Collie Creating
Codex Firestarter

What happened to basic writing skills?!

by Collie Collier
March 2005 Firestarter column

School's starting as I write this in late 2004, but I'm not sure you'd know... I was at a mall the other day, and noticed some of the advertising. In huge signs, in bright red text which couldn't be missed, the mall proclaimed repeatedly:

What Westfield do for you

It took a moment to register, the first time I saw one of the signs. Then I thought, oh, poor guys, they made a typo -- they meant to use 'does' instead of 'do.'

Unfortunately the apparent error was repeated across a variety of signs, to the extent I realized they'd deliberately made this ridiculous error.

It got me thinking. I remember a few years ago a teacher friend of mine exasperatedly mentioning the trouble she and other teachers were having with a particular advertising campaign -- you might remember it:

America spells cheese: K-R-A-F-T

The problem was the kids thought it was true -- that was actually how you spelled the word "cheese." They were, in effect, being taught a lie by a corporation so as to sell more product.

It's not just Kraft, though -- and at least they stopped that particular ad campaign. Remember the much-vaunted Apple ads about "Think different"? Those were always shown with pictures of brilliant and innovative people.

My thought was it was a good thing all the pictured folks were already deceased, because I couldn't imagine any of them would want to be associated with inane communication skills.

Unfortunately, using bad grammar or math to appear "hip" or clever appears to be quite pervasive, and spreading. I know of one company, Ariba, whose main product is called "Spend Management." Will they be stashing their money away in a "save account" perhaps? Or the SBC truck I saw the other day, which had proudly emblazoned down one side:

1 + 1 = 1

If that's their idea of basic math, I don't think I want them doing anything with any of my money. ;-)

Taking it to the masses

If this were a problem only in the corporate arena, I'd just snicker at them and not do business with those too idiotic to learn their native tongue properly.

Unfortunately, inept spelling appears to be something some adolescents or those of arrested emotional development seem to take pride in. I don't know why, but I do know I've seen several people either laugh off their illiteracy, asserting it didn't really matter any more -- or smugly announce that was just how they were.

How little they know. I've spoken to many, many folks over the years, and people who carelessly make spelling mistakes and foolishly assume their deliberately assumed stupidity doesn't matter any more, are laughed at. It does matter, especially if you want to be respected, or to have a good job in your field of expertise.

There's been a good (or should I say, appalling) example of this recently reported. As I write this in mid-October, a small flap has erupted concerning the misspellings in a piece of artwork in front of a library... in Livermore, CA. This isn't such a big deal -- mistakes do happen, after all -- until you hear what Maria Alquilar, the artist, has to say about her errors.

First, she adamantly maintains the mistakes are not her fault -- apparently it was someone else's responsibility to notice her $40,000 typos: "Even though I was on my hands and knees laying the installation out, I didn't see it."

I can understand this point regarding others helping out in this fashion, although this is the only point I can bring myself to concede. Beta tests are important, so as to get as many eyes as possible checking your work.

However, the whole point of beta testing is to correct mistakes. Considering her huffy, injured, self-righteous demeanor throughout this entire fiasco, I'm not sure she'd have listened to any constructive criticism anyway -- or whether she'd have shrilly insisted her artistic freedom was being censored.

Here's an example of the sort of thing I'm talking about: when she was asked if the city gave her the names or she picked them herself, she gave a nonsensical, evasive answer: "The art chose the words."

Yeah, right. It's a pity the art didn't suggest an encyclopedia as well.

Secondly, she insists her typos aren't mistakes. No, really -- they're just "inconsequential oversights." According to her, we're all just missing the point:

"The importance of this work is that it is supposed to unite people. They are denigrating my work and the purpose of this work. ... This work is a fantastic work. ... I wasn't concerned with the words, they were signposts [meant to stimulate an interest in learning].
"People that really love art, they wouldn't even have noticed it if they hadn't pointed it out. ... The people that are into humanities, and are into Blake's concept of enlightenment, they are not looking at the words. In their mind, the words register correctly."

So art-lovers are effectively illiterate? I don't buy it. Her grammatically challenged explanation of this piece of work is just as mind-boggling as her beliefs about art and enlightenment:

"The words and the quotes along with the esthetics of the work is designed to engage the viewer at the basic esthetic level to the intellectual and spiritual levels if the viewer takes advantage of the vast wealth of material that the library has to offer."

Personally, I'm both repulsed and amused by her apparent assertion that in order to love art you have to be uneducated or ignorant. We're not talking a typo like Nietzsche or Goethe, either, which I could certainly understand -- I went and looked both those up to be sure myself.

