Dear Abby

Concerns about proper English show up everywhere – including a recent Dear Abby advice column. A parishioner wrote in to ask what she should do about spelling and punctuation mistakes in her church bulletin. Neither the secretary nor the pastor noticed that anything was wrong, and they turned down her offers to proofread. (You can read the column here – scroll down for the parishioner’s letter.) 

Abby’s advice was to let the mistakes go. But she had an additional piece of advice:

“However, because young children model the behavior of the adults around them, my advice to the parents would be to remove theirs from any program in which the day care personnel are so poorly educated they can’t use proper English.”

I am aghast. Mind you, I’m a maniac about good writing, and I understand what the letter-writer was going through. Many years ago I knew a church secretary who made apostrophe mistakes in the bulletin almost every week. I managed to hold my tongue – but it wasn’t easy.

But. But. But. Mistakes in punctuation and spelling don’t mean that the writer “can’t use proper English.” Here’s what those mistakes mean: the writer is confused about punctuation and spelling. Or is too rushed to fix the mistakes. Or doesn’t realize anything is wrong. Or doesn’t know anyone to ask. Or maybe there’s another reason.

Writing and speaking are different functions. We all learn to speak as children, and most of us do a remarkably good job with it. Yes, I hear “didn’t do nothing” and “I seen it” and “Joe and him are going to tonight’s game” once in a while – even on TV. But most people get most sentences right.

Punctuation mistakes (one of the parishioner’s concerns) are an entirely different matter. Punctuation has to be learned, one piece at a time, at school – and not everyone masters it. I’ve known many people who can construct complicated sentences perfectly in conversation – but they’re lost when they need to write and punctuate what they’ve said. That doesn’t mean they “can’t use proper English.” It means they have difficulty writing it.

I used to know a Harvard graduate who was the author of several wonderful books. He never figured out how to use semicolons. His secretary used to fix all his punctuation for him.

And spelling is a specialized brain function that escapes even some brilliant writers. (President Franklin Roosevelt is one of the most famous examples.)

Please, please. No child is going to catch a language disease from an adult who struggles with the conventions of writing. Most small children don’t even know how to read yet!

Even a person who makes occasional spoken errors is unlikely to damage a child’s language development. My favorite aunt used to say “chimbley” instead of “chimney.” My love for her didn’t block me from getting a doctorate!

Do we really want to suggest that children shouldn’t have relationships with adults from other countries who are still mastering English? (I’m thinking about my Finnish grandmother and her limited English.) Or caregivers who – however – didn’t do well in school?

Most children know many adults who can act as language role models: parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, pastors, physicians, neighbors, teachers, shopkeepers…the list goes on and on. And there are more potential role models in the media.

So there’s no reason to panic if a child occasionally hears a garbled sentence or syntax error. Those kids will sort it out. (My sixth-grade teacher – wonderful Miss Callahan, who was also my mother’s teacher! – always said “collyum” for “column.” I survived!)

And think about this: do the other kids speak perfect English? Are you really going to send your children’s friends home if they make a grammar mistake? When I was growing up, all my friends said ax instead of ask (common on Long Island). At some point I realized that ask was a better choice. No problem!

Can we all please just calm down

                   Jeanne Phillips – AKA “Dear Abby”


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