Posts Tagged ‘writing’

Apparently, it’s no longer wrong to be wrong

February 28, 2011

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

Warning: Post contains (typo)graphic violence

May 12, 2010

Last Thursday, a near-panic on Wall Street dropped the Dow almost a thousand points in just a few minutes. It was later discovered the plunge might be attributable to a trader who meant to sell a million shares of stock but instead typed the word “billion.”

Then on Sunday, I published a post on this blog titled “Thre Magic Words.” Some 159 people viewed the defective headline, though probably only about half of those skimmed the article while roughly a quarter gave up after a few paragraphs and perhaps as many as three noticed that “thre” was misspelled.

Two events — one bringing the world to the brink of financial catastrophe and the other bothering the heck out of me till I corrected it about an hour later — with one thing in common: both involved that bane of written communications, the typo.

Typographical errors go back as far as written history itself. When cultures were passed from one generation to the next through the oral tradition, it was instead the “speak-o” that confounded perfectionists and resulted in some nasty misunderstandings, most notably the ritual sacrifice of humans when all the village elders actually wanted to burn was “cumin.” The advent of cave paintings and hieroglyphs and ultimately movable type allowed such mistakes to be recorded for centuries. (Today we can reprint or “update post” if necessary, but the Neanderthal had to blow up his whole cave if he drew a bear but meant to draw an antelope.)

I’ve been an aficionado of proper spelling my entire life. At Miami Norland Elementary School, I won the fifth-grade spelling bee, advancing to the school-wide finals against a taller, stronger and more athletic sixth-grader who “posterized” me when I stumbled on accrued while he monster-dunked inchoate to take the championship. My two best subjects throughout grade school were spelling and geography, and I was crestfallen to learn from the vocational counselor in high school that you couldn’t enter either subject as a career.

With my dreams dashed of opening a specialty boutique where customers could ask how to spell the capital of North Dakota, I instead went to college to study journalism. It was the early seventies and Florida State was gripped with the revolutionary zeal of the times. However, as much as we questioned the establishment and cultural mores and business-as-usual and why Mary Bess wouldn’t allow me to touch her chest, we never challenged the time-tested rules of written communication. Our manifestos demanding the resignation of the president and ROTC OFF CAMPUS NOW! were carefully edited and exquisitely punctuated.

Only once during my tenure as an editor of the school paper did we dare to question The Man (Noah Webster) on the subject of proper spelling, and that was at the prompting of The Woman. Amy Rogers was head of the local feminist coalition, and came to my office one day demanding that as good liberals we abandon the misogynistic term “woman” in our reporting of campus news.

“We repudiate the word, because it comes from the origin ‘womb-man,'” she told me. “We prefer ‘womyn’ instead, and strongly urge you to prefer it too.”

We convened an editorial meeting and debated for several hours the merits of the request. Ultimately, I moved that the proposal was stupid and got a slim majority (all the guys) to agree with me. Then we closed down the paper and had a sit-in, just for the fun of it.

After leaving college, I took numerous part-time jobs in the closest thing I could find to professional spelling, which was typesetting and proofreading. I was a fast and accurate typist, and to this day can churn out 100 words-per-minute with 98% accuracy (just ask “Typer-Shark”). What I didn’t get right while typing I would correct while checking my work. In 1980 I consolidated the part-time work into one full-time job in financial printing, where I continue to make my career today.

Though my first love is typing — as you can probably tell from this and many other examples of sentences in my posts that run on and on and on — where the company needed me most was in proofreading. That can be a difficult and stressful job, primarily because your entire reason for being is to find and point out the mistakes of others. After identifying the minute deficiencies of other people’s performance all day long, proofreaders typically go home to a lonely existence watching for mistakes in movie credits. Family members fled a long time ago, sick of having every move critiqued. (“Are you sure you meant to say you’re going to the bathroom, dear? Isn’t it really the toilet you intend to use?”).

We’re left to form our own little cult of petty purists, laughing amongst ourselves at how incompetent everyone else is with the language. Remember that time Sue typed an alteration as “bored of directors”? Or when Jackie misread “code of ethics” as “code of ethnics,” and when Bob wrote about the “Antirust Division” in the Justice Department instead of “Antitrust”? And who can ever forget the time we almost printed “annual report” as “anal retort”?

And since our company specializes in helping publically held corporations with their legally required public disclosure documents, it’s that little word “public” that becomes the most problematic of all. We’ve had to catch and fix everything from “pubic announcement” to “certified pubic auditors” to “pubic defender.”

For a long time, such a life was all very satisfying for me. Lately, however, it’s grown a little strained. Sure, we can be justly proud of our high quality standards, helping guarantee the accuracy of information that American shareholders use to help them make wise investment decisions (sort of). But all we’re really responsible for is converting files the client has supplied us and making sure our draft reads exactly like theirs, right or wrong. If we happen to notice that they’ve written “;likjio&%@nehw”, well maybe that’s just the British spelling.

