Register Wednesday | June 26 | 2019

I Don't Feel Your Pain: A Grammarian Rant


More often than I want to admit (okay, almost daily; at least several times a week), I am reminded by some blatant spelling error or grammatical cock up emblazoned for all to see on a billboard or a poster or a website, that, yet again, someone needs to go through the futile exercise of trying to bring to the public’s attention the fact that this thing we call language is fragile, that it must not be taken for granted, and that all of us need to pay careful attention to how we communicate, especially when it comes to the written word.

I know of people, or, rather, I knew of people, who would catalogue egregious errors and mistakes, typos and such, in newspapers and magazines and advertisements. This was done primarily as a form of amusement, but I’m sure no one bothers anymore. It's no longer funny. Besides, how could anyone keep up? The overwhelming multitude of such blunders makes just keeping track of them pointless. They’re everywhere. It would be like bird watchers taking delight in sparrow sightings.

I believe it was Auden who said that the true responsibility of a poet was safeguarding the English language, but if we leave it only up to the poets, then, at least in Canada, we are in severe trouble. Surely protecting our language is a burden to be borne by people like newspaper editors, journalists and those who work in print advertising. I mean, it wasn’t that long ago that one would have assumed their livelihood depended on it. That is no longer the case. If major grammatical and typographical errors actually led to suspensions or firings, entire editorial staffs would now have to be let go.

Case in point is what I encountered in the current issue of Newsweek magazine. There on page five is a brief quotation, in bold type and set apart from any other text or article, from a new memoir by that pillar of integrity, Karl Rove. Referring to accusations that the Bush administration lied to the public in order to justify the invasion of Iraq, the quote reads: "We should have seen this or what it was: a poison-tipped dagger aimed at the heart of the Bush presidency."

Yes, you have read it correctly. The quote does not read "We should have seen this FOR what it was" but instead, "OR what it was." In large bold type, roughly 16 point. In a high-circulation, international magazine where every single page is, presumably, carefully read and copyedited by dozens of people.

How does this happen? Have we simply become cavalier in our use of the printed word? Or are we becoming more and more stupid?

Last year I came across an advertisement for a major art exhibition in the “Review” section of The Globe and Mail. Presumably the announcement ran nationally in all editions of the Saturday Globe. This was not one of the smaller notices, but a quarter-page ad. In large, clear type, the proprietors of Masters Gallery Ltd. quoted the painter in question, the well known Jean Paul Riopelle:

“When I hesitate, I do not pain. When I paint, I do not hesitate.”

I had stared at that advertisement in utter bewilderment for long minutes. That ad ruined a perfectly good Saturday morning.

What, one wonders, did the people who designed and readied it for publication think Riopelle was attempting to say? Perhaps their view of abstract art is so negative that they took it for granted that this Riopelle guy was some kind of primitive brute, barely able to utter a comprehensible thought inbetween frenzied splatterings. Maybe they were attracted to the mystery of the utterance, its riddle-like qualities. Or perhaps they were so attached to the cliché of the suffering artist that when they inspected the ad, it simply made sense to them that painting would necessarily involve pain, throbbing headaches, the sting of fingers tender from gripping the brush for so many agonizing hours.

Or maybe they acceded to the logic of pain being absent in the act of artistic hesitation, that this was some profound and provocative truth. But this doesn’t follow. In fact, one can easily imagine that the act of hesitating for an artist is extremely uncomfortable. No, I can’t see it. Put it down as a possible failure of imagination, but I’m unable to figure out what the people at The Globe and Mail and at Masters Gallery could have been thinking.

“When I hesitate, I do not pain.” In, I swear, at least 30 point type, maybe larger.

Of course it was an oversight and not a misunderstanding of what Riopelle was trying to say. But then, how, how I ask you, do blunders like this make it to the printing press? We are talking about layers of people, many sets of eyes.

It is difficult for this observer not to wonder if our increasing reliance on technology plays some role in this. Of course at the professional level no one is supposed to depend on a word processing program (there's a fitting appellation for you) to do their thinking for them, but consider the fact that the vast majority of errors one encounters are of the type “forgiven” by computers. We rarely see misspelled words anymore, but instead "her" replacing "here," "or" instead of "for," etc. Is it merely coincidence, for example, that when I run a spell and grammar check over the two phrases in question, my computer gives me its seal of approval?

"When I hesitate, I do not pain."

"We should have seen this or what it was."

Proceed with confidence, says Microsoft Word.

Now please understand; I'm not some smug jerk who speaks only in complete sentences and always corrects other people's grammar, far from it. And as a writer and editor, I have my own burden of guilt to bear, having been responsible for my share of typos and comma splices. But I once thought that to reach the position of say, editing for Newsweek magazine, or The Globe and Mail, or designing advertisements for major newspapers, or running prestigious art galleries, one had to possess a degree of competence that more or less guaranteed that this type of colossal screw-up wouldn’t happen.

I stand corrected.

One can easily imagine future historians, generations from now, reading our newspapers or perusing the efforts of the bright, young minds in our schools and universities, and asking the obvious question: “Why couldn’t they do things in the 21st century that they were doing routinely and successfully in the 20th century?” Hell, I’m pretty sure error-free type was something people were producing in the 18th and 19th centuries.

So I’m beating these future historians to the punch: What the hell is going on? And why does no one seem to care?