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November 2, 2009 - Bill Ackerbauer
I don't take any special pleasure in criticizing others, but some mistakes need to be pointed out, especially when they are committed by people who are supposed to be authority figures or role models. What follows is the text of a press release we received a while back from one of our area schools. I have redacted certain words so as to limit any potential embarrassment on the part of the teacher or administrator responsible:
The [...] Department and [...] at the High School are proud to once again continue the student of the month program for [...] High School's students.Nobody's spelling and grammar are perfect 100 percent of the time — I often rely on a spell checker to remind me that the word "embarrassment" has two Rs, for example. The text above is rife with spelling errors, but its grammar is otherwise adequate. (The use of "unique" to describe the opportunity might not be precisely accurate, and I would have written "students who are selected" rather that "students that are selected," but those are finer points of usage.)
As a teacher myself — this newspaper gig is my "day job" — one of my greatest frustrations is that many students seem unconvinced that accuracy and clarity actually matter. I find myself asking students to embrace grammar rules that are ignored by or unknown to the majority of American English speakers.
At the supermarket the other day, I found myself surrounded by signs that debase the language while trumpeting the virtues of consumer goods. "Let us bake your baby a cake for their birthday," a giant poster said, to which I was tempted to reply, "I don't know about your baby, but mine is singular." Another sign advertised a rack of movies-on-disc as "DVD's." "DVD's ... what?" I wanted to ask, wondering if I would be arrested for vandalism if I took a Sharpie marker to the offending apostrophe.
Of course, of all the places where mistakes can appear, the newspaper is the one that troubles me most. One night more than 10 years ago, while I was working at another newspaper, I realized too late that I had let the paper go to press with the word "budget" misspelled in a front-page headline. The letter "D" had been deleted, so our readers learned that the city council had passed a "buget." A full decade has gone by, but I still have occasional nightmares in which I am being chased by a creature that looks like the mutant offspring of a strategic financial document and a small loaf of french bread.
Like every small-town newspaper in the country, The Leader-Herald draws its fair share of criticism — perhaps more than its fair share — for printing the occasional error. Our editorial department is staffed by human beings, and fewer of them than you might think.
I like to think that our openness to fair, constructive criticism is one of the services we offer our readers: Our news pages inform them about local events, our Opinion Page gives them a forum for sharing their views and reading others', our Tri-County Blotter warns them when their neighbors have stopped taking their medication, and our mistakes give them something on which they can vent their pent-up frustrations.
Kidding aside, my point is that we care deeply about the quality of the product we put out, even as we realize the perfection we strive for is, practically speaking, unattainable. When a reader points out an error, we own up to it and set the record straight. That's what you need to do if you want to be regarded as a trustworthy authority — whether you're a teacher, a public official or a journalist.
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