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"Speak, that I may see thee."

Posted Thursday, June 24, 2010, at 11:24 AM

"Language most shows a man; speak, that I may see thee." Ben Jonson

Before Johannes Gutenberg invented a printing press with movable type around the year 1440, books were largely produced one at a time, copied by hand.

The concept of owning a book was a foreign one to the average person, since most could not read. Books were the province of the wealthy, educated classes. And, since books were often produced by members of religious orders, they were written in Latin, making them even more inaccessible to the masses.

Gutenberg's revolutionary adaptation of a wine press from smashing grapes to transferring letters to paper changed the world in dramatic ways, particularly in regard to language.

A publisher who wanted to sell books had to use a language that was understood by most of the people in his demographic area, which led to the decline of Latin and the rise of national languages. This, in turn, led to the regularization of spelling and syntax, again for the purpose of making the printed word accessible to the highest number of readers.

And so it's possible to imagine a conversation something like this between Hans, the German editor of Wolf Press, and Franz, the Ernest Hemingway of medieval Salzburg:

Franz: "Say, Hans, I looked at the latest galleys of 'The Sun Does Not Rise' and noticed some errors."

Hans: "Errors? You think I have errors? Impossible -- my proofreaders are the best available!"

Franz: "Well, just look at this word on pages 29, 72, 184 and 226. What is g-a-u-x?"

Hans: "What do you mean, what is it? It's gaux, that's what it is! Can't you read?"

Franz: "Of course, I can read! I was educated at Heidelberg University, I'm your most popular writer and I know my German -- and g-a-u-x does not spell go! That word you're using spells gawks -- look at the x on the end of it! You're trying to change the entire meaning of my work!"

Laugh if you wish, but conversations like this must have happened, as writers and readers worked out the quirks of language and dialect and eventually came to some kind of agreement about how best to express their thoughts and ideas.

Nearly 600 years later, now "blessed" with spell-checking software and easily available online dictionaries, not to mention the thousands of books (and blogs) on the subject of writing, we still don't quite have things figured out.

It wasn't very many years ago that it was unusual to come across obvious spelling or grammatical errors in printed material. One of my favorites is a restaurant menu that listed "boneless beast of chicken on a bed or rice."

These errors are typographical. They are not the result of lapses in education or understanding -- whoever was responsible for typing the menu didn't notice the errors and neither did the person who did the proofreading.

But I've noticed in recent years that most of the books I read have at least a couple of spelling mistakes -- the kinds of mistakes that can't be passed off as typos. It's very clear that the people responsible for proofreading are just blowing through spellcheck accepting the first option as the correct one.

How else do we explain the improper use of the words to, too and two? The confusion between your and you're? The absolute failure of so many writers to distinguish between there, their and they're?

Part of the problem it is what one of my high school teachers referred to as being "lip-lazy." It's very difficult, she often said, to spell a word when you are not pronouncing it correctly. This is a common problem in the Midwest, where the words merry, marry and Mary are pronounced exactly the same way -- all of them sound like merry. Midwesterners also have a similar problem with then and than - they are pronounced, at least in this part of the country, as if they were spelled the same.

Lip-laziness, however, doesn't entirely explain our spelling problem. Can we blame it on the decline of reading?

We can try. In my opinion, people who read are better spellers. A reader who sees on the printed page that there are three ways to spell the word we hear as merry is probably more likely to spell it correctly in the proper context.

Maybe. But I have another theory.

I think it's the rise of e-mail, and especially its devil-sister, texting, that is ruining our ability to communicate.

Before e-mail, every office had a secretary who was responsible for producing documents intended to be read by others -- quaintly referred to then as "letters" or "memos." A secretary with good spelling and grammar skills was more precious than gold. For managers, supervisors and other document-producers who couldn't spell their way out of j-a-i-l, the secretary was excellent cover. And mostly, secretaries were women.

My attorney-sister, who taught legal writing at Seton Hall University for a number of years, summed up today's problem with communications very neatly for her students:

"Those of you who think you don't need to spell correctly and use good grammar in your legal writing because the secretary or the paralegal is going to catch your mistakes, look around you. Notice the number of women who are here in class with you. These are the ones who used to be secretaries. You're on your own now."

