Tuesday, August 26, 2014

I'll Give You Something to Misspell About!

A friend, this one an academic in the Pacific Northwest, posted the image below in his timeline today:
He commented: "I guess there's no spell check for headlines, but regardless, no newspaper should hire a journalist who spells based on oral perception of sound rather than on something he or she has read in a book."  How, I wonder, would you learn that about a prospective hire?  Would you ask them if they spell based on oral perception, etc.?

One of his other friends remarked that while researching a book, they'd learned that "most news organizations no longer bother to hire copy editors, and that writing staff are required to edit their own copy. So if you ever feel like you're seeing more typos in news print these days, you are."  The reason for this, of course, is the (perceived) necessity of cutting back staff in order to keep profits up.  It's not exactly news.  Typos and misspelling are the least of the problems such cost-cutting creates.

The next commenter after I pointed this out wrote:
It's our society. We no longer want to correct people because we'll hurt feelings and we have set the bar at mediocrity. I work for a school corporation and the poor grammar and misspelled words from teachers and clerical staff makes me crazy.
I could almost see the steam pouring from her ears.  But this is nonsense.  There are lots of people who want to correct other people, and love hurting their feelings.  For that matter, what she was saying has been said for centuries, so when was this wonderful time when we supposedly did "want to correct people"?

"Makes me crazy" was significant here, I think.  The person in question is what I call a punctuation/spelling/grammar obsessive, who takes every typographical error not just as a moral outrage but as a personal attack.  I'm such a person myself, but I try to resist the siren call of public tantrums over grammatical trivia, even if I don't always succeed. 

But even if these hissyfits were justified, relentless and merciless correction of students' or others' technical errors in writing is known not to be an effective way of teaching them to avoid those errors in future.  The high dudgeon of my friend and the other commenter are no doubt very satisfying to indulge, but it won't do a thing to teach someone not to spell "sputters" as "spudders."  I am sure my friend would never behave like that to his students.  He teaches a couple of foreign languages to undergraduates, so I'm sure his patience must be sorely tested -- that may be why he felt the need to vent over the newspaper headline -- every day in the classroom.  You don't refrain from screaming abuse at your students just to avoid "hurting their feelings," though that's a perfectly valid consideration in itself, but because you know that doing so won't help them learn what you want them to learn.

It happened that another friend, this one a retired kindergarten teacher from northern Indiana, had passed along the above meme a day or so earlier.   It's odd, though, because James Dobson (a well-known fundamentalist Christian psychologist and antigay bigot) is also a proponent of corporal punishment of children.   (But then, so was Dr. Spock, despite his reputation for "permissiveness.")  I learned this from a book I read some years ago, Spare the Child by Philip Greven (Knopf, 1990), which quoted Dobson and other Christian child-rearing experts on the subject at some length.
Despite the popularity of rods, other instruments can be used to inflict pain, depending on the preferences of parents (including "a shoe," "a handy belt," and even "a girdle"), supports the use of rods as the biblical method but also recommends using belts and switches rather than hands.  The chart that he [Dobson] includes in The Strong-Willed Child suggests a preference for the more flexible leather strap so commonly used by parents [75].
Dobson wrote in Dare to Discipline:
As long as tears represent a genuine release of emotion, they should be permitted to fall.  But crying quickly changes from inner sobbing to an exterior weapon.  It becomes a tool of protest to punish the enemy. ... I would require him to stop the protest crying, usually by offering him a little more of whatever caused the original tears [quoted by Greven, 78].
I had some differences with Greven, and it may be time for me to reread his book.  Some of my disagreement is summed up by his subtitle, The Religious Roots of Punishment and the Psychological Impact of Child Abuse.  As I've said before, as an atheist I don't believe that any human behavior has "religious roots," since religion was invented by human beings, and is used after-the-fact to justify what we want to do for other reasons.  And more recently, Alfie Kohn has shown in his book The Myth of the Spoiled Child (Da Capo, 2014) that the tendency to regard children as the enemy is widespread all over the spectrum of belief, including secular liberals and leftists.  (So, I've found, is PSG obsessiveness and rage at transgressors.)  But Greven's survey of fundamentalist Christian opinion on corporal punishment was eye-opening for me when I first read it.

One well-known reason why copy editors are needed is that everybody makes such errors, and writers know well that we can't spot them all ourselves.  Where eliminating typographical and other errors is considered important, as in print media, it's necessary to have someone other than the writer go over the copy.  Such a person may be a PSG obsessive -- I imagine we're over-represented in the profession -- but the job doesn't involve punishing the writer for making mistakes, nor the does the writer have to feel guilty or defensive for making them.  The capitalists responsible for the ever-increasing concentration of ownership of mass media may or may not care about PSG in the copy their newspapers and magazines print -- they're probably serenely unaware of the matter -- but their decisions to maintain profits will have the effect of increasing such errors, along with errors in content, which is more important.