Chapter 6: Trifles

Those who have the habit of correctness and precision can do things by design; those who don’t usually have to depend on luck. And when we fly in airplanes or undergo surgery or file our tax forms, we feel better if we can depend on something more than luck. It isn’t luck that rings the right phone in Honolulu–it’s simply correct dialing. (Getting a dial tone is luck.) We are a notably superstitious people, but we aren’t superstitious enough to believe that our keys fit our locks by a marvelous stroke of good fortune. Our world is more and more crowded with things that will work only if lots of people have been correct and precise. That they seem to work less often and less well is a sad fact directly related to the third-grade teacher who can’t spell. Here are some other people who can’t do things:

In May of 1978 the executive secretary of the Michigan Board of Pharmacy wrote, in a letter to a Michigan physician: “Costs of administration of the act is considered and controlled substances fees merit an increase because of administration costs.”

A Department of Transportation manual suggests that “If a guest becomes intoxicated,” you might “take his or her car keys and send them home in a taxi.”

George Washington University offers after-hours courses for the convenience of federal employees. Among its offerings you can find “Business and Proffessional Speaking,” and “Effective Writting.” The latter is a noncredit course, which is some consolation.

What do such small errors mean? What do we know when we see that a high-ranking government official cannot, invariably, make his verbs and subjects agree? Do you suppose that he is as tolerant of small errors in other matters as he would probably want us to be in this matter? Would he say of equivalent mistakes in his bank statement: “Well, a dollar here, a dollar there–it’s just a little mistake”?

And the instructor who is going to teach that course in Effective Writting–will he ignore, should he ignore, silly mistakes in spelling in his students’ papers? After all, English spelling is notoriously difficult. Should we recognize that “writting” is just a careless error, a slip of the finger, a minor and momentary lapse? Are mistakes of this order worthy of serious concern?


It is true that English is a difficult and complicated language. It is also true that, like any language in regular use, it’s always changing, perhaps very slowly, but changing. Nevertheless, in some way it is simple and permanent enough so that anyone who uses it can safely spend his whole life using singular verbs to go with singular subjects and plural verbs to go with plural subjects. That’s what English does, and some call it correct. Sometimes we don’t know whether a subject is singular or plural: Is the enemy retreating or are the enemy retreating? That’s one of the things that make English entertaining, but it’s not very important. There’s no question, however, about “costs,” and when the executive secretary of the Michigan Board of Pharmacy says that costs is considered, he is wrong. He has not been overcome by the awesome complexities of the English language, he has not failed to find the appropriate expression of a complicated idea, he has not violated the metaphoric consistency of his letter, he has simply made a mistake. It’s not much of a mistake; it’s something like the mistake a pharmacist might make when he gives you the wrong pills.

Of course, we take the pharmacist’s mistake more seriously, since it might result in sudden death or at least convulsions. But the executive secretary’s mistake is still an example of careless imprecision which, in this case, has simply not resulted in sudden death or convulsions. For the concerns of our society, though, the executive secretary’s mistake is more significant than the pharmacist’s. It suggests that a man in an important position, a functionary of government, is careless and thoughtless in doing his work and that he seems not to have learned the habit of precision and correctness.

Look again at what he has written: “Costs of administration of the act is considered and controlled substances fees merit an increase because of administration costs.” Even our third-grade teacher could probably point out that the poor fellow was confused because the word that precedes the verb is “act.” Nevertheless, it isn’t the act that’s being considered, it’s the costs, so we say that they are being considered. There, that’s not so hard, is it? So how could an executive secretary make a silly little mistake like that? He probably just wasn’t paying attention, that’s all, and his friends would surely say that just as though it were an excuse. But it isn’t an excuse; it is simply an explanation. If he wasn’t paying attention to what he had to say, to what was he paying attention? Isn’t it his job to pay attention to his job? Isn’t it part of his job to write letters to physicians who ask questions? Is this the only time he has failed to pay attention?

