Tag Archives: literacy

Getting it Mostly Write

Writing for any audience is to live in a state of continual chagrin.

Over a long and fortunate career, I have written a lot: a natural condition for someone talking and writing about rhetoric. How many readers I’ve had remains a mystery, probably one that is better left unexplored. Even so, books, blogs, articles and reviews have kept me busy. I suspect it is equally true for folks who manage a staff partly through e-mail, write a lot of reports, or respond to customers or clients. With all the practice, we might expect that communicating our thoughts in print would get easier. But I find that it never does. There is almost always a shock that comes with rereading a “finished” piece that has gone through the pipeline and emerged as less than the crystalline version I envisioned. Imagine lining up a set of cringeworthy photos of yourself that were all taken at the wrong time, then being forced to look at them every day. Writing for any audience is to live in a state of continual chagrin.

For sure, we need editors. But my experience is that most miss the same awkward wording or silly errors as well. We all seem to be too busy or lazy to be the kinds of close readers that catch an errant thought or a grammatical train wreck. For these reasons a lot of writers probably experience the equivalent of buyer’s remorse: the sinking feeling that what looked so good at first glance no longer scans so well. This fear is why some of my colleagues find it a challenge to let a manuscript go.  Who knows how many studies of epochs or individuals languish because their authors want to keep improving them. Alas, I’m not burdened with this worry; haste is built into my DNA.

My theory is that all writers are still in training. We never fully master the components of literacy. Even the most polished pieces can still reveal the equivalent of a shirt tail that is hanging out. This illusive quest for perfection makes it all the more fun to read an author who seems to have polished every sentence to a fine shine. Such writing or speaking is a wonderful thing to experience. But for the rest of us, there’s nothing to do but soldier on, hoping that next time we will do a better job of sorting out our thinking before it is committed to pixels and pages.

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Some thoughts inevitably wander off course.  A person’s consciousness may have a clear fix on an idea, but the neural pathways that produce speech have to be able to deliver it.

A friend recently emailed a couple who had sold a property they owned in Florida after many attempts, noting that they must be glad to finally “be rid of their condom.”  I’m sure they eventually figured out what she meant. If all else fails, blame the autocorrect function on the computer. I similarly recall an errant explanation to students describing the risks to American troops stationed in Afghanistan and Iraq.  I noted that soldiers were constant targets for “exploding IUDs.”  It’s an example of a wrong turn on the highway to fluency that my colleagues won’t let me forget.

A malaprop is a near miss: the wrong word or phrase used in discourse that was striving for an idea that sounds similar.  When President Trump recently talked about the “oranges” of the Mueller investigation, we can figure out that he probably meant “origins.” It’s the same process that showed up in his press conference with the chairman of Apple, known to the rest of us as Tim Cook. The orange President repeatedly referred to him as “Tim Apple.”  Clearly, older minds are not as nimble as younger ones.

                  Norm Crosby

Malaprops were a source of a lot of American humor in the last century.  Performed routines featuring mangled English were often a staple of earlier radio and television comedy.  Think of Gracie Allen, Mel Blank or Norm Crosby. As Marjorie Gottlieb Wolfe recalls, audiences loved Crosby’s references to “human beans,” “trousers that need an altercation,” a sports idol who is “an insulation to young players,” and human bodies that can be “subject to so many melodies.”

Back then there was more laughing and less mocking. After all, like puns, malaprops that we notice require a degree of literacy; the fun is in recognizing the violated grammatical or lexical rules.

Mastering the burdens of language is a lifetime process. 

In recent years politicians have supplied all the miscues we need to keep us in grinning.  Without doubt, George W. Bush remains our single best source of a public figure whose thoughts have wandered into the wilderness.  He seemed to know what he wanted to say, but sometimes lacked the verbal skills to actually deliver it.

Of course the problem turns more serious when the speaker or writer is not aware that they have used the wrong words.  The joke is then on them, feeding the impression that they are perhaps not as swift as we might have thought.  Such is the power of literacy signifiers. Mastering the burdens of language is a lifetime process.