Truer words were never spoken. With the decline of secretarial "guardians at the gate," corporate e-mail has become a morass of poorly written garbage. Technical instructions are a joke -- if you've had the joy of "some assembly required," you know what I'm talking about. And social communications are becoming more and more difficult to comprehend.

Once again, the imaginary conversation with Franz and Hans is taking place, but it's now in the form of tweeting, texting and e-mail. Only this time, we're apparently more interested in the technology of how we communicate than in the substance of what we communicate.

Not exactly progress, is it?

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Here is a quote from Carl Hiassen, novelist and columnist for The Miami Herald, that appears in the lates issue of Smithsonian. He is commenting on the level of political discourse, which, he feels, will only get nastier:

"There's so much garbage being disguised as fact and so many gasbags posing as sages; somebody has to cut through the crap. That's the job of reporters, and their job will be more important than at any time in history. There's been this great lamentation about the end of newspapers as we know them, the end of the era of the paper hitting your doorstep in the morning, but I don't think the language or the craft of writing is dying. In the next 40 years, there's going to be a larger demand than ever for people who can communicate with the written word, whatever format it takes. I don't think there's ever been a greater need for people to be able to write at a functional level, whether they're tapping on their computer keyboard or on their iPhone."

In other words, it's not just what you say, it's HOW you say it (or write it) that counts.

-- Posted by Kathy Fairchild on Sun, Jul 4, 2010, at 8:20 PM

Ahh, yes, SC - we have the equivalent up here with our friends in Dubuque, IA, saying "yous" as the plural of "you"! Like nails on a chalkboard!

-- Posted by koeller77 on Fri, Jul 2, 2010, at 9:17 PM

A note on the lip-laziness (particularly of Midwesterners) - one of my pet peeves is the tendency of people to pronounce the word "for" as "fur." Now, I am as guilty as the next person of this, but I try to be aware and correct my own speech, as well as my children.

But there is one person on Public Radio here in WI that does it CONSTANTLY! If we can't count on the people in the media to pronounce things correctly, how can we ever expect to spell them correctly?

-- Posted by koeller77 on Fri, Jul 2, 2010, at 11:45 AM

Smokin' -- Your tale reminds me of a quote:

"To hold students to higher standards than one holds oneself is to engage in tyranny."

--Trish Roberts-Miller

Trish was one of my favorite professors in grad school and I tend to agree with the her on this one.

-- Posted by Eric Crump on Fri, Jul 2, 2010, at 10:51 AM

When I was in 4th grade, any student who passed all the daily spelling tests for the week was allowed to go home 30 minutes early on Friday. The Friday test was a review of the previous four days. With one exception, I made the goal every week. In the one week I failed, I had misspelled "constitution" on the Friday test, but spelled it exactly as I had on Wednesday's test. No mercy from the teacher, who had missed the Wednesday error - she said I should have known it was wrong. I was not happy.

-- Posted by Kathy Fairchild on Thu, Jul 1, 2010, at 12:58 PM

I have a reputation as a good speller and people are always asking me to proof-read papers, and spell words for them. I'm always amazed when they ask me "Where did you learn to spell so well?"

It's because I'm a voracious reader, and I paid attention in school! We had spelling tests, and we didn't just have to get the words on paper and not worry about spelling, like when my brother and sister went through grade school (9 & 11 years after me, respectively). They used the dreaded "red pen" to mark our papers when spelling errors were made and I think I had to take my test on spelling the 50 states about 5 times before I could remember how to correctly spell "Illinois" (which was awkward since my mother lived there!) I didn't get a pass...I had to learn it!

-- Posted by koeller77 on Thu, Jul 1, 2010, at 8:25 AM

Every area of the country has its own interesting ways of pronouncing words. I first heard "warsh" in Nebraska. And I've heard "gums" said as "gooms" in northeast Iowa, where a "sink" sometimes comes out "zink."

Sometimes, the origin of the error isn't what it seems. For example, everyone I've ever met insists on saying, "Oh, New Joisey?" when I tell them where I was born. (And yes, by now it's VERY annoying). No one in my family says that, and I've never heard anyone in New Jersey say it. But it's often pronounced that way by people who were raised in the Bronx and Brooklyn. They also say "poil" for "pearl." What's especially interesting is that the same pronounciation is often heard in the deep South.