Difficult as English is in many ways, this is one way in which it is not difficult: It’s not only possible, it’s easy, to find the right verb to go with “costs.” An executive secretary who fails in this ought to be as unthinkable as a statistician who subtracts 6 from 9 and gets 2. If a statistician or your computer at the bank subtracted 6 from 9 and got 2, you would not feel mildly irritated and amused. You’d ask what the hell is going on here, and you’d become deeply suspicious, wondering what the hell else is going on here. If this work is incorrect in such a small and easy matter, it seems likely that it will contain mistakes in large matters, large mistakes for which we would never have looked if we hadn’t seen the small one.

When we look again at the executive secretary’s sentence, we see that the silly little mistake, as bad as it is, is only a tiny indicator of a much larger failure of precision. Even provided the correct verb, his sentence says that costs of administration are considered and that these fees have to go up because of costs of administration. Why does he say the same thing twice? Is it because he doesn’t have to pay for the paper or the typist’s time? Is it because he is still thinking about something else and doesn’t notice? Could it be because his case is weak and needs empty reiterations?

That unfortunate executive secretary has made a little mistake, a mistake much narrower than a church door, but ‘tis enough, ‘twill serve. Unfortunately, though, if you ask for him tomorrow, you won’t find him a grave man. You’ll just find him.

Not many years ago, it was a popular sport to collect and publish silly mistakes made by schoolchildren in their compositions. Many books of these so-called boners were printed for the delectation of grown-ups who laughed and chuckled. “Heh, heh, ain’t they cute.” Sometimes venturesome publishers went even further and printed collections of idiocies from the notes that schoolchildren brought from home. These were usually pathetic examples from barely literate people, but we chuckled and laughed some more. Now, like desperate drillers looking for new pockets of gas, we publish collections of the pomposities and malapropisms of politicians and bureaucrats. Again we chuckle and laugh. We don’t find them quite as cute as those cunning kids, but still we laugh. It makes us feel superior. And because we feel superior we forgive; and we’re willing to believe that a member of the city council, say, or a senator, shouldn’t be judged too harshly merely by the inanity of his words. We’ll still reelect him. After all, anybody can make a mistake. We make this mistake because it does not occur to us that there is no other way to judge the work of a mind except through its words, and we pay attention only long enough to be amused. In fact, however, those silly little mistakes always mean something important.

That line from the Department of Transportation means something. It’s funny, right? “If a guest becomes intoxicated . . . take his or her car keys and send them home in a taxi.” Heh, heh. We imagine the conversation: “Uh, listen, would you, uh, mind taking these keys to, uh, Four Seventy-one Laurel Street, driver?” “The keys? You want I should drive them keys to Laurel Street?” “Yeah, you see, well it. doesn’t matter, I mean, just take these keys . . .” “Look, Mac, it’s late. What is this? Some kinda gag or something?” Very funny.

It’s so funny that we don’t discern the failure of mind that has caused that silly mistake. It’s a miniature example showing how ideology numbs the brain and forbids precision. While we’re giggling at the car keys going home in the taxi, we forget all about that “his or her” business. The writer of this sentence was so worried about a possible charge of sexism that he lost the power of rational thought and speech. He had to say “his or her” because a simple “his” would have been one of those now unacceptable forms, and because we are now required to assert that women are also people and even that they are just as likely as men to get drunk. So there. Having implied all that, however, and most ungallantly, if you ask me, the writer had made himself a problem. Could he say “take his or her keys and send him or her home in a taxi”? He could not. First of all, it sounds lousy–let’s give him credit for recognizing that. Second, and maybe he didn’t recognize this, that would be a clever, satiric comment on the motive that inspired “his or her” in the first place. It would have made a silly form sound even sillier. So, what to do? Ah, of course. When in doubt about those personal adjectives and pronouns, pluralize! Plurals have no sex. It’s every person for theirselves!

