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13: Precision Worth Preserving

PRECISION worth preserving

it’s official policy: don’t teach too much. The children won’t be able to handle any real demands on their limited capacities. They will feel terrible about themselves when they fail, as they surely will. The only compassionate strategy is to keep them ignorant. Sounds like satire, doesn’t it? But many educators follow these insulting and condescending notions. (See ANALYSIS at end for why this happened.) The result is a spreading sloppiness, at all levels. College grads write notes such as this: “I hope your doing well.”

Here then a discussion of Things We Have to Teach Better Because They Embody Precision Worth Preserving:

1) Your and you’re may sound alike and look similar but they are quite different, one being a pronoun and the other a verb. “You’re a college grad but your grammar is infantile.”
The thing that dazes me is trying to imagine a person passing through SIXTEEN years of schooling without learning even the most basic stuff. Nobody corrected a paper? Nobody said, “Oh, by the way, keep a look-out for this tricky pair”? Which brings us to...
2) Who’s and whose. I was dumbfounded the first time I saw these two confused. Now I see it all the time. Think I’m exaggerating? The local paper, a really big paper, ran a lead editorial with this: “Despite nonsense from Nixon sycophants like Pat Buchanan--who’s criticism of Felt...” I had to laugh. These liberals want to tell us how to think, but they can’t write English.
Okay, I’m being a little harsh. But this mistake shows us a sick irony. The liberal media usually back the educational establishment even as that establishment does a bad job. Can’t the media see that a poorly educated public won’t read newspapers? They won’t be able to. Are the media now surprised when readers and revenues decline? I saw all this coming 20 years ago. I kept thinking, If the owners had good sense, they’d be kicking educators in the butt. Teach the kids to read, damn you! We need customers. And make sure they know the difference between who’s and whose. We need editors.
This mnemonic might help:
“A party? Who’s coming to whose house?”
3) Here’s something I often want to scream: INITIALS ARE NOT ACRONYMS! You see major publications, big shots all, and they can’t see this lovely difference and work to preserve it. Depressing.
ABC, CBS and NBC are examples of initials. That’s why you say them, A-B-C, C-B-S, and N-B-C.
On the other hand, NATO, CAD, SCUBA are acronyms. You don’t say the individual letters. The initials have merged into a brand new word. North Atlantic Treaty Organization probably went from four words to one acronym. I doubt anyone ever said N-A-T-O.
Some phrases lend themselves to becoming acronyms, such as Computer Assisted Design. Some phrases are deliberately constructed to work as acronyms--probably Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus was in that group. Some phrases stumble into being acronyms because somebody didn’t look closely enough. Probably United Parcel Service, having gone for UPS, was surprised when people started saying Ups. Maybe that’s why the company went nuts for brown.
Some groups of letters don’t lend themselves to being pronounced as words. We call them initials. NEA, FDA, FBI, USPO, DMV, PBS, PMS, CNN, TNT, DNA are initials.
Acronym is Greek, by the way. Nym means name; acro means first, top, at the tip. Thus, acronym is a name made from letters at the top, that is, a name made from initials. It’s a marvelous word and embodies a marvelous concept and history. Why isn’t it taught by about, say, the ninth grade? Why do editors making six figures at big-name publications not know this?
The chasm between initials and acronyms is obvious and huge. Let’s keep it that way.
4) Here’s a small subtle one but I think the world will run more smoothly if we keep these distinctions. Uninterested means you don’t care. Disinterested means something completely different; it means you don’t have a stake in this fight, that you won’t lose or gain money no matter how the situation turns out.
Judges, jurors, legislators and referees must be disinterested. You wouldn’t expect them to be uninterested, would you?

5) A few years back I scribbled down a rant titled DASH IT ALL, A HYPHEN IS NOT A DASH. Even highly-qualified art directors and typesetters will sometimes start a list like this-apples, oranges, etc. This-apples? What are they?
Rule: hyphens (-) are for hyphenating. They’re real short because you don’t want to lose the shape of the word. Dashes (--) are entirely different. They create a break. They announce to the eye--look out, something new coming up. Often, colons (:) and dashes will work equally well. Hyphens don’t, in the same situations, work at all.
Dashes are also used--as in this example--around parenthetical phrases. It looks really dumb to write: “Dashes are also used-as in this example-around parenthetical remarks.”
6) Another distinction even college grads are having trouble with is that between these little words: it’s, its.
Penelope Trunk, who writes the Brazen Careerist (you can find it on Google), penned some funny remarks on this problem a few years back: “Here’s a rule: Those who don’t know the difference between it’s and its should not be making more than $40,000 a year. Of course, were we to follow this rule to the letter, there wouldn’t be enough people left standing to staff American capitalism. But you can and should follow this rule in your marketing department. And by the way, the bar for $60K is knowing the difference between infer and imply.” (I found this quote in magazine, which now seems to be Business 2.0.)
It’s, by the way, is a verb, the contraction of it is. Contractions always have apostrophes. Compare don’t, can’t, won’t, you’re, isn’t. (Its, the possessive pronoun, is a less important word and doesn’t get to flaunt an apostrophe.)
Having trouble with this pair? It’s criminal that your school didn’t teach its students the basics!

