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Why Do We Laugh at Gaffes? October 26, 2011

On Thursday night I attended a lecture series at Saint Xavier University. The guest lecturer was Robert Gibbs, the former press secretary for President Obama.

The talk was pretty good (probably not worth the $20 bucks I spent, but whadderyagonnado?). He shared some anecdotes about working with our President, and gave some interesting insight into the Republican primaries. He also gave a surprisingly effective answer to a question on how young people can avoid apathy. He noted that lobbyists in $2000 suits really like our apathy. They capitalize on it.

Nice. I mean, who doesn’t want to hurt lobbyists?

That was global, though; let’s get local.

“I am happy to report that I was terribly right,” Gibbs said at one point in reference to his spot-on prediction of distressing, unforeseeable events during Obama’s tenure. Wait. Hold up. That doesn’t make sense! Why would this news make him happy? “Gaffe,” I hissed to my friends.

Also, Gibbs used “whomever” incorrectly. It especially grates on my nerves when people use grammatical words and phrases that are often neglected for fear of misuse, and then misuse them.

From a minimalist tutoring perspective, this doesn’t really matter that much. Who cares really if he had a little misstep in his speech? It’s a local error, and globally his talk was, if predictable, often witty and sometimes insightful.

It still annoyed me though.

When reading a writer’s work at the UCWbL, local errors don’t ever bother me. As long as I can still divine the meaning of the text, it’s all gravy. Maybe this is because I am deeply interested in the burgeoning ideas of a writer. I want to know what he/she thinks, so if an article is missing, I really don’t give a care. More cynically though, it might be because I expect errors from student writers; I neither expect, nor do I accept them from ex-White House big wigs.

Have you ever read a published work, a text book let’s say and found a comma splice or a misused semi colon? If you’re anything like me, you call it out! I remember a certain textbook I had in a history class that was riddled with local errors. “Subject-Verb Agreement!” wrote I in the margins. “Missing an article!” I continued. Even though the text detailed trench warfare with consummate skill, I was outraged that I had spent money on a book that couldn’t hire a decent copy editor.

I believe I am sniffing out a kind of power dynamic here in who is allowed to make local errors. English language learner, First-Year Writing student? Have at it! It’s just a comma! Ex-press secretary, published writer, former President? Gimme a break! How did you get your job anyway?

For certainly, isn’t our ability to say “even I knew that,” to call out a social superior on a basic error, a way of challenging a power dynamic? It takes those wealthier and more successful than us down a notch. Further, if looking through the superiority theory of humor lens, we see a legitimate form of comedy emerging while laughing at the grammatically challenged. That’s all candy bars and summertime, but is there a downside to this derisive editing we do? Is it too…judgy?

At the UCWbL, we tend to overlook errors. “No big deal,” we placate. “Let’s get to that thesis!” Sure, the global is important, but are we resigning these writers to a life of mediocrity because we don’t feel they need to know how to edit? Or worse, are we sending them out into the work force without the skills necessary to garner respect from their audiences? My aunt still tells the story of when an employee of hers wrote “accidence” instead of “accidents” in an email. She laughs and she laughs.

What do you think of this tendency to mock the grammatical mistakes of others? Is it rooted in a power dynamic? Is it somehow better if we laugh at a superior? Not okay if it’s an inferior or a peer? Please, share your experiences with sneering at syntax below.


One Response to “Why Do We Laugh at Gaffes?”

  1. David S. Says:

    You always bring up such interesting ideas! First, I am shocked that Robert Gibbs would be so clumsy verbally. We in communications would assume that a White House press secretary would be not only a master of English skills, but also a master of connotation.

    Secondly, as someone who has worked in publishing, it never ceased to amaze me that no matter how hard we would work on making a book perfect (and I would labor over the proofreading process) when the book came back from the printer, there was always some kind of error somewhere! Now, it was rare the error would be anything major, or even significant, but there always seemed to be something somewhere. I came to believe you were blessed if the error was just some simple little thing that only I might notice. As one who spends a lot of time with books, I must say, I tend to see a small error somewhere in many books I study. It is true that nobody’s perfect, I guess. But I agree with you wholeheartedly — when a book is riddled with errors, or even just sprinkled with significant errors, something is seriously wrong.

    Regarding your third point, I really wish everyone would stop mocking everyone else about everything. People have become so casual in their cruelty. It is a mainstay of today’s comedy, and it is the way people respond to strangers on the Internet. For example, when Amy Winehouse passed away, commenters said she deserved it, brought it upon herself, etc., as if they had the right to judge her death as well as her life. Our culture today encourages it.

    Since moving to the Loop Writing Center exclusively, I see many ESL and SNL writers who really struggle with grammar and word usage; far more, it seems, than when I was at Lincoln Park. They really want me to go as deep into their errors as I can. Rather than mock them, I marvel at their successful struggle with what I have come to realize is a very difficult language. I’ll tell you — I sure wouldn’t want to be learning English!

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