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September 05, 2007

Not Quite Born to Write

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I did some rummaging the other evening. It seems that the gal in charge of the memorabilia display for our upcoming 50th high school class reunion needed some class photos from the elementary school I attended, and I thought I would be able to oblige. That's because my mother took pains to save just that sort of stuff.

Sure enough, I eventually stumbled across the needed photos. But I want to dwell on something else that turned up.

Stuffed into an envelope were results from two University of Iowa achievement tests I took in high school, one from my Sophomore year and another when I was a Senior. Things were kept simple in those early-computer days, so scoring was only on eight dimensions, namely

  1. Social studies background
  2. Natural science background
  3. Correctness in writing
  4. Quantitative thinking
  5. Reading - social studies
  6. Reading - natural sciences
  7. Reading - literature
  8. General vocabulary

plus a composite score and something called "Use of sources of information."

My percentile scores were okay. Except for one area. In both tests my lowest score by far (around the 75th percentile) was for Correctness in writing.

But I suppose most of you have noticed that by now.



posted by Donald at September 5, 2007


Correctness in writing! I'm sick of the grammar cops. The case-agreement corps. The apostrophe's-in-the-wrong-place patrol. And the write-in-complete-sentences & watch-your-hyphens-&-ampersands squad.

Correctness in writing is great -- as long as it comes after ideas, imagination, originality and other worthier considerations.

And thank god the sentence diagrammers are gone.

Posted by: Fred Wickham on September 5, 2007 2:24 AM

"Use of sources of information" and "Correctness in writing" seem like weird categories to me.

It reminds me of a sculpture class from long ago where one of the criteria our projects were graded on was "serendipitousness."

I didn't score too well in that category.

Posted by: Jonathan Schnapp on September 5, 2007 7:19 AM

The truthiness of your correctness is quite apparent to your readers and we are all imbued with happiness.

Posted by: DarkoV on September 5, 2007 9:06 AM

I must confess. I loved to diagram sentences. It was a geometry of words for me. The (Catholic) nuns at the grammar school I attended I Jersey were Diagram Masters, who thought the application of a straightedge to a novel was a natural thing. The Mt. Everest of all sentences was some 70 word bombastic one from one of Dickens' novels. I'm sure that that exercise put the final shovel of dirt on a lot of kids' interest in Mr. Dickens.
I, unfortunately, enjoyed the masochism of sentence diagram. I even used a protractor to create differently angled lines for certain parts of a sentence. Unfortunately, in those dark days of schooling no medication was available for poor souls such as I.

Posted by: DarkoV on September 5, 2007 9:13 AM

Fred, I dare you to look at this sentence, tell me it is correct English and then look at yourself in the mirror.

Posted by: Tatyana on September 5, 2007 12:40 PM

"Correctness in writing"...that anyone attempting to measure anything at all about writing should come up with such a phrase. Eeeek!

Posted by: Tim Worstall on September 5, 2007 3:47 PM

Tatyana --

"Thanks for the pointer; though I'll wait until the born American coworker of mine returns from his vacation to ask him first."

I would clarify it thus:

"Thanks for the pointer, but my co-worker is American-born, so I'll wait until he gets back from vacation, then I'll ask him."

I can't point out the grammatical failings as a schoolmarm might. It merely needed to be recast to be made more clear.

Is the original sentence correct English? Far from it, I imagine. Is my reworking of it correct English? I have no idea. What matters to me is that it is unambiguous.

When I was in elementary school, the teachers would not let us say something has been "proven" -- we had to use "proved" for both the past tense and for the past participle. But the millions of English speakers have now proven the schoolmarms wrong. Simply because people insisted on saying "proven".

Language is governed by use, not fiat.

Posted by: Fred Wickham on September 6, 2007 2:29 AM

Grammar arose from use, too. Language sciences are empirical, in its source.

Your correction is grammatical, it being intuitive doesn't make it less so. Making the sentence "more clear" includes adding correct punctuation, etc etc.
In every field there exist pedants that can dry up the subject. That doesn't mean, however, the reasonable, non-fanatical part should be discarded by association.

Posted by: Tatyana on September 6, 2007 9:36 AM

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