29 January 2013

The dangers of a pedagogic approach

Sometimes highly educated writers are surprised that words they regard as ordinary are unknown to the person sitting next to them on the train. Take that example about displaying posters in the library:

Your request raises a question as to the provenance and veraciousness of the material, and I must consider individually all posters of a polemic or disputatious nature.

Of the hundreds of educated people I've shown it to during writing-skills courses, only a handful have known that 'provenance' means 'origin' or 'source'. That may be regrettable but it sends a message to anyone with a wide vocabulary: don't assume that others know all the words you do. A paediatrician in the UK who stated her profession on a plaque outside her house found that her doors and windows were daubed with anti-paedophile graffiti. The vandal clearly didn't know what a paediatrician was, and hadn't stopped to wonder why a paedophile would advertise the fact on her house. Similarly, Personnel Today (18 July 2000) reports that when a communications director said in an office memo that he favoured a 'pedagogic' approach during training programmes, he was told to be out of the building by lunchtime as the company did not tolerate 'paedophilic perverts'. After he successfully pleaded a defence based on the Concise Oxford dictionary, a directive was sent to the entire staff saying that only words found in the local newspaper would be allowed in all future memos - a solution that owed more to face-saving than common sense.

- Martin Cutts, Oxford Guide to Plain English, 2004, p.30.

[Perhaps a solution lies in expanding children's vocabulary. According to Prof E.D. Hirsch, 'there’s no better index to accumulated knowledge and general competence than the size of a person’s vocabulary. Simply put: knowing more words makes you smarter']
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