Friday, February 13, 2009

Defining Deviancy Down

People of a certain age will remember this phrase, coined by the late Senator and Ambassador to the U.N. Daniel Patrick Moynihan. The Senator was lamenting society resigning itself to a downward trend in moral values and intellectual rigor, accepting without undue protest what would have been unacceptable in days gone by. The trend has gotten much worse, much to my distress.
A news article from Kansas documents a standardized high school English exam with a glaring error that somehow got by a committee of thirty teachers, only to be caught by a student taking the exam; omission of greenhouse gases instead of emission. For years I have noticed errors of this sort in advertising and even in literature coming from government agencies and lawyers' offices intended for public consumption. Some of these do not alter the meaning of the sentence and can be dismissed as mere typos, but others, like the one cited above, do alter the meaning (a distinction to which I as a ba'al koreh am attuned). Most of these errors would be caught by a proofreader or copy editor, and no matter how good a writer you are your work should be proofread by a disinterested party before publication. When such an error escapes me and is caught by others I am embarrassed and I edit it where possible. But today many if not most people are not even bothered by such mistakes, never mind that they make for poor communication. I once saw a sentence-structure error on a poster put up by a government agency at a construction site. That error made it very difficult to discern the idea intended to be conveyed. The poster gave a telephone number to call with questions. I called the number to point out the error, but the person to whom I spoke sounded like she did not understand and gave the impression that English was not her native language.
Most of these gaffes slip through because computerized spell-checkers have replaced human copy editors. Computers okay a word as long as there is a word spelled that way; those programs for the most part do not catch context cues or homophones (e.g. to, too and two). There is still no substitute for an educated human brain. I hear that English majors need jobs; perhaps some of Obama's stimulus money should be used to hire copy editors.



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