The careful writer is an endangered species.
The evidence is all about us: at America’s best newspapers the economic bottom line now trumps journalistic values; bloggers pollute the Internet with unedited, stream-of-consciousness musings; e-mailers and text messengers practice a staccato disregard for spelling, grammar, and punctuation.
No one is immune.
Minneapolis Star Tribune, Oct.19
In her Oct. 15 broadside against bans on sports teams with Indian names, Katherine Kersten manages to both violate principles of sound argument and indirectly denigrate the deceased. As a columnist, she has every right to savage policies with which she disagrees. But in her typical ad hominid style of argument, Kersten gratuitously attacks a nationally respected young sociologist who is only tangentially connected to the story. She does so by mocking the titles of his books and articles, scholarly works that have nothing to do with her topic at hand.
We are all responsible for the consequences of our actions, even unintended ones. It was thus a supreme act of cosmic justice that her column appeared on the same day that the Star Tribune had a front-page obituary of Vernon Bellecourt, the man who initiated the nationwide campaign against Indian mascots.
Given her rigid mindset, she could probably never get her head around the idea that a Christian God had struck her such an ironic blow. OK, perhaps it was Karma? I look forward to a future Kersten column in which she laments the invasion of both South Asians immigrants and their alien religions of Hinduism and Buddhism.
MONTE BUTE, WOODBURY
At 7:30 a.m. on the day that my “Kersten rebuked” letter appeared, I received an e-mail from my university provost: “ad hominid?” Once the visceral flush of shame had passed, I rushed to check the editorial page. Sure enough, I had committed a malapropism.
Given the universal impulse to save face, I first gave thought to claiming intentionality–of course, Kersten’s simple-minded arguments really are ad hominid! Upon further reflection, I decided to be forthright. I contacted the Star Tribune editor so that he might as least correct the on-line version. I also asked why he had not caught and corrected my gaffe with “ad hominem.”
Actually, Monte, I did stop at it and was in the process of changing it when I thought, wait. Monte’s a smart guy. Maybe he knows something I don’t. So I did a quick search and found a couple of dozen uses of it. In hindsight, I should have checked further. But it’s one of those things: If it’s a writer I know and trust, I’m inclined to believe him, even if he’s using a term I’m not personally familiar with. I may not know every word that exists, but I sure as hell don’t know every word that DOESN’T exist.
Alas, you gave me more credit than I was due. Nevertheless, the error was mine, and mine alone. Given the probability that few read the letter, and even fewer recognized my mistake, why don’t I just let this embarrassing lapse lie? Even a parish priest needs confession. As a teacher, I profess that self-editing is the key to writing well. I counsel students that every composition, even an e-mail, deserves careful proofreading and at least a couple of drafts. I must fess up: I was in too much of a rush.
And particularly when using newly-minted prophylactics–spelling and grammar checkers, for instance–realize that these tools are neither infallible, nor do they absolve us of editorial culpability. A highlighted suggestion should not provoke an automatic click on the “change” box. Regrettably, I did not practice what I preach; when prompted, I mindlessly changed a word that I had originally spelled right. Too late, I learned that my computer’s abridged dictionary did not contain that word–and an absent word is a spell checker’s misspelled word.
How can we save this endangered species of careful writers? For my part, I will henceforth distribute this scarlet letter on the first day of every class. Perhaps then, this faux pas will be an edifying moment not just for me but for my students as well. Author, heal thyself.