Lighter Look: Tweets, Blogs, and Real Writing
“Errors in punctuation in your memos or reports can make you look stupid,” I tell my graduate students. “Or at least less intelligent than you are,” I add, thinking I had perhaps been too harsh. “Maybe that’s unfair, but that’s the way it goes.” It’s even worse, I add, with blanket emails because usually no one proofs them but the computer and you can easily ignore the red and green underlines. Hit the send key and it’s gone.
I tell them (again) about faculty rooms in which the principal’s memos are posted on the bulletin board with errors circled in red pen and caustic remarks written in the margins.
I used to have my students read Eats, Shoots, and Leaves, but the humor escaped most of them. I don’t find signs that say, “Apples’ 89¢/lb.” amusing either, I guess. But what really gets to me is the current idiotic use of quotation marks.
On the menu is the Friday night special: “Fried shrimp.” So it’s not really fried shrimp, but you just call it that? (It’s actually fried cardboard, but we call it [ha ha] “fried shrimp.”) Also on special is “Bud Light.” (Wink wink. We call it that but it’s really Old Milwaukee.)
The overuse of quotation marks can also be seen in the writing of those who want to appear excruciatingly erudite. As one principal wrote to his staff, “Please bring a dish to pass at the end-of-year faculty party. We can all “let our hair down” for one night!” (I just want you to know that I know we won’t literally be unpinning our hair as some can’t even do that; I know it’s just a figure of speech.)
Now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, let me turn to my current read, Roger Rosenblatt’s Unless It Moves the Human Heart: The Craft and Art of Writing. A much more tactful and witty professor than I am, Rosenblatt takes us through a writing course that he teaches in the MFA program at Stony Brook. Students explore and examine the art, perfect the craft, and share what they’ve accomplished with the help of their professor. Their questions are both profound and simple, and Rosenblatt pushes them to think about what writing is and how the various forms of writing differ. It’s a slim volume that you want to read slowly, and he eschews telling his students they will look “stupid” if they can’t punctuate properly.
I am not one who worries that tweets, texts, emails, and even blogs will turn our kids’ brains to mush and make them unable to write. There is, after all, a difference between writing to communicate quickly and writing to make you think thoughtfully and critically. Each form has its own rubric. But traditional prose requires that you punctuate well. And I don’t mean “well.”
••On a far more serious note, a quick update: Teacher Sean Lanigan appeared on the CBS Tuesday Today show (see Monday’s blog). He’s been transferred to another school so he can “start fresh” according to the school district. He noted that he’s in therapy and trying to get his life back in order. A cautionary tale for every school person. and some suggest an impending lawsuit against the district.