Saturday, January 30, 2010

The uses of subliteracy

I do carry on some about the defects of people’s education in writing. But I have support, as in this week’s New Yorker profile of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan:

Duncan often says “screwed” or “lied to” when he describes what American students face—low standards, chronically underperforming schools, inequities in spending and opportunity. He also repeats the claim, sometimes several times a day, that American schooling is stuck in old ruts while that of other nations has improved.

Amen, Brother Duncan.

But all the same, subliterate writing has its uses, as I was reminded by this message that came to my Gmail account this afternoon, purportedly from “Google Team”:

Gmail is built on the idea that email can be intuitive, efficient, and useful. And maybe even fun.

Now we are experience congestion and a very slow red, so we need you to verify your account by clicking the reply button and send your account domain below.
Google Team will be eliminating all unused/unwanted account causing red Congestion. Gmail is sorry for any inconveniency for all our regular Users. Send us your Domain Login below for verification.

Even without the fishy demand for account information — Google certainly knows what accounts are in Gmail — you would have to be thick as a plank not to recognize from the substandard English of the second and third paragraphs that this message is a fraud.

Tell me that it’s “just spelling.” Hmpf.

Saturday ruminations

Saturday, particularly a Saturday with snow starting to fall, offers a chance to catch up with miscellaneous items that accumulated over the week. Not that this post will be much read, because most of you are not goofing off at work by trolling the ’Net, and the headline isn’t one to draw a crowd, either.

When crashes blossom

The amiable Ben Zimmer of Visual Thesaurus has an article in Sunday’s “On Language” column in The New York Times about the headline term crash blossom, which has soared to popularity in the paragraph game over the past several months. A crash blossom is a headline that appears to lead in one direction but turns out to mean something else entirely. It results from the elliptical nature of headlines and the ambiguities endemic to English.

Mr. Zimmer observes that “English is especially prone to such ambiguities. Since English is weakly inflected (meaning that words are seldom explicitly modified to indicate their grammatical roles), many words can easily function as either noun or verb. And it just so happens that plural nouns and third-person-singular present-tense verbs are marked with the exact same suffix, ‘-s.’ In everyday spoken and written language, we can usually handle this sort of grammatical uncertainty because we have enough additional clues to make the right choices of interpretation. But headlines sweep away those little words — particularly articles, auxiliary verbs and forms of ‘to be’ — robbing the reader of crucial context.”

I supplied him with the classic Evening Sun headline from an article on home canning and preserving, “You can put pickles up yourself,” but, sadly, he lacked the space for it.

A better life of Johnson

Last August, I wrote about a disappointing biography of Samuel Johnson by Jeffrey Meyers — about which I will say no more, lest you be tempted to read it.

Since then, I have come across a much more satisfactory effort, David Nokes’s Samuel Johnson: A Life (Henry Holt, 419 pages, $32). After the largely unrelieved gloom of the Meyers book, it was refreshing to find Nokes saying, “Johnson’s sense of fun was eager and boisterous, often striving for a kind of rivalry with men younger than himself.”

There are many perceptive comments about Johnson: “The role of the ‘common man’ ... was one Johnson greatly affected; first, because, being poor, he was not much above them; second, because being angry, he could understand their resentment; and third because being human he reached out to their sufferings.”

His evaluation of the biographies written by Boswell and Mrs. Thrale is balanced and perceptive, and he sketches Johnson’s milieu without losing momentum in his account of the life. If you are at all interested in Johnson, you owe it to yourself to look into Mr. Nokes’s book.

I’ve ordered his life of Jonathan Swift and am waiting impatiently for it.

Suspicions confirmed

I may have mentioned that there are twenty-two suffering souls in my editing class this semester. I polled them on Thursday as I was carrying on about the superstitions people are taught about grammar. Nearly all of them had been told, or had been given to understand, that they should never use the passive voice. Nearly all had been told that it is sinful to end a sentence with a preposition. Nearly all of them had been instructed not to split infinitives. So, as usual, the first few weeks of the course go to the correction of nonsensical or inadequate instruction.

In the second half of the semester, when we shift from mechanical to analytical editing, I expect to find, as I have found in each of twenty-eight previous semesters, that they have little or no experience in examining the structure and organization of articles.

And these are students who have attended well-thought-of suburban public schools or whose parents have been at some expense to have them privately educated. The teaching of English and writing in this glorious Republic appears to be almost as defective as the teaching of mathematics, and increasingly looks analogous to our health care system: Much is expended for disappointing results.


If a reader should order the book from by clicking on this link, I will eventually receive a minuscule portion of the proceeds.