No, we're talking everyday basics like Einstein, Michelangelo, Shakespeare -- along with eight other names. I know it's a cheap shot, but I do wish Alquilar herself had taken "advantage of the vast wealth of material that the library has to offer."

Thirdly, Alquilar was apparently so offended by not being praised for her mistake-ridden work that she initially refused to return (for another $6000 and travel expenses) to correct her mistakes -- until the library issued an apology.

No, really, stop laughing -- I'm serious! Here's the quote from the Miami Herald article:

She's not about to fly to California until the museum issues an apology. "Quite frankly, I'm really upset about this," Alquilar said. "Nobody at the library has said what a great work it is."

An apology for what? For expecting her to behave like a professional? Sadly, this artist is apparently a former schoolteacher. I don't know what she could possibly have taught, though. Finger-painting, perhaps?

The final straw, at least for me, is her current refusal to return to the library and fix her mistakes because... wait for it... she feels people are being mean to her. To whit, after receiving what she refers to as "vile hate mail," Alquilar e-mailed the AP the following:

"No, I will not return to Livermore for any reason. There seems to be so much hatred within certain people. They continuously look for a scapegoat. I guess I am the sacrificial goat."

Excuse me?! If I make a mistake in my professional work, I expect to have to fix it. I don't try to claim only unenlightened people would notice my mistakes, nor would I whine about "goathood" or being unappreciated, when folks noticed my blunder. I might even thank whomever politely pointed the error out to me, so I could fix it rather than sniveling about how it's really all someone else's fault.

Functional illiterates pretending they're artists give real, professional artists a bad name. Believe me, I know -- there are far too many sloppy coders and con-men in my own field of web development, as well.

The laughable claim that spelling is only for the "unenlightened"; an inexcusable lack of personal social skills; and shoddy, atrocious work mislabeled as "artistic freedom" -- all these are disgraceful reminders of how moronic this field has become, and are deeply embarrassing to true artists.

I personally know two responsible, thoughtful, careful professional artists, both of whom are appalled at the ignorant pretensions of deliberately fatuous, whiney artist wanna-be's. Unfortunately I also know an awful lot of bleating, unimaginative, self-indulgent social parasites masquerading as "art professionals."

Lest I seem too harsh on artists in particular, let me point out a case where an artist showed some real professionalism, and actually "got it." Check out this from Scott Kurtz' news archive, and search for the phrase "pot calling kettle...come in kettle" If the name sounds familiar, he's the guy who draws the PvP web comic. He's right, too, when he says:

You know that feeling, don't you? When you realize you've been acting like an idiot, and it took you longer than the rest of the world to realize it?

Putting it into perspective

I know there are folks who struggle with the language, and I understand that -- I had similar issues when I learned a second language years ago. I'm not referring to those people who are having trouble with spelling, as they do their best to learn the language properly.

The people I pity are the thoughtless ones who don't even try to apply basic standards of professionalism to their writing. From articles I've read, some experts speculate writing skills in the society have always been this pathetic -- it's just more visible now, due to the often-text-only form of Internet communication. Still, considering how easy it is now to check the spelling of words on computers, refusing to do so demonstrates willful carelessness.

This becomes even more of an issue as more and more relationships are conducted solely on-line. Most people wouldn't wear ripped, filthy, stinking clothing, and lurch about in an unwashed, drunken, incoherently mumbling stupor, because they know people will think ill of them and avoid them.

That being the case, why on earth would anyone want to do the written equivalent? Writing plagued with rampant typos, unfinished or run-on sentences, improper paragraph use, a lack of logical or coherent thought, capital letters and apostrophes scattered without rhyme nor reason... it only teaches others that you're not important or intelligent enough to bother trying to communicate with you.

I read a recent Register article about this issue in business, in fact, titled "Sloppy emailing is bad for business" (click here if the link is dead). Here are some interesting comments from the article:

[S]even unforgivable sins of emailing: ignoring the email, send-to-all, tactlessness, sloppiness, lying about getting an email, waffling and assuming that once sent, an email has been read. ... Sloppiness [in e-mail] was even less popular, with 81 per cent of respondents reporting that badly spelled, or badly punctuated emails reflected badly on the sender.

[Psychologist Dr Peter Collett] argues that people base their opinions of each other on tiny, often irrelevant seeming pieces of information. Once a certain impression is formed, it is hard to change.

"If you use sloppy grammar, inappropriate tone or, most importantly, fail to reply, you risk damaging relationships extremely quickly -- on many occasions without even realizing you're doing so," he said.