So we get “send them home in a taxi” and we think it’s funny. It is, however, the sign of a failure to solve a problem. It’s not a very big problem, and the solver, or the should-be solver, is someone who is hired and paid by the taxpayers to solve just such problems, even should they be hard. What could have been in his mind? Could he have been worried that his boss would get a stiff note from Gloria Steinem insisting that the Department of Transportation take due note of the fact that women also get drunk? Could he or she have feared that his or her boss would call him or her on the carpet? Or could it have been simple ignorance?

This example is more portentous than the executive secretary’s verb. Like the third-grade teacher’s letter, this is an example of a corporate failure. Those car keys showed up in a published and widely circulated manual. You and I paid for it. We paid for the compiling, the writing, the rewriting, the editing, the proofreading, and everything else. How many people were involved in letting this silly mistake out into the world? Two things are possible. Not one of them noticed, or at least one of them noticed. If nobody noticed, we’re being served by a pack of careless ignoramuses. If somebody noticed, then at least one of them is not a careless ignoramus but some kind of cynical elitist, I guess, who says, What the hell, your ordinary citizen in the street doesn’t have enough brains to see the difference–let it stand. And, he, too, might also have been a little bit afraid of Gloria Steinem.

The third of these examples is surely the most trivial, but just as surely the most interesting. There they are, those thoughtful intellectuals, those bearers of the glowing lamp of learning down at George Washington University. Gladly they give their time and expertise to struggling federal file clerks hoping to rise in the world. It’s a good way to pick up an extra buck, too. And just look–undone by a typist! “Business and Proffessional Speaking.” “Effective Writting.” Great. Can’t you just see some silly twit, chewing gum, thinking about a new hairdo, casually typing some f’s and some t’s? Look behind her. See the silly twit who reads what she has typed and sends it out. And that poor sap who has to teach the course in “Effective Writting,” what’s he going to say at the first class meeting? You know what he’s going to say, don’t you, if, that is, he knows the difference and if any of his eager students know the difference. He’s going to be funny. “Heh, heh, well, I guess we can all see why we need to have a course like this, eh?”

Everyone knows that English spelling is difficult. People who speak English are always looking up words in dictionaries, a practice uncommon among speakers of most other modern languages. We actually have annual nationwide contests in which scrubbed children perform like well-trained seals and outdo one another in spelling nifty and almost utterly useless words from “abiogenetic” to “zymurgy.” We have devised elaborate rules in mnemonics, only to devise further mnemonics to deal with the exceptions and even the exceptions to the exceptions. Crackpots ranging from George Bernard Shaw to the man who opened the first All Nite Diner have undertaken to “fix” our broken spelling. So far, nothing has worked. The next logical step is simply to give up. Let her spell it “writting” even “ritting,” who cares? We all know what she means, don’t we?

But the question is not: Can we understand this typist? It is: How did this typist come to be, and what does this mean for us all? There are, it happens, some ways in which the spelling of English is perfectly regular and easy to learn. Any fool can see quickly enough that that double consonant in “knitting” is one of the few, grudging accommodations that written English makes to spoken English. One of the wonders of English is the way the written and the spoken (writen and spokken?) forms do disregard each other. Like distant cousins long alienated by a family feud, each goes its own way as though the other didn’t exist. It’s a rare treat to find them in agreement. But who does find them in agreement? People who speak English? No. Their agreement is not visible to people who speak English; it is visible, and often and regularly visible, only to people who read English. Making this distinction in written English is automatic to people who have done some reading. But to those for whom that double consonant business is nothing more than a statutory precept left over from the seventh grade, the distinction is not always available. For such, the distinction between “writing” and “writting” is a matter of luck. We may have to conclude that this unhappy typist is ill-educated and poorly read.

There is, however, another possibility. It may be that she is, in fact, an uncompromising ironist. Can it be that she was given a piece of paper from which to type this bit? Of course. And on that piece of paper, could someone else, the Dean of Extension Studies, say, have written “writting”? Perhaps she said to herself, between her teeth, “Aha. The stupid boob has done it again. Good. Let him eat it.” An engaging fantasy, but deans, of course, don’t make mistakes in spelling. The girl will have to take the rap. She’ll have to take the rap for “proffessional” too. After all, deans are professional. If there’s one word they know how to spell, that’s probably it, even though “professional” isn’t quite as easy to do as “writing.”

