26 April 2016

Correctness

Human brains work in different ways. For instance, I have never been very good with numbers but I have always been good with words. I can never remember phone or PIN numbers but I know how to spell "liaison", "antidisestablishmentarianism" and "psychiatrist" without even a slight pause for thought.

My late mother often related the story that when I was three years old, I came downstairs one evening in my striped pyjamas and simply announced, "I want to know how to read mummy".  Instead of smacking my bottom and sending me back to bed, mum sat me on her knee with a children's book and taught me the rudiments of reading. And that was really the only lesson in reading that I ever had. Within a few days I was reading simple books on my own and only occasionally asking, "What does this word say?". It came so easily to me.

Consequently, it is probably little wonder that later on I  became an English teacher.

As an English teacher, I worked with thousands of children - helping them to advance their literacy skills and to find pleasure in words. Many of those children really struggled with the written word and sometimes my job seemed rather like stirring thick porridge. What had come so easily to me was like climbing Mount Everest to many of my pupils.
Nobody's prefect
Twenty years ago, I remember a child saying to me, "Sir, you talk like a book!" His classmates concurred. They suggested that if my spoken English was transcribed it would sound just like the written English they found in books. This was meant partly as a simple observation and partly as a compliment but it took me aback. I had never thought of myself that way and later I considered how my articulation might impact on others - both my pupils and the folk I met in everyday life. I guessed it might not always prove to be an endearing trait. Who wants to get pally with a human dictionary?

Meaning is what matters in writing but that meaning may be thwarted or hindered by faulty expression. The purpose of accuracy in spelling, punctuation and syntax is to facilitate communication. Correctness means that your reader doesn't have to work so hard. In my opinion, this has nothing to do with supercilious pedantry even though people who champion grammatical accuracy may often endure that sort of accusation. Perhaps a few of them deserve it as some lose sight of the fact that it is meaning that matters above all.

How many miles of red ink must I have left in children's exercise books and upon written assignments through the years? So many late nights and lost weekends. Enough red words and markings to encircle the globe. Every mark I ever made was intended to help them but occasionally some of these children mistakenly saw amendments to their work as personal sleights upon them. I have come across bloggers who react in the same way. Writing, intelligence and human worth are frequently entangled in people's minds though in my book it should never be that way. As I said at the beginning, human brains work in different ways.

Being a good writer certainly does not mean that you are a better human being. Even the most literate of us will make mistakes from time to time and besides the psychology of language acquisition is very complicated. The important thing is to strive for clarity and correctness whenever we write, knowing that this habit will greatly aid our readers. At least that's what I think. What about you?

23 comments:

  1. I love reading and don't mind writing but can't say I'm concerned about spelling or grammar. I rely on folk that are to correct my ramblings. I love numbers and wish I had a brain with the capacity to appreciate pure mathematics.
    It's just a matter of how one is wired up, can't see the point in worrying about something that becomes less relevant as time and technology make both grammar and mathematics far less important than they once were. Being multilingual is much more important than nit picking over an exclamation mark or a semi-colon. I scatter punctuation willy nilly often out of boredom. I never have grasped it.

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    1. I agree that the ability to speak another language is both admirable and useful. I know that you are pretty good in Spanish. However, I am a little distraught that you dismiss the quest for accurate expression as "nit picking". Clear, accurate English is something that is very dear to my heart and dismissing its importance is a little like slapping me in the face with a wet kipper. I assume that the books you read contain accurate English in which the rules of grammar, spelling and punctuation are correctly observed.

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    2. My English is to blame not the kipper, I appreciate well written language but it has always been beyond me to create it. I can understand writers as diverse as Henry Miller and Chaucer but could never replicate either.
      I speak, or used to, Spanish in several forms and French but have to write both in a style unique to me or a native two year old. I was never fluent and have lost count of the times that French and Spaniards collapsed in mirth at my attempts to communicate.
      I sometimes feel the same when I look at folk spending money on cameras and then not mastering simple editing software..I'm not proud of my linguistic incompetence, it's just something I don't worry about, image creation uses what mental capacity I have.

