Bar Rooms

Biting Commentary

For Want of a Nail

By Richard B. Barger, ABC, APR

Originally Posted

For want of a nail, the shoe was lost;
For want of the shoe, the horse was lost;
For want of the horse, the general was lost;
For want of a general, the battle was lost;
For want of a battle, the kingdom was lost;
And all from the want of a horseshoe nail.

It all starts in elementary school.

Have you noticed how many teachers -- those well-educated folks who hold our
children's futures in their hands -- don't know the King's English?

My wife is a professor of education and was a public school teacher for many
years; I have done quite a bit of work for school districts. We have many
friends who are teachers.

Lovely. Teachers Are Lousy Communicators.

And I am astounded and annoyed and frustrated -- and a bit frightened -- that
so many of those role models are lousy communicators.

They use substandard grammar when they speak; their writing is embarrassing.
Misspellings -- these folks apparently have never heard of spell-checkers --
and poor grammar and incorrect usage and careless mistakes abound!

They send notes and letters and classroom newsletters home to parents -- and
to administrators, and Board of Education members, and the media (!) -- filled
with egregious errors.

It's Okay. I'm Really Better Than This.

I've done presentations on the issue and have expressed my concerns to quite
a few teachers. Their response? They're soooo busy, and, anyway, what's
really important is what's going on in the classroom.

Yeah, I buy this.

No one else is busy but teachers (who are notorious for their unwillingness
to take advice of ANY type from anyone but educators -- and then, only
reluctantly -- and who are really good at deciding exactly how hard they
are willing to work).

But what on earth do they imagine the recipients of those malformed
communications think of the quality of education going on in their classroom,
if the material the teacher sends out is riddled with errors? Would you want
YOUR kid in such a classroom?

If Al Gore or Tom Daschle stop suddenly, the NEA is going to ram 'em in
the backside. Do they have the remotest idea how strongly this indifference
to quality plays into the conservative agenda?

The sad thing is, these kids eventually become adults. And many college
professors either don't know, don't care, lack the self-confidence, or don't
want to take the time to mark bad usage.

So these undereducated kids become my colleagues and competitors. They
have the potential to become YOU.

Competitors Who Don't Know What the Hell They're Doing

On a personal level, if you apply for a job with me, or enter a competition I'm
judging, and you don't know what you're doing, you make my decision easy.
If you're my competitor, I'm mostly delighted.


Because in a more macro sense, I don't want the overall standing of the
profession to be any lower than it is right now. Clearly, marketing and
business communications and public relations would improve incrementally if
everyone actually knew a bit about usage and understood the difference
between its and it's. (Which, by the way, is posted in our Bar Tools section.
See The Words Guy.)

It's always dangerous to talk to communicators about writing or editing,
for most of them believe they are better than you are, and some of them
actually are.

Fortunately, I have a thick skin.

The saying is trite, but true: If you don't have time to do it right, when
will you have time to do it over?

It's no excuse that someone else will read your material and be in a position
to catch your mistakes. They may die. Anyway, you know Murphy's Law: If
technology or "the system" can find a way to screw up all this backstopping,
it certainly will.

Use the Damn Dictionary!

No, it's actually up to practitioners to take the seminar on "How to use a
dictionary," to have Bernstein's The Careful Writer and Bremner's Words
on Words
and the AP Stylebook or The Chicago Manual of Style and
The Gregg Reference Manual and, in particular, Bill Walsh's terrific book,
Lapsing Into a Comma, on the shelf right next to them, and to bookmark
several Internet pages of dictionaries and word usage guides.

And then to USE them!

You know, it wouldn't be that bad an idea if everyone in this line of work
thought enough of both themselves and their profession to try to raise their
personal standards a bit. And for quite a few -- you know who you are --
grammar and usage would be a good place to start.

For if we continue to do it badly -- if we accept the GIGO that's happening in
our school systems and oozing through society -- we'll BE that lost kingdom
that could have been saved by the prompt application of a nail.

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