Apparently, it’s no longer wrong to be wrong

Inerrancy can be a tremendous burden. Just ask the Bible.

For one thing, there’s the whole issue of consistency. In one place the Holy Scripture says “thou shall not kill” while in another it says “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” (though many Biblical scholars interpret that as a reference to the prophets’ vision and dental plan). Those who claim homosexuality is wrong cite a passage that decrees “a man shall not lie down with another man” even though only two chapters later it says “have a yabba dabba doo time/a dabba doo time/you’ll have a gay old time.”

Lord, where is thy continuity editor?

Then there’s the whole issue of what is truly right and what is truly wrong. Situational ethics aside, there’s really very little in our modern world that is 100%, unassailably correct. You can say that two plus two always equals four, but that’s only true in base ten. You might contend that gravity is an unyielding force of nature, but try telling that to Superman.

A greater acceptance of other cultures and the diversity they bring to our own is widely viewed as a positive step forward for modern society. So the enlightened man generally tries to withhold judgment about whether alien ideas and practices are appropriate. Returning to the gay lifestyle (just as an example, I’ll stress), we might believe that homosexuality is awkward, messy and often physically painful, but that doesn’t necessarily make it wrong.

Still, there has to be some level of moral absolutism in the world, or we lose our right to feel superior to animals, who have no qualms at all about walking around naked, licking themselves inappropriately, and picking catfights just because dinner is served a half-hour late. Surely Hitler was “wrong” to start a world war that resulted in the death of tens of millions of people. However, we have to ask, was he “wrong” as in “evil” or was he “wrong” as in “mistaken”? Had he survived to face justice at the Nuremburg trials, could he have made the defense that “oops, I didn’t mean to invade Poland; it was supposed to just be a vacation for the Wehrmacht”?

For much of my working life, I’ve been regarded as an arbiter of what is right and what is wrong. I work as a proofreader in the financial services industry. I spend most of my day examining the good-faith efforts of my fellow workers and telling them where they’ve made mistakes that need to be corrected. In fact, virtually a third of the staff in our 70-person operation is made up of others like me, whose entire raison d’etre for eight hours a day is to point out the faults of others.

If you take this role too seriously, as I’ve done for decades now, it can turn you into a bitter, judgmental misanthrope (at least, that’s my excuse). It can be hard to turn off your tendency to come to indisputable conclusions about the world around you after you’ve clocked out for the day. A dedicated proofreader will go home at night, happy and eager to point out all the flaws that exist in his family and friends, not to mention TV plotlines, his neighbor’s landscaping and the proper use of the serial comma in the note he received from his son’s teacher.

When I was younger, I took quite the hard line about enforcing the rules of written communication and typography. I still remember one particular incident that left me bitter for days afterward.

One of our clients was an outfit called “Mom ‘n Pop’s Country Ham”. Hard as it might be to believe that anything called “Mom ‘n Pop’s” is subject to regulations of the Securities and Exchange Commission, this shareholder-owned corporation was required to file a proxy statement. While proofreading this document, I pointed out that — technically — the single apostrophe which preceded the colloquial “n” should be accompanied by a similar apostrophe after the “n”.

“The apostrophe indicates that a letter is missing,” I told my supervisor. “And since both the ‘a’ and the ‘d’ are missing from the ‘and’, the proper spelling would be ‘n’, not ‘n.”

He said he’d point this out to the client. The next day, I got the following response:

“They’re spelling it like they want to spell it,” I was told. “It’s that way in their logo.”

“Well, that doesn’t make it right,” I countered. “Aren’t they concerned they’ll lose business from customers who won’t respect them and their product because they don’t know how to spell?”

“Their customers are people who like country ham,” the supervisor responded. “They’re not going to notice.”

I stewed for quite a while after this and only gradually got over my outrage. I considered for a time making the short drive to the company’s Claremont, N.C., headquarters to confront Chief Executive Officer Mom and Chairman of the Board Pop to convince them of the error of their ways. Even if they wouldn’t let me past security, I could still deface their building sign by spray-painting a “sic” next to the offending ‘n. But thinking it through further, I realized that’d give me little satisfaction, especially considering most would think I meant “sick” and was making a commentary on how the ham made you feel.

After this incident, a certain disillusionment set in and I began a slow slide into moral relativism. We saw a never-ending stream of errors supplied in the word processing files created by our clients, but the proofreaders were now under strict orders to simple query anything that looked wrong and let it go. I resisted this edict for a while, feeling compelled to at least mark the error and then “stet” it, so I’d at least be on record in the cause of right. It made me feel better, but no one else seemed to care.

Now, we find ourselves in an age where spelling, punctuation and grammar can be “creative”. English is a living language, we’re told, so Sarah Palin can make up words like “refudiate” and companies can name themselves things like “adidas” (no capital letter), BellSouth (no space between words) and “Yahoo” (exclamation point no longer needed since they’ve fallen so far behind competitors like Google). Even the small appliance repair shop down the street from me can call itself “Jerry’z Vacuums”.

Meanwhile, the Internet and wireless telecommunications push the boundary even farther. Texting has proven especially revolutionary in its remaking of the language. “U” means “you” and “R” means “are” and conventions like capitalization and punctuation are completely discarded. If you tell someone of the digital generation that their 😉 is incorrect because the semicolon should always go on the outside of the parentheses, they’ll simply smile and wink at your provincial ways.

It’s a tide of change that’s impossible to resist. I don’t want to be seen as an ancient grandpa clinging to his old-fashioned ways. I’m aging in so many other ways, I’d like to appear young and with-it in at least this one area I’m familiar with. So when one of my co-workers brings me pages to proofread that are of questionable quality, and they ask me how it looks, I have a fairly standard post-modern reply:

“There are patterns of black toner all over the surface of this bright white paper product,” I’ll say. “Some are shaped like what appear to be letters while others look like numbers. I think there’s a cohesive pattern to their arrangement, so I’m going to say it looks good to me.”

Madman, yes, but a surprisingly good speller

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One Response to “Apparently, it’s no longer wrong to be wrong”

  1. Stentorphone Says:

    One lousy dropped apostrophe so shattered your moral absolutist thinking that it began your decline into moral relativism? Surely, Davis, you’re made of sterner stuff.

    I find at least five completely mangled applications of the King’s English in professional publications a day before breakfast. It merely whets my appetite.

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