to be able to parse through the latest breaking news report or the latest breaking bad episode to the point where we can both grasp what’s being said (audibly & visually) and appreciate/understand what exactly the directors/actors/reporters are doing to convey their messages.
director martin scorsese provides a solid argument for this stance in his new essay “the persisting vision: reading the language of cinema”. in it, scorsese also touches on what he loves about movies and scatters in some great bits of film history. check it out below (via ny review of books) and respond to it in the comments:
In the film The Magic Box, which was made in England in 1950, the great English actor Robert Donat plays William Friese-Greene—one of the people who invented movies. The Magic Box was packed with guest stars. It was made for an event called the Festival of Britain. You had about fifty or sixty of the biggest actors in England at the time, all doing for the most part little cameos, including the man who played the policeman—that was Sir Laurence Olivier.
I saw this picture for the first time with my father. I was eight years old. I’ve never really gotten over the impact that it had. I believe this is what ignited in me the wonder of cinema, and the obsession—with watching movies, making them, inventing them.
Friese-Greene gives everything of himself to the movies, and he dies a pauper. If you know the full story of his life and its end, the line in the film about the invention of the movies—“You must be a very happy man, Mr. Friese-Greene”—of course is ironic, but in some ways it’s also true because he’s followed his obsession all the way. So it’s both disturbing and inspiring. I was very young. I didn’t put this into words at the time, but I sensed these things and I saw them up there on the screen.
My parents had a good reason for taking me to the movies all the time, because I had been sick with asthma since I was three years old and I apparently couldn’t do any sports, or that’s what they told me. But my mother and father did love the movies. They weren’t in the habit of reading—that didn’t really exist where I came from—and so we connected through the movies.
And I realize now that the warmth of that connection with my family and with the images on the screen gave me something very precious. We were experiencing something fundamental together. We were living through the emotional truths on the screen, often in coded form, which these films from the 1940s and 1950s sometimes expressed in small things: gestures, glances, reactions between the characters, light, shadow. These were things that we normally couldn’t discuss or wouldn’t discuss or even acknowledge in our lives.
Frank Capra said, “Film is a disease.” I caught the disease early on. I felt it whenever I walked up to the ticket booth with my mother or my father or my brother. You’d go through the doors, up the thick carpet, past the popcorn stand that had that wonderful smell—then to the ticket taker, and then in some of the old theaters there would be another set of doors with little windows and you’d get a glimpse of something magical happening up there on the screen, something special. And as we entered, for me it was like entering a sacred space, a kind of sanctuary where the living world around me seemed to be recreated and played out.
What was it about cinema? What was so special about it? I think I’ve discovered some of my own answers to that question a little bit at a time over the years.
for today’s brain teaser, see if you can solve this cryptogram. if you’re unfamiliar, cryptograms are messages veiled by a secret code. to crack the code, you have to think about frequencies in a language (what letters come after an apostrophe? what phrases look familiar based on the numbers of spaces? see any common prefixes/suffixes?).
here, you’re looking for a quote on when love shouldn’t be trusted (click on it for a printable copy). each number below the space represents a specific letter. as you begin to figure out the number-letter combos, track it in the chart above and use it as a guide for solving the rest of the puzzle. to help you get started, i’ll give you some clues on the person who said the quote (listed after the hyphen in the puzzle):
– celebrated 85th birthday last week
– name inspired from time spent as a calypso dancer/singer
– awarded the presidential medal of freedom in 2011
write the answer in the comments. also, share your thoughts on the statement (does it ring true to you?)
[Design student Pei-Ying] Lin solicited the list of “unspeakable” words from colleagues at London’s Royal College of Art, and found that their definitions in English usually came down to something like, “it is a kind of (emotion A), close to (emotion B), and somehow between (emotion C) and (emotion D).”
Next, to visualize the relationship between the foreign emotion-words and English ones, Lin used a linguistics model to map out five basic emotions (large yellow circles), along with several descriptive words related to each (smaller green circles). Finally, she used her sources’ descriptions to place the new/foreign words on the English map.
click on the map above for a closer look or go here for the fancier version. in the meantime, here are a few examples:
Forelsket (Norwegian): The euphoria you experience when you are first falling in love
Gezellifheid (Dutch): Comfort and coziness of being at home, with friends, with loved ones, or general togetherness
Saudade (Portuguese): A somewhat melancholic feeling of incompleteness. Longing for something that might never return. Yearning.
Tocka (Russian): Great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. Ache of soul, a longing with nothing to long for
Viitsima (Estonian): The feeling of slight laziness, can’t be bothered by anything. Don’t want to work nor go anywhere.