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2017 January 9 - 01:53 pm

Crossing T’s, Dotting I’s and Ferreting Out Fake News

Poor Punctuation, Misspellings Should Arouse Suspicions

I keep hearing about “normalizing” and “the new normal.” What do these terms mean? Is there some “norm” out there, or was there once a norm, and it is now changing all around us? 

As a linguist, I am fascinated by words. I love to find out where they have come from, how they are used and/or abused, what they mean to whom, and even, less linguistically speaking, how they are spelled and misspelled. 

Indeed, in a new age of a new American presidency, of renewed interest in the social medium of Twitter (was this company not near bankruptcy only a short time ago, before being vaulted into fame by the President-Elect?), and of a rampantly popular labeling of “fake” upon just about anything, I am ever more richly rewarded each day by words and their novelty. 

And, of course, given that I teach a number of subjects in a varying number of community colleges, this logophilia of mine can serve as teachable matter. Every day offers new and fun “teachable moments.” 

And I ask students to seek these things out, to provide sources for the fun and the odd and the perplexing word uses that they find, and then to share with me a search into the 21st Century’s group mind. Is there a trend in what we see in the popular and the more serious press? Are the media telling it like it is? How can we find out? And, of course, does this matter?  

As a former journalist, I believe that “truth,” not just “truthiness,” does indeed matter. And in the press, whether it be print or broadcast or online, “truth” should be something very normal. When I read an article online or in print, when I see headlines or captions in the press or on broadcast television, and five spelling mistakes appear in a single phrase, that piques my interest. It jeopardizes the story, and it makes the meaning of the message suspect. I tell students that the “face” of the news, its layout on a page, the font or the point or the character, will influence the news consumer, whether he realizes it or not. Consistency in design, regularity in margins and spacing, and the use of standard punctuation, such as commas, semi-colons, and periods, rather than exclamation marks, parentheses, and ellipses, keep the attention on the message rather than upon the medium, and that should be normal. I ask students to beware of this sort of “eyewash” as they consume faster-than-the eye-blinks data transmissions in a beyond-normal universe of everywhere news.   

Indeed, in an era when there is something new under every ray of every sun, perusal of news real and fake can indeed be fun.  

Recently, a Los Angeles Times report cited a mass of immigrants stranded in the Mediterranean in a “dingy.” Ah, the huddling, soiled masses, I thought, chuckling. And an online advertisement placed at the right side of a screen where I read news of airport nightmares following the Fort Lauderdale shooting shows that there is help available to those suffering from “prostrate” problems. Some people do read the news while lying down, to be sure. And “lie” and “lay” are still confused, along with “I” and “me” and “she” and “her”, even in the press, as are things countable and uncountable: MSNBC offers a program-final round-up of “10 Things or Less,” and an insurance policy advertisement landed in my mailbox the other day that is “customized to address families with two children or less.” 

I believe that one easy way to help students to learn what is real is to help them to notice correctness. Correctness should be normal. Granted, the art of proofreading has all but disappeared, and Spell Check and Grammatik have taken over tasks that used to be eyeballed by people like me. But attention to little things can help get bigger things across more easily, without distraction. Is it really the case, for instance, that one of the colleges where I teach is offering courses during a period of “intercession?” Between which entities is who interceding? To prevent that question from being asked, just spell the right word correctly, I suggest: Month-long, short courses that are being taught between winter and spring terms are “intersession” ones. No biggie? Well, maybe the first such instance of odd writing is no biggie, but we consumers' antennae should be up for more. When two strange spellings or word uses arise, then we should become curious, and when three or four or more occur on a single page, the “fake” alert should be out. 

These are fun and interesting delights, I aver, to entertain us as we head into our new year. In an era when 140 characters might announce war or peace or decisions that could affect us all, this in a manner that has indeed become a “new normal,” we can do well to train learners in the discernment of character recognition. 

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