Those of us who know how to spell “professional”–how did we learn? It wasn’t hard. Most of us just had occasion to look at the word often enough as we read. But there’s some logic in this spelling, too. Any thoughtful mind can figure out that profession, like confession, is some kind of fession, whatever that may be. And a thoughtful mind notices, too, that pro and con are familiar, we can even find them in company if we can think a minute and come up with “provoke” and “convoke.” We don’t even have to know how to voke to see elements making structures in some logical fashion. So in “professional” pro is added to fessional. Easy. You don’t have to know any Latin, you don’t even have to know that there is such a thing as Latin, to figure out how to spell “professional.” All you need is a working mind and the ability to see likenesses and a little store of examples. Well, not quite. You also need to have looked at the word enough times so that something will seem wrong when you see “proffessional.” That’s the hard part, because it needs the habit of reading.

So how much does it matter? These fry are all very small. And if they can’t read or write much, who cares? So some people make mistakes. Well, try not to think about them for a while. Think instead about the president of the University of Arizona, a big fry, who writes as follows in the magazine sent out to alumni:

As has been the case for the past several years, the most notable accomplishment of the University during 1976-77 was the strides took toward recruiting distinguished faculty members. Never before have so many outstanding scholars, teachers, and researchers joined our institution. These men and women are the very lifeblood of the University. They will hasten the time the university reaches its goal of true excellence.

If some of those outstanding scholars read the alumni magazine, they may want to hasten something else, but their chagrin will be small compared with that of those faculty members who’ve been around for more than a year. They’ve just been excluded from the lifeblood, the very lifeblood. Strangely enough, though, even the new faculty, the very lifeblooders, are given only second place because the “most notable accomplishment” is not, in fact, their additions to the rolls, but the “strides took toward recruiting” them.

What a pity. That little paragraph is full, of padding and clichés, but that’s what we expect from presidents of all kinds. Their appearances, after all, are mostly ceremonial, and they are expected to mouth empty and generally comforting formulae. The president’s message is like the interminable benediction of the with-it young clergyman, emanating Brut, who has been invited for the first time to the monthly dinner meeting of the Kiwanis. Who listens? We expect clichés. We expect compounded clichés in which mere lifeblood is barely thicker than the punch; it has to be very lifeblood. Excellence? Just excellence? Certainly not. Down there in Arizona it’s true excellence or nothing. Faculty are always distinguished, scholars are always outstanding, accomplishments always notable, time always hastened, and strides always took.

Would you like to be the president of a large university? It’s fun. And, at least in some ways, it’s obviously no more difficult than being a third-grade teacher or even a typist. Maybe a university president does have to cultivate the good will of wealthy benefactors so that his life probably isn’t as interesting as a typist’s life; nevertheless, the standards of precision and correctness are the same for both. In both the typist and the president we expect and find the same kind of workmanship–a little bit shoddy. The typist and the president, just like the teacher and the executive secretary, and the people at the Department of Transportation, are products of a pretentious but shoddy education. It’s the pretensions that make it shoddy.

Our educators, panting after professionalism, are little interested in being known for a picayune concern with trifles like spelling and punctuation. They would much rather make the world a better place. They have tried on the gowns of philosophers, psychologists, and priests. That’s why, when they think of their “teaching goals,” they say those things in the questionnaire. They see themselves as guides to emotional development, instigators of creative capacities, and molders of moral character. When they must attend to the factual content of some subject, they prefer to say that they impart that “general insight into the knowledge of a discipline.” Niggling details, like spelling and punctuation, seem base by contrast with those noble goals. Our educators have established for us what may be a genuinely new kind of cultural institution–although it is something like the Austro-Hungarian Empire–that stubbornly avoids those undertakings in which it might succeed and passionately embraces those in which it must probably fail.

Chapter 7: The Columbus Gap