7) Now, an almost funny one. “Let’s kiss Gertrude” is not the same as “Let’s kiss, Gertrude.” Personal names--i.e., somebody being spoken to--need commas that set them apart from the surrounding words.
“Bruce can you come here?” is just witless grammar. Naturally, witless editors across the country are rushing to embrace this typical sloppiness. Without the comma, clarity flies away. Confusion and ambiguity enter.
In the l980’s, Woody Allen tried to release a movie with this title: “What’s up Tiger Lily?” The film board, said, in effect, No way, you degenerate, it’s got to be “What’s up, Tiger Lily?”
Doesn’t everyone see instantly the difference and advantages of keeping the comma? Here's a great little illustration: “Let’s go nuts!” is quite another thing from “Let’s go, nuts!”
I’ve seen dozens of examples of this benighted grammar. Commas are kicked out, and meaning goes with them. “Must we keep getting worse educators?”
8) I don't have the heart to deal with they're/their/there except to say that if you're a teacher, you have to teach the differences. The idea that students will pick this stuff up by osmosis is criminal folly, of which more below...


ANALYSIS: It’s decades ago but I can remember as if it’s today: an article in Time magazine about two educators who argued that children don’t need to be taught grammar and such. Waste of time. They’d pick up everything they need simply by using the language and being part of a culture that uses the language.

I remember thinking, Could this be true??? Boy, was I naive. Now I know it’s as idiotic as saying that you can just listen to the radio and you’ll know how to play the guitar. Or we’ll learn to play basketball by watching the game on TV. No need for practice!

What I didn’t know then was that those educators probably knew they were lying. Probably they were being deliberately subversive. They wanted the leveling that results when everyone is semi-illiterate.

Here’s the tragedy. These experiments may be targeted at privileged culture--the goal being to kill it by not teaching it. But who receives most of the collateral damage? The weakest, most defenseless children, that’s who! The children from poorer homes where the parents are not likely to push very hard. Great, so the school steps in and pushes even less. It sounds like a joke but I really suspect many of this country’s top educators could be convicted for child abuse. They have to know their schemes will harm the children, but they keep right on scheming.

Please note that there is no necessary correlation between being a liberal and supporting so-called liberal education policies.

For hundreds of years the liberal dream (liberal as in Jeffersonian liberal) was that we have universal education leading to universal literacy. The basic idea is that children of the poor should have the same advantages as the children of the rich. I am totally a believer in this dream.

But an odd thing happened. Today’s liberal educators have drifted across to the dark side. They aid and abet education policies that actually lead to limited education and less than universal literacy. How?? Why?? You can be sure that the Communist governments of Russia and China never flirted with “progressive” or “modern” or “liberal” educational methods. No, they wanted to win against the West.

What happened here at mid-20th century (also see Article 6) was that lots of far-leftists got into education. They were unanimously anti-capitalist, anti-Western, and anti-American. They saw their work in education as a way to fight the good fight against capitalism and as part of the long march through the institutions. If children couldn’t read and didn’t know much, well, great! They’d grow up to be more passive and more easily lead toward revolution and the creation of a new society. Quintessentially, they wouldn't fight against the hegemony of a foreign power such as Russia.

But come on, people. That was then, this is a new day. Do even the old Commies want us to lose now? To whom?? China? Iran? North Korea? And invite what horrific future? What are you people thinking? All right, being blinded by ideology was quite the thing to do in 1930 or 1950 or l970. But now we need serious self-examination. Even with all its flaws, this country is still humanity’s best hope. I urge all educators to make their own private reckoning. Whose side are you on? Do you want this country to survive and prosper? Wouldn’t it be great if we had universal education and universal literacy. Are you doing everything you can do to make these dreams a reality?

"13: Precision Worth Preserving” grew out of notes kept over the past fifteen years.
Related articles are the ones about reading, for example,
"21: A Tribute to Rudolf Flesch,"
"30: The War Against Reading"
and "42: Reading Resources" (good place to start).
Each is trying to answer the question--why do we have 50,000,000 functional illiterates??

© Bruce Deitrick Price 2011

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