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  2. (Sorry, I made an error with the link in my first attempt!)

    As you may have gathered through my blog, I simply love languages in general, and English, German and Italian in particular (probably because those are the ones I know best - my French has become somewhat rusty with years of disuse).
    Like you, I strive to write without too many mistakes (typos do happen to the best of us), and I also see this as a sign of respect for my readers.
    Clarity and verity - sometimes one has to stand back a little bit to allow the other more prominence, but most of the time, they are the key goals I want to achieve with what I write, no matter whether it is a Data Protection Guideline for a customer, a blog entry or an email to my Mum.
    How I learned to read is quickly told: My sister started school 1 year before me. I was jealous of her being allowed to go to school and getting homework, so I begged her to play "school" with me every afternoon. She taught me reading without either of us realizing we were doing anything but play.
    I've never stopped reading since, and wrote a short blog post about it here in 2009.

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    1. We are like-minded Miss Ludwigsburg 1994! Verity is a very good word even though I am not in the habit of using it. I also note your phrase: "respect for my readers" - to which I bellow "Yes!" because that is a fundamental reason why we should strive for optimum correctness when we write.

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  3. Like you YP, I learned to read at an early age - before I went to school. Since then I think it's safe to say that I can rarely be found without my head in a book ! I must have been one of the few children who actually relished receiving a book token as a gift ! These days, I must confess that I don't bother too much about correctness, though in the past bad grammar drove me mad.
    Friends all tell me how much they enjoy my letters and emails, yet I'm not aware of anything other than telling it "like it is", as they say.
    However, I do very much enjoy reading your blog, because you do "speak" a language I can understand, and it's good to still see the English language used as it should be. You don't resort to swearing, as so many bloggers do these days - something I abhor - and so unnecessary.

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    1. In everyday life, I sometimes swear - usually when exasperated or occasionally to give emphasis to opinions. However, in blogging to the world I avoid swearing at all costs. As you say, it is very unnecessary. In addition, I know that refined ladies like yourself call by from time to time CG and that it would be most ungentlemanly to employ industrial language in your company.

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  4. Oooh, I think I might swoon... (bats eyes and waves fan furiously in front of face !)

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    1. Dawson! Dawson! Where is that fellow?... Oh there you are Dawson! Her ladyship has swooned. Be a good fellow and open the French windows. It is far too stuffy in this drawing room and madam possesses a sensitive constitution. A schooner of amontillado would also be appreciated. Now run along Dawson!

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    2. Oh thank goodness for someone who can keep the staff in order ! They're far too familiar these days, why only the other day the under, under, chamber maid had the temerity to actually look at me !

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  5. We're in the same ball park on this one. One difference...I used a green pen! With texting now, we're in more trouble than ever.

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    1. There was a time in my last school when they tried to force us to switch to green pens but I argued that some of the children wrote in a shade of blue ink that was quite close to green so our markings would not stand out. If we were going to spend all that private time marking then at least it should be noticed.

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  6. Well said and written, Yorkie.

    I'm very critical of myself if I make spelling, punctuation and grammar errors. When I make mistakes/typos I'm tougher on myself than anyone else could possibly be.

    I guess I'm from the "old school". I'm one of a dying breed - I believe all three are important.

    Is each generation becoming lazier and lazier in this regard? If I answer "Yes" I probably will be accused of "generalisation" - so be it.

    My late brother and I were raised in a humble home by two hard-working women who encouraged us to appreciate the written and spoken word. Books played an important role in our lives. We never needed urging to read. From an early age, reading became second nature to us. We were always gifted with books at Christmas and for our birthdays.

    As children, at home, we were taught not to drop the "g" off words endinG in "g". "Going" was the correct pronunciation, not "goin", "gunna" or "gonna"; and so on.

    We were, however, taught to "drop" our voices; to not speak through our nose; not to speak in a nasal, squeaky or high-pitched way.

    There is nothing quite as gentle upon the ear as a well-modulated tone. There is nothing quite as annoying to one's sensibilities than a voice that grates; one that's akin to the sound of fingernails scraping down a blackboard!

