Personal Essay

Why CAN’T Johnny (and Janie) Write… STILL?

By Scott Ross

The notion, idealistic if not indeed romantic, that education (or at least, access to it) implied literacy was snuffed out in me at 24. During my visit to a very ivy college in Vermont, and picking up a copy of the campus paper, I was appalled by the sub-literacy of the reporters. My subsequent (and brief) tenure as a student at Middlebury rammed home the realization that even being the wealthiest of scions, and graduates of elite Eastern prep schools, did not guarantee literacy. My Freshman Writing professor was even driven, late in the semester, to spend an entire class period going over what I considered the basic, fundamental grammatical elements of composition. Although I had been making freelance money as a published writer for some time, I was not rendered smug by this revelation, that the tony graduates of even tonier Establishment schools, enrolled at a more or less exclusive secondary institution, simply could not write their way out of the proverbial wet paper bag. Could not cobble together the most elemental components of a coherent, thoughtful sentence (let alone paragraph.) Could not write, as our British cousins say, for toffee.

I’m not referring here to writing which is trite, or insipid, in content. I mean the sheer inability by the writer to structure a basic phrase that reads with fluidity and sense. And what really disturbs me is that the careless habits of my own epoch seem to replicate, to expand, to become ever more jaw-droppingly insensate with each succeeding generation. Not only does there seem no immediate remedy, there seems no hope.

When listening to music at work I am subject to my PC’s Windows Media player. Since most of the discs I bring to the office from my personal collection are film soundtracks, I often have recourse to search the Microsoft “Find album information” application and, just as often, to enter the track listings myself. (Bear with me; I promise this digression has a point.) As I bring only the CD itself to work with me and not the jewel box and inserts, I am usually unable to reconstruct the titles without doing a Google search for the disc, often a specialty-house, limited edition recording. This morning, for instance, I was looking for the titles that make up Jerry Fielding’s score for the bad remake of The Big Sleep. One source listed them thus:

1. Main Title 3:29
2 Meet General Sternwood / Chasing Smut 2:49
3 Marlowe Tails Geiger / The Head Shot 4:27
4 Blood Stains / Owen Taylor / Follow That Van 3:04
5 First Mars, Then Brody / Brody’s Story 2:00
6 Brody Takes A Bullet / Where Is It / Tailing Marlowe 2:22
7 Shadow On The Wall 0:51
8 Late Night 0:45
9 The Man With The Gray Car / Here’s To The Truth, Harry 1:47
10 Agnes’ Story / Hunts Garage / Just Fix The Flats 2:27
11 Cuffs And Guns / The End Of Canino 3:12
12 The Good Guy Never Gets The Girl / Marlowe To Sternwood 0:53
13 The Truth 1:28
14 Blanks / The Last Of Rusty Regan 2:24
15 End Title

The results for Fielding’s The Nightcomers were even worse:

1 1M1 Main Title 2:45
2 1M2 The Smoking Frog 2:08
3 2M2 Bedtime At Blye House 3:03
4 3M1 New Clothes For Quint 0:36
5 3M2 The Children’s Hour 1:22
6 3M3 Pas De Deux 1:26
7 3M4A Like A Chicken On A Spit 0:57
8 4M1 All That Pain 0:59
9 5M1/6M1 Summer Rowing 2:04
10 6M2 Quint Has A Kite 1:01
11 6M3 Act Two Prelude: Myles In The Air 0:55
12 6M4 Upside Down Turtle 1:36
13 7M1 An Arrow For Mrs. Grose 0:32
14 7M2 Flora And Miss Jessel 1:12
15 7M4 Tea In The Tree 1:02
16 7M5 The Flower Bath 2:22
17 8M1 Pig Sty 1:38
18 9M1 Moving Day 0:55
19 9M2 The Big Swim 3:32
20 9M4/10M1 Through The Looking Glass 2:42
21 10M2 Burning Dolls 2:07
22 10M3/10M4 Exit Peter Quint, Enter The New Governess; Recapitulation And Postlude 2:01

Do you notice anything? If you don’t, I’m sorry to tell you that you, my dear, are part of the problem.

So is the WordPress spelling checker, which doesn’t notice the plethora of needless, and utterly mind-numbing, capitalizations of connective and modifying words that any reasonably well educated user of English understands implicitly are, even in a title, written in the lower case.  “Where Is It”: Aside from having no punctuation mark, the two upper case “I”s are unnecessary. Ditto the capital “O” in the “on” and “T” in the “the” of “Shadow On The Wall”… Both “with” and “the” in the first phrase and “to” and “the” in the second in “The Man With The Gray Car / Here’s To The Truth, Harry.” The “the” in “Just Fix The Flats.” The “and” and the “of” in “Cuffs And Guns / The End Of Canino”… and on and on and on throughout both sets of (or should I say “Both Sets Of”?) track listings. After scanning the first few such barbarisms the eye begins to glaze, the mind to becloud. Even song, or music cue, titles cannot be capitalized willy-nilly and without recourse to proper usage. Somewhere, I like to think, the shade of the very intelligent Jerry Fielding is shaking his head in disgust.

Never mind for the moment that, on the evidence of one’s emails and even a casual glance at social media commentary, spelling is at an all-time nadir and correct punctuation has gone the way of the dodo even in the so-called papers of record… particularly regarding the possessive; even the New York Times prints “CD’s” when what surely is meant is “CDs.” Unless the unspecified item in question belongs to Charles Dance, Cecil DeMille or (who knows?) Claude Dukenfield. For these and other careless, mindless errors I now see no remedy short of enforced mass re-education, compulsory brain-washing or, perhaps, cerebral surgery. But whence this weird, manic, almost obsessive, adherence to (if I may be permitted the use of a phrase most often seen in an economic context) over-capitalization? Is it total ignorance? Guess-work? Or worse, the complete conviction of the “writer” that he or she is on the side of the linguistic angels? Surely it didn’t come from the physical evidence around them; even the splashiest picture-storybooks for children usually get this right. Or at least, they did when I was a child.

Look: I am not the finest speller in the world. I routinely bottomed out of spelling bees in grammar school, and no innovation of modern technology has been of greater boon to me than SpellCheck. But if, as and when I am unsure of myself, I seek the answer. When I was in fourth grade, a representative of Funk & Wagnalls (infamous to us then as the slightly suggestive punchline of a wonky Dick Martin running-gag on Laugh-In) visited our class. This was during the Punic Age, when such sops to naked capitalism in the public schools raised no eyebrows (they should have) and were appallingly routine. In any case, and although I’ve long since divested myself of the physical talisman itself, I’ve never forgotten the little pin-back buttons the agent passed out. They read, “We never guess. We look it [not “It”] up.” F&W were appealing to us, not merely to get our parents exercised about investing in a set of encyclopedias; it was, however market-driven its reasons, inveigling us to check our sources. To be better than we were. The motto of my state (Esse quam vederi: “To be, rather than to seem”) builds, in a philosophical manner, on this. That of my eventual college, Hampshire, goes further: Non satis scirie. “To know is not enough.”

To think you know, and act on that misapprehension, is altogether too much, as well as too little. How much human misery might have been avoided else? Not that anyone but cranks such as myself are made miserable by poor (or non-existent) grammar. But if an error is indulged in long enough, it lodges in the popular lexicon, and becomes permanent. That’s One Hell Of A Horror For Me To Contemplate.

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Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

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