Language Arts

Those of us who make our living largely by the printed word should be concerned about a recent federal government report that found one out of seven Americans can't read and understand anything more complex than a child's picture book. Causes cited range from an increasing population of non-English speaking immigrants to undiagnosed learning disabilities to the growing number of high school dropouts.

Some folks maintain that text messaging shorthand is eroding the younger generation's grasp of proper English. Others say that reading is not being emphasized enough in the schools. I think that part of the problem might be the English language itself. Some of its rules and usage don't seem to make sense.

People in other countries obviously have trouble translating things into proper English. Hence such things as the Swiss restaurant menu that notes, "Our wines leave you nothing to hope for," or the sign in the Japanese hotel that informs guests, "You are invited to take advantage of the chambermaid." Sometimes even the best intended efforts fall short, as witnessed by two signs in a Majorcan shop: "English well talking" and "Here speeching American."

I can sympathize with these well intended but erroneous efforts. In English, slow down means the same as slow up. Flammable and inflammable are used interchangeably. There is a pronounced difference between a wise man and a wise guy. Fat chance and slim chance mean the same thing. Overlook and oversee are the opposite of each other. The plural of goose is geese, but the plural of moose is not meese. Two mouses are mice and two louses are lice, but two houses are not hice.

One also has to wonder why the word "phonetic" is not spelled the way it sounds.

Then there are the jargon inventions to contend with that seem clever at first, but soon become irritating in the extreme. Staycation, Wall Street/Main Street, desperate search, game changing, and maverick all made this year's list of banished words compiled by Lake Superior State University. "At this point in time" made the list years ago.

But for all of its idiosyncrasies, the language can be forgiving if you are among the six out of seven who have mastered it. I've been told that most folks can read the following paragraph despite the jumbled words. Bet you couldn't do that in French.

"Aoccdrnig to rscheearch at an Elingsh uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht frist and lsat ltteer is at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae we do not raed ervey lteter by itslef but the wrod as a wlohe."