When we split into opposing factions on the subject of which punctuation mark was proper to show a range of numbers, I knew we had gone too far. Those who favored the hyphen with no space on either side (the “Hyphenates”) were pitted against those who felt strongly that an en-dash surrounded by thin spaces (the “Dashers”) was proper. Armed clashes in the parking lot between the two forces were breaking out more frequently now, with at least two proofreaders already injured by sharpened pica sticks. Management has yet to broker a peace.

I think those who care about proper spelling and word usage are being overtaken by larger events anyway. Between emoticons and Twitterese and texting, I think we’ll soon see radical changes to the language in all its forms. Even financial documents, with their stiff, legalistic prose, will soon be created in a new way. For example, the “risk factors” section, which lists in detail potential reasons why a stock may not perform up to its potential, will soon read something like this: “The company operates in a sector in which significant price variations may subject revenue streams to extreme instability (OMG).” Or, “Our acquisition of XYZ Corporation may result in a dilution of our stock price and a reduced market capitalization :(“.

At least it’s pretty hard to typo a frowny face.

Comments from the readers

April 4, 2009

This weekend marks the six-month anniversary of my adventure in blogging. It was on September 1 last fall that I started an alpha version of this site on a rival service (rhymes with “blognot”). Early posts were primitive, sporadic and mostly involved indiscriminate rants about my work life. In mid-November, following a WordPress conference in Charlotte, I launched this blog, which has now been daily without fail since December 15.

I thought one fun way to honor the date would be to respond to some of the very generous comments made by my readers. As of yesterday afternoon, I’ve received over 300 comments on my 150 posts (6,444 total views, but who’s counting?). Here are a few of my favorites, with a brief response where appropriate:

This (post) is real, right?

Yes, it’s real, or at least as much as anything on the Internet can be real. Obviously, the “Fake News” installments are complete figments of my imagination. Much of the rest, though, is what I like call based on a true story. Otherwise, even my friends would sue me.

Wouldn’t it be fun to install some kind of stupidity sensor chip in our brain and have it root through everything we’ve ever said looking for the crassest, most cringe-worthy comments we’ve ever made?

Fun? Not the adjective I would choose. Definitely interesting, though.

Canada already has Manitoba.

Yes, that’s true. Thank you for that observation.

I don’t want to hear about (an orifice that won’t open). Do you understand?

Technically, you didn’t “hear” it from me, unless you have some kind of read-aloud software you use to read blogs. And if that’s the case, that’s really quite sad. But yes, I do understand, and it won’t happen again.

You damn blindy.

The politically correct term I was taught back in college is “blind-o” (as in “lame-o,” “deaf-o,” etc.).

You can’t administer eyedrops? That’s kind of like not being able to use a spoon or put on socks properly.

I’m intrigued by your examples. After I wash and dry my socks, I typically don’t take the time to sort and pair them properly. My dresser is right next to my bed, and on these cold mornings, the sock drawer is the first thing I reach for when the alarm goes off, so I’m not cold while walking about making coffee, feeding cats, vomiting, etc. And yes, because I do it in the dark, I sometimes make sock-donning errors. I consider it a good start to the day if they’re only mismatched styles rather than accidentally put on the wrong appendage. As for the spoon, I know very well how to use it, as well as the fork, the knife, the spork, the spife and my thungers (the two digits I had surgically fused to my thumb to make finger foods easier to handle).

Since I built a fish a while back, I’ve been creeped out.

I guess so.

Your photographs (of misty mountains, water lilies, etc.) were very good.

For those of you who didn’t get the joke last weekend, I stole those from the generic photo file in Microsoft Office. Don’t tell Bill Gates.

Wow – I almost had to pack a lunch for that one.

Your point is well taken. I realize that some of my posts tend to get a little wordy, but I’m from the old school where a proper essay was about a thousand words, so that’s the number I’m watching in the bottom left-hand corner of my screen. Not the right length for the Twitter generation, I guess, but I am trying to reduce the vast extent of some of my more extravagant pontifications. Sorta.

Have you checked for glandular fever? Epstein-Barr virus? Infectious mononucleosis?

Remind me never again to tell the online world that I’m not feeling well.

I thought you said the post was going to be short. If that is short, next time I will pack a lunch.

Again with the packed lunch? What is this, grade school?

Thank God for my Kegel exercises. My pelvic floor is in great shape.

I’ll take this as a compliment about the sophistication of my humor, but if it’s instead some kind of come-on line, I’ll have to tell you that I know all about Kegeling from our natural childbirth classes 18 years ago, and I don’t appreciate the implication. Or maybe I do.

What are you, some kind of idiot?

The once-accepted classification system for people with learning disabilities is fortunately no longer in use and is now considered offensive, you moron, imbecile, half-wit, numskull, dolt, dunce and/or fool.

Tomorrow, more from the readers.