Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Be Careful: What You Write Might Be Held Against You

All my life, people have been giving me things to read. Whether it is books, manuscripts, e-mail attachments, or essays scribbled in pencil, I've had a steady stream of published and unpublishable writing cross my path, with people seeking my feedback. At times I've gotten paid for it--starting with three years of teaching freshman composition at the University of Montana in the 1970s--and other times you couldn't pay me enough to endure what I see on the page. Usually I'm content to shake my head and make smart-ass comments. Sometimes, however, what I see simply makes my head spin. Let me tell you about some of these.

When I was in grad school and teaching one section of freshman comp, I had a student who was in danger of flunking. The day the final paper was due, he sat on the floor outside my office for two hours, furiously committing his thoughts to paper--in pencil. He didn't take the time to proofread; evidently that was my job. There were misspellings, missing words, and sloppiness in every paragraph. He tried to write "decisions, decisions," and misspelled it two different ways. But I left his fate straddling the fence as I plodded forward, looking for a reason to pass him or flunk him, trying to find the nugget of wisdom in the dustpan of fractured English. Finally I got the cosmic signal I sought. Apropos of nothing, he wrote, "You might even call me somewhat of a perfectionist." A noble sentiment, but he wrote "prefectionist". That's all I needed to see. A big laugh, a big "F," and I was able to move ahead with my life.

I have a list somewhere of the best gaffes of my Montana students. "All cheerleaders are Pre-Madonnas," wrote one, with more insight than she intended. Another informed me that "a football field is divided into two equal halves," making sure I got the picture. (That deadly precision was echoed in another sentence that crossed my path not long ago, about two baseball teams that played ten games: "They each won five games each, with an equal number of losses.") "Michelangelo painted the ceiling of the Sixteenth Chapel," I was told by another student, and it may have been true for all I know. How about this one: "Jesus Christ rose from the dead three days after his crucifiction" (my comment in the margin was "if it really happened, wouldn't it be a crucifact?").

The one that gave me vertigo expressed the existential angst of all college students getting acquainted with critical thought: "Language is very important, but sometimes semantics gets in the way." Ain't it the truth! Communication is so vital, yet how often the words that are used just seem to make things worse. The beauty of this insight is that it can be applied to so many other things in life. Driving is very important, but sometimes roads get in the way. Freedom is important, but laws get in the way. Government is important, but politicians get in the way. God is important, but religion gets in the way. If only we could find the shortcuts past the annoying reality of substance, we could get somewhere! The kid was brilliant, and I shouldn't have been so surprised, since there's plenty of anti-semanticism in Montana.

In recent years, as a baseball historian, I get a lot of baseball material to read. Three examples from the last few months will show that even a benign subject like baseball is still full of semantic mine fields. One involves Hal Newhouser, a Hall of Fame pitcher whose greatest achievement was being the only pitcher to win back-to-back MVP titles. That's what this writer pointed out, noting regretfully that the MVPs occurred in 1944 and 1945, when the majority of the toughest hitters were preoccupied with fighting World War II. Because the opposition wasn't top-flight, some people think it wasn't that phenomenal an achievement--notably this writer, who insisted that we should "attach a psychic asterisk" to Newhouser's feat. What? What the hell does that mean? First of all, there are no asterisks in baseball; nope, not even attached to Roger Maris (there were separate records listed for Maris and Babe Ruth, no asterisk). Secondly, what would a "psychic asterisk" be? Is that anything like a mental note? Did he mean "psychological"? Or was it Newhouser who was psychic: "I predict that someday people won't give me the credit I deserve for winning back-to-back MVP awards." Yeah, that must be it.

I'm pretty tolerant of numbers in baseball writing, since I use them a lot myself. If they prove something, fine; if not, as a reader I can nudge them aside and see if there's some meaning without them. But my brain started to implode when I read this passage not long ago: "Hitting only .227 at the time, Johnston batted almost .286 through the end of the second western road trip." Does that seem benign? No, actually it's one of the most infuriating bits of non-information I've read in ages. Almost .286? Did he bat .285 or .283 or .281? Whatever it was, it was a precise number. Give us that number! It's like saying, "Mickey Mantle batted almost .300 for his career." Well, he batted .298. It's quicker and more accurate to say ".298" than "almost .300." I can't imagine why this writer couldn't give us the exact average. In addition, the math is misleading. Let's say that Johnston had 28 more at-bats during the western road trip. If he had eight hits, that would be a .286 average. Perhaps "almost" meant that he was one hit shy of .286. That would be seven hits, and in 28 at-bats that's a .250 average. Is seven hits almost eight? Yes. Is .250 almost .286? Nope. So what did Johnston do on the road? I have no idea.

The (recent) capper came in a short essay on Roberto Clemente, one of baseball's most beloved immortals. Here's the description that someone came up with for Clemente: "lightly educated but dark-skinned." Whoa! Somehow that just didn't work for me. When my eyes were able to focus again, I gazed at that disturbing depiction, which the writer was probably proud of because he had so cleverly manipulated "light" and "dark" into the same sentence. Uh-huh. Apart from being offended, I was puzzled most of all by the simple word "but," which suggested that there was some connection between the two phrases and hinted that they even balanced each other. But there is no connection at all. It would be like saying "George W. Bush is mentally deficient but nicely tanned," or "Charles Manson is criminally insane but colorfully tattooed." How about "Joan of Arc was burned at the stake but nineteen years old"? Or "Jesus Christ rose from the dead three days after his crucifiction but was a prefectionist." Okay, I'll stop. At least I didn't call him a Pre-Madonna.

1 comment:

roberta said...

This is wonderful. Unfortunately, while I was laughing, I was also thinking about my freshman year in college. My professors must have felt just like you.