More Jackson County Opinions...

NOVEMBER 3, 2004


Column

By: Virgil Adams
The Jackson Herald
November 3, 2004

This old freak needs your help
If you’ve been reading my stuff for any length of time, you are aware that I have become a dictionary freak in my old age. I wish I had become one in my earlier days. I’d be far more intelligent, a better communicator, a better writer, a better person and citizen — a better everything. I might even be able to understand what the politicians are talking about.
But too soon old, too late smart. That’s me.
Let the old freak break in here and give the current crop of high school and college kids a bit of advice. Don’t wait until you graduate to become a serious student. Don’t wait until you’re old and then look back on wasted time and missed opportunities. All you can do then is talk about what a good student you would be if you could just go back and live life all over again. You can’t do it. It’s too late.
All you can do now is become an old dictionary freak, like me, and wonder why it took you so long to do that.
But that beats doing nothing. Continuing education in the comfort of your own home, surrounded by dictionaries and good books, is better than shutting down your mind altogether. You don’t have to go back to school to learn. All you have to do is turn off the TV and read something. And if you come across a word you don’t understand, look it up. That’s the way you increase your vocabulary. Not Bill Gates’ vocabulary. Your vocabulary!
High tech gadgets may be fast, efficient and effective, but they won’t cure stupidity. We are limited in our ability to think, learn and communicate by our vocabulary. If we don’t know the words, we don’t know.
My conscience hurts me for the way I tried to write when I was a young man. My philosophy was “dumb it down, dumb it down.” What I was doing was writing down to my readers — if there were any. I didn’t give them credit for any intelligence beyond fifth or sixth grade.
The only reason I used a three-syllable word was because I couldn’t find a two-syllable word that would do. I thought it was a sin to write anything other than a simple declarative sentence. I felt I had failed if I used a word or wrote a sentence my readers didn’t understand. Sending just one person to the dictionary was unforgivable.
My philosophy has changed over the years. Today I feel bad if I don’t use at lease one word that some of you have to look up. That is, if you care enough to do that. I guess I’m trying to raise my grade from a C to a B, make my stuff respectable, more appreciated.
I’m not trying to be highfalutin or snobbish here. I don’t want to come across as some pseudo-intellectual, highbrow egghead who thinks he knows everything. I’m no authority on the English language or, for that matter, anything else. I waited too long to become a serious student.
Many of you out there in the hinterland know more about semantics, etymology, linguistics and gerunds than I’ll ever know. All through high school and college, I didn’t understand gerunds, and I still don’t. But you didn’t wait as long as I did to start learning.
And I don’t want my young friends to wait. I want them to become book and dictionary freaks before books and dictionaries become obsolete. (That may not be as far off as you think.) I don’t want Bill Gates’ vocabulary to become their vocabulary. I don’t want Dell, Gateway, IBM, or any other computer doing their thinking for them.
I want them to learn to read and write the old fashion way. Then, when their computer crashes (and it will), they’ll have something to fall back on. Knowledge stored in the brain is more valuable than knowledge stored on a hard drive gone soft.
Computers aren’t the only culprits in our kids’ poor reading and writing skills. Television, video games and a hedonistic view of life also play a role. Parents who don’t regularly read to their young children must share some of the blame.
You don’t think this is a serious problem? Don’t take my word for it. Listen to Thomas Friedman, The New York Times columnist whose piece appeared in the AJC on Sunday, Oct. 17.
Friedman, commenting on young people in India and China, said they “will be able to compete with your kids and mine more directly than ever for high-value-added jobs.
“The Chinese and Indians are not racing us to the bottom. They are racing us to the top. Young Indian and Chinese entrepreneurs are not content just to build our designs. They aspire to design the next wave of innovations and dominate those markets. Good jobs are being outsourced to them not simply because they’ll work for less, but because they are better educated in the math and science skills required for 21st-century work.”
(Chinese and Indian kids probably can read and write better, too. I’m sure they can spell better. Check out winners of state and national spelling bees the last several years. And look at S.A.T. scores in area high schools where Asian kids are enrolled.)
Friedman offered this prescription for bettering the situation here at home: “We need a Bill Cosby-like president to tell all parents the truth: throw out your kids’ idiotic video game, shut off the TV and get Johnny and Suzy to work, because there is a storm coming their way.”
Your old dictionary freak is the father of three grown children and the grandfather of five wonderful grandkids. I love ‘em just the way they are. But should the time ever come that I want to change them, I’ll need your help. Tell me, how would you go about throwing out their video games and shutting down their TVs?
It’s easy to write and talk a good game, not so easy to achieve good results. Discipline is not as easy as it used to be, is it? No matter how many words we know, sometimes they don’t work. Do we have anything to fall back on?
Let us pray.
Virgil Adams is a former owner and editor of The Jackson Herald.

Jackson County Opinion Index

Column

By: Susan Harper
The Commerce News
November 3, 2004

Language Lover Takes Offense
Just so you know, I am not one of those sports lunatics who yell at the television during the Georgia football games, or the NBA playoffs, or even the World Series. No, I am something far scarier: a grammar and pronunciation lunatic. I yell at newscasters, weather women, talk-show hosts and presidents.
There aren’t many of us G & P lunatics around – or rather, there are quite a few of us, but most of us are underground. It’s not the sort of thing we want to go public with, generally speaking. In the privacy of our own homes, however, what we’re yelling at the TV is not, “Get the ball!” but something along the lines of, “It’s not criteria if there’s only one. It’s criterion!”
I expect that those of you who are still reading this are thinking, “Wow! What have I been missing?” As the song says (not “like the song says”), you just never know what goes on behind closed doors.
The first time I knew I was not alone in this language lunacy was when I was invited to help a group that would call itself the Grammar Police. The idea was that we would go around at night and fix commercial signs. This was back when Burger King was trumpeting, “We Do It Like You Do It” (which, come to think of it, sounds even worse without a picture of a hamburger right next to it). The dream was that the whole world would wake up one morning to signs that said, “We Do It AS You Do It.” And everyone would feel subtly better, without knowing quite why.
I decided against taking part in this quixotic effort, though. I foresaw problems. How could we find enough G & P loonies to plaster the world’s Burger King signs with the word “As”? And how many of our loonies – working in the dark, after all – would put the “As” in the wrong place? Or add an extra “s”? And where would all the glue come from?
Most troubling of all: Why would I care? I’m so relaxed (okay, liberal) about so many things; why am I such a hidebound conservative reactionary when it comes to the English language? The answer, I guess, is that we protect what we love, especially if we feel that it is threatened. I’m like the guy who kept turning up at Bush rallies with a sign that showed the correct pronunciation of the word “nuclear.” As Professor Higgins said sardonically in “My Fair Lady,” “It doesn’t matter so much what you do, as long as you pronounce it correctly.”
So now that my secret is out, you can count me among William Safire’s “legion of language lovers,” and when you see me talking to my car radio, you’ll know that I’m probably telling NPR’s Susannah Capoluto not to say, “The problem is, is . . . .” Arrrrrghghgh.
Susan Harper is director of the Commerce Public Library.


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