Pity the comma chasers

I pity today’s comma chasers. They’re (we’re) the ones whose job is tantamount to digging a dozen 6-by-6-by-6 holes with a dull shovel in the hot Fort Bliss sun, in August.

But first, let’s make it clear that: The term comma chaser doesn’t refer solely to that tiny punctuation mark but is a generic term for editors and teachers, and even parents who look over their kids’ homework.

And while on this subject, let me stress that every person who checks submitted work for spelling, punctuation (not just commas), apostrophes (especially), and content already has a place reserved in the Great Hereafter. That doesn’t necessarily mean Heaven will be populated only with erstwhile English teachers and newspaper people who ask, “To WHOM do you refer?” instead of the lazier “Who do you refer to?”

Winston Churchill, tired of hearing, “Never end a sentence with a preposition,” is credited with having answered, “This is the kind of arrant pedantry up with which I will not put.”
And yet, a number of authoritative sources either fail to credit Churchill, or else insist the quotation is mangled.

But let’s get back to Heaven. I believe that people who don’t necessarily teach language but who still try to remediate serious grammar and usage errors ought to get the fast track to paradise. Why? Because they have already spent their hell on earth.

I discovered early in my years of teaching English and journalism that few other teachers seemed to care. “It’s YOUR job to make sure they spell correctly,” was what we heard.

Whoever sponsors a school newspaper will forever be held accountable to anything that even comes close to an error. Although I appreciate people’s reminding me of typotrocities (typo + atrocity), I keep thinking, “Wouldn’t it be great if the bearers of red pens were able to catch my errors before they’re printed?

Now, let’s delve into another chore of language teachers: Writing a term paper. Let me cite a few egregious cases of abuse of the language, this time focusing mainly on the word that every American has heard dozens of times, ever since Melania Trump took the stage at the Republican convention. You will recall that plagiarism (defined as literary theft) is simply the use of other people’s words and phrases and claiming them as their own.

Melania’s name became a household word after her brief address at the GOP convention, an address that made people ask, “Hmmm. Where’ve heard those words before?” In an age of instant retrieval of information, it took no time for Democrats to charge that Melania had lifted pieces of an earlier speech by First Lady Michelle Obama.

And did pundits have fun with that bit of information! Stephen Colbert’s late night program featured a Melania look-alike quoting passages credited to famous people through the ages. One spoof had Melania beginning her speech with “Fourscore and seven years ago” and inserting lines from “A Tale of Two Cities”: ‘It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.’”

Editorial cartoonists embellished the purloined words even further, using excerpts like “I had a dream” and “Ask not what your country . . .”

With proper attribution and moderation, it’s acceptable to use others’ words, but to use them profusely and without attribution is just plain unethical.

But to be fair, I believe that many people, especially school kids, never really learned the — confusing — rules about plagiarism. Some believe that making the SLIGHTEST change in someone else’s work gets them off the hook.

For example, a school teacher once asked a fellow language arts teacher and me to go over and rank student compositions in order to give awards at the end-of-school assembly. The first essay we read was titled simply “Argentina.” The writing seemed oh-so-smooth, and we were able to locate the EXACT words and phrases in a set of old encyclopedias in the school library.

Soon we discovered that the student’s next set of Argentinian facts came directly from yet a different set of reference books. It became obvious that the student had simply used three different encyclopedias, looked up “Argentina,” and copied the material word for word.
“Isn’t that the way research papers are SUPPOSED to be written?” the social studies teacher asked. Apparently the well-meaning but confused teacher had been taught — possibly in his own high school — to copy, but never from just one source.

We can blame some of the world’s problems with research on youngsters’ naivete. But what happens when we receive at the Optic multiple copies of the identical content?

A few months ago, the Optic’s email contained a lengthy column purportedly written by a state official. Interesting, but, waaaiiittt a minute! We’d received an identical copy of that opinion piece the day before, plus one more a few days later. These were all from different submitters.

What are the chances that three brilliant writer-politicians can come up with three identical opinion pieces? Because one of the writers had included her return address, I sent her an email in which I mentioned that THREE copies of the SAME opinion piece hardly qualify as original work. The response was simply that she had attached the unattributed work for my enjoyment and for my eyes only.

Interesting, flattering and even enjoyable, but it was also plagiarized.

The Internet has made it easy for people to lift whole passages written by someone else, paste them on their own laptop and try to get away with palming off someone else’s words. The other side of that blade is the ease with which plagiarized stuff can be rooted out.

Try it. Copy a block of text and paste it to a search engine like “Google” or “Firefox.” In seconds you’re likely to discover the author of those words.

You might even learn that “I came to bury Caesar, not to praise him” came from Shakespeare — and not an aspiring politician who simply came across a group of words and claimed them.

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