Apparently there truly are people who really don't care how horribly they are presenting themselves. Indeed, there are even those who seem to feel proper grammar and spelling is pretentious! They forget, I think, that the 'how' of your writing sends a message as strongly as what you wear in face-to-face meetings.

Have these people no pride in their work; do they not realize how moronic they appear? I surmise, alas, this is the category Maria Alquilar falls into. I don't get it, though... why would anyone aspire to being considered a brainless incompetent?

So as to not be utterly a curmudgeon, I close with a quote by the wonderful Isaac Asimov, from his book My Favorite Writing. I find the quote inspiring, and I hope you do too.

Self-education is a continuing source of pleasure to me, for the more I know, the fuller my life is and the better I appreciate my own existence.

Well said, Isaac. You're an inspiring example of excellence in writing, living, and learning well -- thank you for a lifetime of clever and learned works. Like you, I hope to always be open to yet more self-education and self-improvement.

Reader comments

04.06.14: Kelly's thoughts

I was beginning to think I was the last person on earth with respect for the English language. Perhaps I should slip that article to the so-called editor of our company's newsletter. Unfortunately, he's so dense he wouldn't understand that he's one of the proudly illiterate. Good grief, he makes my blood boil!

Ah, breathe... breathe...

Sadly, our members are just as illiterate. As far as I know, there's never been a single complaint about his writing. It makes me sad. And my opinion of car dealers continues to plummet.

04.06.21: Lou's thoughts

(and my replies)

You fail to point out that the sign really reads:

What Westfield Do
    for you

... and that 'for you' is in much smaller print, which makes it even worse.

I didn't know about "America spells cheese K-R-A-F-T." What about "R-O-L-A-I-D-S spells relief"? =)

As to Apple's signs, did they have any authors up with "Think Different"?

Not that I know of.

One thing that you miss is the current trend towards extremely brief language, including the extreme shortening of words. This can be traced both to the 'l33t' crowd who really want to look smarter than they are, and more commonly, to text pagers where typing is difficult and it's more important to be brief than correct.

Many of these horrors include "ur" instead of "you are" or "you're," using numbers instead of letters, and other such bastardizations.

The problem seems to be that people then take these things off of their mobiles and put them in e-mail, where they have keyboards and typing is not too painful. There is apparently a whole generation of school kids growing up learning to write by paging each other, and they don't seem to care that none of their instructors can read their papers because they are using this contrived modern shorthand.

I had seen an article about this where a student had innocently handed in an entire paper written this way, which the teacher was not even able to recognize as English. Naturally I can't find it now because I can't manage to enter those phrases into the search engines.

I have actually seen this for longer than most, having been around low-bandwidth modems and such for a long time. It is just as irritating now as it was then, and horrifying now because the kids growing up don't seem to know or care that this is incorrect and incomprehensible.

It may actually be forming a real age gap barrier in that the written language between them could become so broken as to be unreadable. When my parents lamented that they just didn't understand kids today, they were speaking metaphorically... this may not be the case for much longer.

Another thing that makes me cringe is the idea that this will become so widely used that "ur" will get accepted in the dictionaries as part of the language. That is, after all, how English grows.It has evolved and changed a great deal, and this may be the next step. Let's chop off all those different case endings, and just use the words. It'd be so much easier! Let's spell completely phonetically and get rid of the extra letters. They don't fit on my mobile phone, anyway.

Horrifying. And all too possible.

02.27.05: Dave's thoughts

(and my replies)

I just had to send this little sample back to you. Mind you, I've done no editing to it, merely a straight copy-and-paste procedure. The following was a product review I found on the net this evening.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -








- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

I'm not very inclined to trust his assessment of the product. :-\

02.28.05: Cyn's thoughts

(and my replies)

Actually, I agree with just about everything in this article.

I tend to have an enlightened attitude towards the typographical error or mistyped word, considering that I'm not the world's most accurate typist. Still, there's a difference between making an honest error ("I think we should defiantly support Brockhurt's plan" or "There are many gaurds in the castle") and the sheer, utter stupidity of someone being paid vast sums of money to create artwork to foster literacy and then being defensive and arrogant when her own illiteracy is exposed.

Mispelling one name is within the realm of possibility, but eight?

I'm reminded of what I call the "Harmony phenomenon" (after a Buffy character who epitomized it): the tendency to respond to any negative feedback with rage masked as that least attractive manifestation of immaturity -- "attitude." When you make a mistake, display "attitude" and blame the person who pointed it out; if pressed, make wild accusations, invent ridiculous lies, and finally go whining to some authority figure (or the press) that you're being "harassed," "bullied," and "unappreciated."

