Wednesday, 16 January 2013

The blind leading the blind

If you think we should be optimistic about the future of written English, think again. The lost and the afraid who hope Google will lead them into the light may be doomed.
(Click images to see them bigger.)

First we have "5jj", a (please God, self-styled) "teacher", moderating a web forum dedicated to helping people trying to learn English as a second language. MariaTeresa, the poor sap on the receiving end of 5jj's wisdom, reinforces my long-held view that foreigners learning my language tend to have more respect for it than do its native speakers. She posts an excellent question.
"I have a spelling doubt, 'semicolon'/ 'semi-colon' :
 are both words accepted; is one of them BE
[British English] and the other AE [American English]"

5jj's initial responses, like those of many insufferable show-offs who populate online help forums, are to pour scorn on the person asking for help, and explain why the question should not have been asked.
"How many times a year do you actually have to 
write the word? Stop worrying; if you get it
 wrong, it's not exactly the end of the world."

 Dear 5jj, if that's your attitude, why did you (allegedly) become a teacher, then set yourself up as moderator on this forum? Forget SOPA and PIPA. What the Internet most needs is a law making this patronising and unhelpful attitude a capital offence.

The original thread can be found here.

Meanwhile, at, a dimwit even more anonymous than "5jj" is sticking a knife into the definition of a sentence. Hey, at least the nameless one is well-meaning though, right? Here's his attempt to put the word subpoena into a sentence:
Subpoena witnesses to attend court in person to give evidence.

OK, so maybe I'm being a little harsh here. After all, if it's arguable that a string of words doesn't have to contain, say, an object, to qualify as a sentence, maybe it doesn't need a subject either. (That's a big maybe though - a big, bullshit-covered maybe!) But the point here is this: If your brief is to sit down and compose a sentence containing the word subpoena, the world's your oyster! If the reason for doing it is to help people to understand, why, oh why, would you go out of your way to deliver such a poor example of a sentence?  

The website has a contact form which invites users to submit comments and corrections. Perhaps this explains the situation - it's a wiki by another name.

The original page can be found here.

English (or perhaps every language) is vulnerable because native speakers often assume that being a native speaker means they're good at speaking (or writing) it, and/or that their opinions about it are inherently correct. The examples given above show otherwise.
The real point here is that the Internet's ability to give everyone a voice isn't always a Good Thing. Me, I'll take the piss when I see a mistake online, just as I'd nudge someone and point to a mistake in a book. And I'll do it in public, using the Web as a platform. It's my way (my only way!) of fighting back. But set myself up as an expert? Slap the word "Teacher" on my profile and swagger around a forum offering to bestow my expertise on lesser beings? I may be cocky, but I'm not that cocky. 

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