Friday, November 4, 2011

Taking Literacy Literally

(c) 1996 by the Colorado Daily, (c) 2011 by Laurie Kay Olson

I know I run a huge risk in writing a column on literacy because I’m bound to get mail saying that a comma was out of place, but I need to comment. Since Sunday was International Literacy Day (September 1996) I thought I’d chance it.

While most people think of the illiterate as being those who can’t read or write at all, a large number of people read and write so badly they have trouble communicating. Working at a newspaper, I get to see letters to the editor in their original condition. It’s scary.

My first lesson in the importance of precise language came from Frank Reno, former English teacher at Baseline Junior High. He told of his trip to a department store to buy a pair of sunglasses. The sign on the table read “All Sunglasses $4 – accept Foster Grants.” Being the savvy English teacher he was, he argued that the Foster Grants were also $4 since “accept” means to include. He walked away with a pair of expensive sunglasses for $4 while the clerk was quickly changing the sign to say “except.” Moral of this lesson: poor English can cost you.

As journalists, we survive and thrive via the written word and often laugh over the letters we receive. We spent one afternoon howling at a letter about computers empowering “death squids” in El Salvador. An image from a sci-fi flick flashed into our minds with giant tentacles waving as people ran screaming through the streets of San Salvador, while an evil scientist huddled over a computer sending encoded messages to the squids. The sincerity of this person’s letter was lost amid the laughter.

Another letter, written on the evils of driving, ended with a sentence about this man’s “mechanical satin.” I was baffled. A mechanical piece of fine fabric? After reading his letter several times I realized that he meant “mechanical Satan.” This is why I opposed teaching children that phonetic spelling is appropriate. It isn’t. Ever. (Uh-oh – sentence fragments!) There are “two” many homonyms in our language “four” this to be practical. Aside from limiting communication, it leads people to write us letter about “weather” affirmative action is necessary, “of coarse.”

Then there are the punctuation abusers. Some people can’t seem to decide where a sentence ought to end. They continue to string their thoughts together with colons, semi-colons, and commas until a single sentence will go on for half a page. I wonder if something happened to these people to make them afraid of periods. Just a tiny little dot at the end of a string of words apparently sends them into panic. Perhaps this same phenomenon is why some people can’t seem to employ an apostrophe to make a contraction or a possessive. I don’t know. Since I got over my fear of commas I just can’t relate anymore.

Dear Abby has the similar problems. She received a letter from a man complaining that magazines weren’t being very responsive to his short stories. He did it in a letter that was so poorly written that it was laughable. My advice to those starting out: Wanting to be a writer isn’t enough. You actually have to know how to write.

To be fair, we do receive clear, concise, well-written letters. Unfortunately, they are the exception. Why don’t you see the gaffs that I’ve mentioned here? We are kind and tidy things up as best we can without messing up the meaning. That is if we can find it.

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