It's not just that those people give artists (or any category they belong to) a bad name. They also make it impossible for those who are harassed, bullied, and unappreciated to have their concerns taken seriously.

Thank you! In case you didn't notice right away, you're the "Cyn" in the credits. I hope you didn't mind; if you'd rather I not publicly credit you, I'll remove your name on your request.

You have a very nice turn of phrase, and I like how you describe "attitude." Thank you again for the feedback -- I
adore thoughtful replies! ;)

That's absolutely fine -- thanks! ^_^

02.28.05: Joe's thoughts

(and my replies)

I Must go read firestarter..... thank you.

Thank you so much, Joe! As I note above, I love feedback, and I look forward to hearing what you have to say regarding my mental meanderings. Also, please feel free to join the Collie's Bestiary mailing list for updates, if you'd like. ;)

From a religious perspective, you might find the Firestarters from September 2004 ("Were Jesus and Mary Magdalene really married?") and October 2004 ("What is spirituality, as compared to religiosity?") of particular interest. Cheers!

06.27.05: Chandra's thoughts

(and my replies)

I've always tried to take a moderate attitude toward language change. History demonstrates that attempting to freeze the language as it is at a given point is only slightly less futile than attempting to hold back the tide. Indeed, there are certain kinds of changes which make the language richer, even though they may grate on the ears of those unused to them. I wish I could think of an example, but I have read more than one piece written some time ago which denounced some word or usage which I have been employing my entire life without any idea that it was once regarded as incorrect. These pieces usually take the form of "why did someone invent this poorly-constructed word X when they should have used the existing word Y?" It's intriguing to note that sometimes X and Y still share a meaning and other times they don't anymore -- it may just be a shift in connotation rather than definition, but either way there is a genuine reason to use one instead of the other, and the language has acquired a shade of meani

I think you got cut off here?

Hmm... I think it's not so much I want to freeze the language, as that I'd like people to use the language's grammar correctly? I can see how that could be seen as an attempt to freeze the language, though, true.

Regarding words & meaning, I'm also fascinated by words which used to mean something but lose that meaning due to cultural shift. Two examples off the top of my head: "hoist by your own petard," and the word "spinster."

Both are rather derogatory. One meant you got blown up by your own bomb (petard), and indicated someone who was too impatient for their own good, or didn't plan enough for contingencies. The other used to mean an unmarried woman, with the subcontext of being ugly, unwanted, or perhaps all used up.

I find that sort of thing fascinating, but then I love examining cultures. ;)

Considering the number of panics there have been over the centuries about young people being unable to use the language properly, I'm not sure that l33t is more than another tempest in a teapot, and I suspect that in twenty years we'll be wondering why we got so incensed about it. I don't like l33t, but jargon and cant have been used to separate insiders from outsiders for centuries and there's no reason for that to stop now. The abbreviations used in text messaging are related but not necessarily the same, and I can't disapprove of them too much. The goal is to cram meaning through a restricted channel: perfect English is not required to convey meaning, and if the compression level can be increased by abandoning it, then it's not surprising that people do. Whether this has any larger effect depends on who is doing the research: those who want to prove that the sky is falling find that it does affect language skills, while those who want to prove that it doesn't have an affect find that text-messaging users

This looks like you got cut off again too, darnit. :(

The problem I have with l33t is when meaning isn't clear. OTOH (eek, an abbreviation! ;), I'm familiar with scholastic jargon designed to snobbily exclude those who aren't part of the ivory tower, so I can't claim to be entirely free of this myself. Nevertheless, when someone gives me a blank look while I'm talking about scholastically related information, I do try to talk better english -- not sneer at them, which I've had l33t3rs do to me. ;-p

One thing which has an enormous effect on our use of language is peer pressure. Like attracts like. Online forums where most of the participants use good English attract new members who also use good English. Those who don't tend to shape up or be driven away, unless English isn't their native language in which case they are normally allowed substantial slack. In online forums where most of the participants use poor English, there is no pressure to shape up. Each of these groups is self-selected for their view of the world: those who think good English is important move in circles where it is important, and those who don't think good English is important move in circles where it isn't. They may not even know anybody who is capable of writing good English, and thus it is sad but not very surprising that from their point of view those who would insist on good language skills are a snobby and elitist minority.

Well, I intend to stick as best I can to clear, good English usage, and I'm happy to help or learn from those who would like to learn or teach better English... but that's just me. ;)