I was watching a PBS program on writing this morning, a first-year telecourse, which dealt with using online research. “Remember that any site which ends in .com is a commercial site and is always selling something . . .” Never mind that it is the most common web suffix, and that .com sites are often run by individuals which aren’t really selling much of anything. Determining what a site is about, or whether it is trustworthy is a lot more complicated than reading the suffix. These programs amuse me, because they usually perpetuate ideas of how things should be, rather than how they are.

The most famous hoax of all perpetuated by these programs on writing is the persistence of the topic sentence. “Always compose topic sentences and use them to organize your writing.” Of course it doesn’t matter that topic sentences are almost always understood rather than overtly stated in real world writing, and that if we all sat around trying to compose this “holy grail” of writing teaching, nothing would ever be said.

It’s always more convenient when you can smooth things over, and ignore the things which don’t fit your model. Unfortunately, these “errors” populate the world we live in. What bothers me more is when these sorts of simplifications begin to overwhelm supposedly “advanced” texts. A great example is the recent compilation from Routledge, the Photography reader edited by Liz Wells. It’s a great book, really, with a nice cross-section of essays. However, the introductory essay for the section on “Codes and Rhetoric” has one of those fingernails-on-a-chalkboard type errors which would really annoy the hell out of me if it were my book:

The idea of semiotics, the science of signs, was proposed in 1916 by Ferdinand de Saussure, but it was only in the 1950s and 1960s that theorists, including Roland Barthes (France) and C. S. Pierce (USA), set about examining the structure of non-verbal systems of communication. (110)

Concern over the system of signs began in ancient Greece, or perhaps before. The term semiotics was coined by Pierce circa 1867, long before Saussure’s famous lectures. To place Pierce in the 1950s or 60s is a really glaring boner. But to imply that people weren’t concerned with the functioning of non-verbal signs before 1950 is almost criminal.

It bothers me that I always seem to find errors in everything these days. I’m not sure when this started, but it is irritating. Sometimes, I suppose I blow them out of proportion— it’s a matter of your point of view. However, sometimes things are just plain wrong.