Zero-Based English

by Mark L. Levinson

The things we used to get away with.  Back in the 1980s, when the last generation of typists was romping naïvely with the first generation of word-processing software, like a mouse with a cat, I had a question from a typist at Edunetics.  “I’m transcribing instructions for what to do when the software acts up,” she said.  “There are problems that the customers themselves can correct, and there are others that can’t be corrected.  What’s the adjective for can’t be corrected?  Uncorrectable?  Incorrectible?”

“We do have long-established adjective for that, with good Latin roots, but I’m not sure you want to use it,” I said.

“Of course I do.”

“Well, ‘incorrigible’ is the word.  But today you hear it only when people talk about problem children.”

“Children whose behavior can’t be corrected?”

“That’s the point.  The things yet to be corrected in a book are called the corrigenda, right?”


“Corrigenda, incorrigible, these are related words about correction.  But I don’t think you can really tell people that a software error is incorrigible.”

“You said it was the right word.”

“I know it is and you know it is, but the people who read our instructions don’t know it is.”

“Then let them find out,” she said.  And she used the word.

Today you couldn’t get away with that.  You can’t dazzle a typist today with an elegant Latinate cognate.  You can’t even find a typist.  Instead, the incorrigibly shallow-taught are typing their own e-mail (to important clients yet) and a lot of them even call it email without a hyphen.

Down the formative centuries, the “e” prefix on an English word has been unhyphenated but it has also, overwhelmingly, been unemphasized.  In an event, an effect, an election, it’s the second syllable that’s emphasized, not the “e.”  That makes “email,” without a hyphen, a lopsided spelling.  But try to tell that to Generation E.

The name of a letter, when used as a prefix, has always been followed by a hyphen or space.  We’ve never written about an hbomb or a tsquare or an aframe.  But try to tell that to Generation E.

Even if “e” can be welded straight onto a word like “mail” or “business” or “commerce,” how do you consistently follow that practice when the language also has words like “motion” and “quality” and “mission”?  But try to tell that to Generation E.  For them, the way you form a word today has nothing to do with the way you formed one yesterday.  Theirs is a zero-based language.

I’ve run into people who make a virtue out of ignorance.  On both sides of the fence.  Some are technical writers and they say, “Because I know nothing about your product, I can serve as a model of the user’s point of view.”

“But you’re nothing like our users,” say the technicians, “because you’re not in the same business.”  Then they tell the writer, “Because my English isn’t very good, my writing can serve as a model of how to write for people whose English isn’t very good.”

I encountered that attitude once when I applied for a job with a defense exporter.  “Manuals in faulty English are fine because our customers speak faulty English.”  I knew the idea was wrong, because in my struggles to understand Hebrew back then, I generally found bad Hebrew more confusing than good Hebrew.  Typos in Hebrew were worst of all; unlike an experienced reader of Hebrew, who can immediately understand when a letter is inadvertently switched or missing, I would reread a sentence a dozen times in the attempt to wrest meaning from a misprinted word.

But here was a company happy to subject a weak reader to a weak writer — as if you could give a wrongly calibrated weapon to a poor marksman and get a square hit on the target because one source of inaccuracy compensated for the other.  It could be a joke from Fiddler on the Roof:  “The way we write and the way they read, it’s a perfect match.”

And many a joke is a funhouse image of the truth.  While you don’t want to burden your ill-prepared reader with an ill-written text, you also don’t want to send a text that assumes better reading skills than you need to assume.

Some of us need to be educated occasionally regarding the reader’s linguistic limitations.  Some of us need to be educated occasionally regarding our own.  We all are members of the corrigendi.

Comments and questions are welcome:  ]]

Mark L. Levinson

Born 1948 a few trolley stops from Boston, Massachusetts. Bachelor's degree from Harvard College. Moved to Israel in 1970. Worked and learned Hebrew on Kibbutz Ramat Hashofet. Moved to Haifa and worked teaching English to adults. Did similar work in the army. After discharge, turned to technical writing, initially for Elbit. Then promotional writing for Scitex, and more technical (and occasionally promotional) writing for Edunetics, Daisy Systems (later named Dazix, SEE Technologies, and Summit Design), Memco, and Gilian. Also translated from Hebrew to English, everything from business articles to fiction, filmscripts, and poetry. Served as local chapter president for the Society for Technical Communication, editor of several issues of local literary journals, occasional political columnist and book reviewer for the Jerusalem Post, and husband & father.