-- Posted by Kathy Fairchild on Thu, Jul 1, 2010, at 6:59 AM

Another word we midwesterners have problems with is wash. It is not warsh but we often say that.

-- Posted by Pidge on Wed, Jun 30, 2010, at 4:21 PM

Good column, Kathy. If people would compose their thoughts with the option of Spell Check and then paste into "comments" the thoughts might be more easily understood and taken more seriously by readers.

Loved the Ben Johson quote. Here is one from today's readings:

If a man have not acquired the habit of reading till he be old, he shall sooner in his old age learn to make shoes than learn the adequate use of a book.

The Claverings

-- Posted by upsedaisy on Mon, Jun 28, 2010, at 2:08 PM

My spelling is something to be desired, I don't have the opportunity to read as often as I would like, I read about 6 books a year. I prefer phone calls over texting and often my 15 year old niece irritates with all the texting she does, I'll ask her "don't you ever speak to anyone anymore?" she says "yea, I just text so & so yesterday" she thinks texting is speaking with someone. You see these movies that show odd futures for us but the truth of the matter...I don't think they are so far off, we've gotten so used to less and less human contact that eventually we won't have any at all, has anyone seen "Surogates" yet? Scary stuff! As Kathy mentioned facebook, tweeting, etc. but we also have online dating, which I heard is fun, but in 10-15 years people won't know how to walk up to someone and say "Hi, my name is John, would you like to see a movie sometime?" The human race is becoming more and more scary every day.

-- Posted by MBGAL on Mon, Jun 28, 2010, at 12:51 PM

Great piece KF. Im strglin to sta abrst uv all th chngs n wrtn tlk.

-- Posted by Oklahoma Reader on Sun, Jun 27, 2010, at 1:34 AM

Wow, Slater - that's pretty scary. Another illustration of technology getting in the way of actual learning. It's great that you can check your checking account balance online, but if you don't know how to figure out if it's the correct balance, what good is it?

Several months ago, I was transcribing an interview and wished out loud that I had a foot pedal to control the tape. The two much-younger reporters in the newsroom were not familiar with the Dictaphone. They pointed out that I don't need the foot pedal, because I could control the stop/start and so forth from the keyboard. While that's true, it requires me 1)to learn those keystrokes, and 2) recall them quickly, using valuable space on my "hard drive" in the process. The foot pedal was simple, effective, and easily learned. Technology most definitely did not improve that product.

Now, lest other readers think I'm a Luddite opposed to all new technology, that's not so. I'm as avid a user of facebook, email and cell phones as anyone else. I spent more than half of my previous career working in the field of computers, so I'm no stranger to what computers can do.

But I remain convinced that we are too dependent on them, and giving away a lot of knowledge we can't afford to lose.

-- Posted by Kathy Fairchild on Sat, Jun 26, 2010, at 1:13 PM

Cheetah, your psychology professor would be a welcome asset in any classroom setting, in my estimation.

KF, another contributor is that people are getting dumber, according to a recent study of two- and four-year college graduates. Their performance was measured on a series of moderately complex tasks, like balancing a checkbook and understanding a credit card agreement; 50% of the four-year graduates failed, and 75% of the two-year graduates failed.

If those results point to a trend, are we ever in trouble!

-- Posted by Slater on Sat, Jun 26, 2010, at 11:12 AM

And a hearty Amen to that, Cheetah! This is the key to all of it - do you wish to be seen as a person who cares about how he (or she) presents himself (or herself) ...or not? I'd say fewer and fewer of us care, or at least don't care enough.

-- Posted by Kathy Fairchild on Thu, Jun 24, 2010, at 3:02 PM

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Kathy Fairchild received a Bachelor of Arts degree in business administration in 1986 from Marycrest College, Davenport, Iowa. She is also a 2003 graduate of the paralegal program at New York University. She moved to Marshall in 2006, following a career of more than 30 years with the world's largest farm equipment manufacturer. She is an Air Force brat and grandmother of four.
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