    English, followed closely by geography and history (in no particular order), was my favourite subject at school. Mathematics were a necessary chore. English, geography and history were necessary pleasures.

    I'm not perfect by far; I was never a prefect, either; but I could, and can still, spell both!

    (You might note I had to "Delete"....I discovered I'd made a typo in my response; and that, dear Watson, would not do!)

    O! Captain! My Captain!

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    1. Of course I had previously noticed how well you write Lee. Correctness is ingrained in you and this enhances the content of your writing - what you are saying.

      A verb that seems to have crept into English in England is "gift". I am not fond of it and I notice that you used it in your interesting and extended comment. I prefer "gift" to be used only as a noun. Normally the verb "to give" is preferable in my view.

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    2. Correction...."Each Christmas and birthday my brother and I were given books as gifts." :)

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    3. Or perhaps..."Ya know what, cobber? Every Xmas and birthdee, me bwuvver and me were given books! Fair dinkum, we were! Ya know! "

      That is another spelling I abhor..."Xmas". I never use it other than as an example...as I've done here.

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    4. Your first amendment pleased me greatly. I put the other translation into Google Translator and an alarm sounded. I thought my laptop was going to explode!

      Regarding "Xmas", I often and very deliberately use that word as I am both an atheist and someone who is fascinated by pre-Christian rituals and archaeology. The term Christmas was applied to a time of year when for millennia there had been pagan festivals with different names.

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  7. I like correct grammar and punctuation. In my opinion, they are as important as common sense and morals. As time passes, all of these are slowly (or maybe not so slowly) dwindling until so few of the population possess any of them, it's noticeable when someone actually speaks or writes with intelligence & education.

    On another note, I like to occasionally make up my own words. My newest is 'vulgascity'. Definition: to have the audacity to use vulgar language in my presence!

    Another great post, YP!

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    1. I would never be guilty of vulgascity in your presence Mistress as I am not a vulgacious fellow. A great word and I hope it catches on.

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  8. It is your opening sentence that I found worrying - and I know it is true there are many kids and adults who regard the English of books to be almost a different language to that of the spoken word - the latter is for communication but the former is somehow harder to understand, and therefore not worth the effort.

    The result is I know a depressing number of adults who rarely, or indeed never read books.

    I also worry that with the emphasis on schools' performance targets that kids are not being shown that reading is for pleasure and not an exam related goal.



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    1. I think you are right to worry about the impact of too much examination on future reading habits. The way in which English is examined in England from the age of seven to fourteeen is mechanistic so that even Shakespeare becomes some kind of puzzle to be solved.

      Reading should be joyful but I am afraid that schools have taken a lot of that joy away as they seek to climb the league tables.

      Thanks for calling by Tim.

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  9. My pension, too, results from a career where words were the tools of my trade. However, whilst the basic purpose of words is to communicate, there are many different reasons for those communications. Different reasons often require different skills. You are a man with ideas to communicate. Your role as a teacher was to inspire and enable others to communicate on their own behalf. My role was often to take other people's ideas or aspirations and ensure that they were expressed for the purpose for which they were intended. This rarely involved imagination but always involved accuracy (whether one was trying to be direct or deliberately obtuse). One of the consequences of this was that I became pedantic and words rarely flowed naturally from my pen: I had to think about them. I still have to think about them.

    I retired several decades ago from a job where being a wordsmith was important and now, despite almost daily crosswords, spelling readily escapes me and I am guilty of many lapses of grammatical accuracy.

    The pen may be mightier than the sword but both need to be wielded correctly to be effective.

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    1. Interesting response Graham. You may have needed a new knee but not a new brain - that's for sure.

      I have always been brilliant at spelling but that is just how my brain is wired. My brother Robin who now lives near the Pyrenees was always awful at spelling. However, show him an engine and he could address it like a top brain surgeon.

      Who really knows the intricate forces that conspire to make us who we are?

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Mr Pudding welcomes all genuine comments - even those with which he disagrees. However, puerile or abusive comments from anonymous contributors will continue to be given the short shrift they deserve. Any spam comments that get through Google/Blogger defences will also be quickly deleted.