Don’t ‘Prosletyze’; Instead, ‘Proselytize’

“God, I love editing an editor!”

That’s Dave Taylor for you. The peripatetic historical preservationist extraordinaire spotted “prosletyze” when I should have typed “proselytize,” and jumped on it with all the glee of the Baltimore Ravens’ Ray Lewis curling himself around a San Francisco 49ers fumble in the Super Bowl.

That is as it should be. Dave’s rejoinder was in fun to a fellow Community Club member who had fumbled the monthly meeting minutes. The error was pedestrian. But those of us who earn our keep by writing words are expected to do so correctly, or hear about it if we fall short.

It’s that way for everyone; deviate from expected standards, and expect to hear about it.

Last month, an otherwise engaging newspaper story from Colorado didn’t make it past the first cut as I chewed my way through a bunch of entries in that state’s annual best-newspaper-work contest.

The contest entry in question contained misspellings. I understand: Deadline pressures, time constraints, etc. I’ll condone some misspellings in the news story itself. But let’s not nominate such a story for a statewide award. It doesn’t measure up, in one of the most basic criteria.

Part of my job is to write editorial commentaries, suggesting that some local happenings are admirable, while others might be doltish, e.g., the area’s fire departments are filled with selfless souls (admirable) or some nativist residents of Sandy Township resist consolidating with the city of DuBois (idiotic – in my opinion).

Say something like that in print, and those who feel differently grit their teeth. Then they wait.

Eventually, I will misspell “proselytize,” or leave out the “B” capitalization in the middle of “Dubois.” It happens.

“A-HA! I just knew it! See? He really is a moron!” will be the reaction. My credibility about a future community issue will have been dented by my failure to pay attention to basics.

Mistakes do matter. Precision in linguistic usage does count. Imprecision has consequences.

Teenagers do not always accept that.

“Whatever,” they will reply, pronouncing it “Whatt-EVER!”

Sorry, folks.

It does matter. Readers, quite rightly, judge whether I know what I am talking about by looking at how I handle the language. As an editor, I am expected to handle the language. Human frailty can be accepted – except when one sets oneself up as an expert or an authority, or is set up that way in the public mind because of a job, or a degree of celebrity.

We condemn a doctor who is drunk in public, a police officer arrested for having driven drunk, a judge accused of breaking the law.

Each year’s new crop of teenagers must learn the lesson. First, as children, they are taught how to talk, how to dress, etc. Then, in middle school, they are taught that they have worth as individuals, and ought to take pride in their individuality. Being teenagers, they see life in black-or-white terms.

They loudly declaim that it doesn’t matter if passers-by can see their underwear, their bosoms or their butt cracks; it’s up to them as to how they dress.

Umm … nope. It does matter.

It’s up to the rest of us as to what we think about how they dress. That, dear youngster, is why you didn’t get the job, or why you did get the “Doesn’t she know better?” look. As adults, we live in communities. Within those communities, we are individuals, sure; but if we are to enjoy the protections and comforts of community, we have to show that we belong.

Teenagers show that they belong to their own age group, and not to their parents’ age group, by daring to dress differently than their parents dress. They never seem to see the irony in the reality that, walking down the street, they do look dramatically different from the oldsters – but they are exactly, indistinguishably alike in terms of each other. They “belong” to their subgroup: Teenagers.

That’s fine.

But when it becomes time to be treated as adults, to be taken seriously, we need to trim our individuality and stay inside the limits accepted by our communities.

Editors are expected to spell words correctly. When we don’t – and, invariably, we won’t – we should expect to hear about it. It’s not the end of the world. But it is significant.

So also for those among us who drive drunk, who deal in drugs, who assault other people, who go to jail. No one action totally defines us. But every action marks us, and the cumulative effects of how we present ourselves to our communities has a lot to do with how we are received in our communities.

Did you notice what I did?

I just proselytized!

Denny Bonavita is the editor and publisher of McLean Publishing Co. in west-central Pennsylvania, including the Courier-Express in DuBois, Pa.