Friday, January 2, 2015

Willful Ignorance

By: Shawn Coyne | Jan 02, 2015 12:01 am

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There’s a wonderful little village that my wife, kids and I visit often.
It has an old wooden windmill at the end of Main Street, right by the water, just above a little beach area.  There’s a perfectly dilapidated but eminently functional Municipal Building in the heart of town that enforces a strict zoning code that has kept McDonald’s and every other modern chain out of the historic district.
You can almost feel the ghost of Herman Melville walking its streets, debating whether or not to cast the Pequod off from the town’s Bay Street dock or keep closer to the facts of the real tragedy of Nantucket’s whale ship Essex.  While he chose to retell the account of the Essex’s First Mate Owen Chase, Melville shouted out with references to our town five times in Moby Dick.
Even the old grocery store that served as inspiration for John Steinbeck’s The Winter of Our Discontent churns out ham salad sandwiches at lunchtime and still flicks its lights five minutes before closing to shoo away idling customers.  You don’t have to go home…but you can’t stay here…
The literary tradition of the town has even perhaps eclipsed its place in history as an early nineteenth century whaling hub par excellence.  How many towns invest almost a million dollars to renovate and expand the local library these days?  The locals and weekenders alike can’t wait for the unveiling.
So it was with no a small amount of shock when the fam and I spotted this text on a sign posted just South of Otter Pond alongside the preferred path of a family of fowl.
If you are familiar with the book Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynn Truss, you have undoubtedly just let loose an audible gasp and are still clutching your right hand to your upper chest.
While certainly not as disturbing as the often seen “SLOW CHILDREN AT PLAY” sign—there seem to be quite a number of children with diminished capacities playing with one another—the phrase GO SLOW is, of course, grammatically incorrect.
I don’t feel bad about saying that either. Rather I feel badly when my fingers are cold. BA DUM BUM, grammarian humor…
I’m pleased to report, though, that we haven’t been the only sticks in the mud sighing past the post. Over the summer, we noticed that someone had finally had enough.  He’d taken matters into his own hands and this was the result:
For weeks we smiled past the sign—which coincidentally is just before the graveyard where we whistle—happy that all had been righted in our literary community.
And then, suddenly this:
Had someone in our town, the town of letters, gone mad? If you look closely, you’ll see that the “-ly” has been whited out.
Upon reflection, it seems rather that the old human Resistance to changing our behavior, no matter the evidence that a change is required, trumps even our reliance on the rules of language. One peek on the Internet would confirm that to modify a verb, an adverb is required, which usually simply means adding an –ly.
So to suggest that one move at a diminished pace requires that you ask that one go slowly.
It is no easy thing to change even the smallest thing contrary to what we hold to be true. To the caretaker/maker of the sign, it was far more important to keep things as they always were than to accept that he’d made an error and to allow that error to stand corrected.
A sign posted in the public interest (be careful or you’ll kill a duck) should be clear and grammatically correct. If it isn’t, then the sign is no longer in the public interest. It’s only for one person. It’s a reflection of the worldview of its creator, someone who believes that the rules of grammar don’t apply to them.
We all make mistakes.  I screw up grammar and spelling all of the time. I especially have a problem with its and it’s.  And when someone corrects me, it often pisses me off.  But we need the rules of language to be able to communicate as clearly with one another as possible.  Even with the rules, we have a terrible time of it.
Creating something just for you under the guise of creating something for everyone is disingenuous.  A sign created to inform the public about a duck crossing that does not use grammatically correct language is neither in the public’s interest or the ducks interest for that matter.  It is only about the artist who created the sign.  It says “look at me and my concern for wildlife” not “here is some information to help you make an informed choice.”
Now when I pass the sign, I try and think of at least one thing I do myself that willfully ignores truths I’d rather not accept.  Things I know I should change about myself that I choose not to.
Wouldn’t you know it? I have yet to come up with a single one!

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