A time and a place

By now you most likely have heard about the retired South Carolina English teacher who corrected the letter from Donald Trump for spelling mistakes and grammatical errors and plans to send it back to him. She said if it had been written by a high school student she would have given it a D.
As a person who has made his living through the written word for more than 50 years, having taught it at the college level for the past 28, I have mixed feelings about this. Certainly, anything that comes out of the White House, or any top level office, public or private, should be pristine when it comes to grammar and usage. But when it comes to offering criticism of the written word, even constructive criticism, there is a time and a place, and I am not sure this was either.
First of all, let it be clear that there really is no excuse for the errors in Trump’s letter. Most suspect it was written by a staffer, but that does not make it any better. Know what would have prevented this disaster? An editor. And if the White House does not employ editors, I suggest they start. Everyone needs an editor. As I said, I’ve been doing this for more than 50 years, but without the safety net of an editor going over my work before it is published, I doubt I would sleep at night.
That said, grammar is not the only yardstick to use when measuring written communication. We can get so caught up in searching for errors that we fail to comprehend what is being communicated. I knew a fellow who did proofreading for a living. Not editing, proofreading. I asked what was the secret to being a good proofreader. “It’s a character flaw,” he said. “You must be a person who delights in finding the faults of others.”
At the college, I save my instruction on grammar and sentence structure and syntax and transitions and the like for my writing classes. But in my Introduction to Mass Communications course, the last thing I want is to handcuff my students with the specter of needing to write perfect English hanging over their heads. I tell them all the time I am more interested in what they are saying than how they are saying it. I am interested in their thoughts on a topic, not their writing ability. At times, Music Recording Technology students ask if they can respond to a writing assignment by composing a rap song. “Heck yeah!” is my response.
But even with the Journalism majors, the kids who seek a career in writing, I teach that good writing often involves breaking the rules. Such as starting a sentence with the word “but.” Or using the well placed sentence fragment.
I introduce my students to the late writer and editor William Zinsser through his book “On Writing Well.” Zinsser loves the language and stresses that good writing means using the language properly. But he also is fond of breaking rules. One is the notion that one should never end a sentence with a preposition. “I think a preposition is a perfectly good thing to end a sentence with,” he writes.
To that point, my friend the Rev. Dr. John Markarian, founding president of Haigazian University in Beirut, Lebanon, illustrates the absurdity of following the “preposition” rule with this perfectly correct sentence: “Ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I will not put.” Who talks that way?
Then there’s the annoyingly pedantic Elaine of the TV show “Cheers.” For all her English education, Elaine works as a waitress in the bar. And she’s not good at it. In one episode when Elaine is so caught up in an intellectual discussion with a customer she neglects her duties, her boss, Sam Malone, a retired baseball pitcher, walks over and says to her, “The people at table two are wondering where their waitress went to.”
“Why, Sam,” Elaine says, “you know you should never end a sentence with a preposition.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Sam responds, and then rephrases his statement. “The people at table two are wondering where their waitress went to, dummy.”
So much for rules.

Ed Ackerman