Friday, August 5, 2011

Is America Illiterate?

I recently overheard someone make the comment, "America is illiterate." It may have been, "America is so illiterate." Alas, my memory fails me, but you get the idea.

Though other evidence may have been presented, the only piece I overheard to substantiate this radical claim was that the person had overheard someone else use a non-standard idiom: "a hard road to hoe." This was deemed a gross violation of true literacy, for any literate American knows that it is impossible to hoe a road, and the right idiom is "a hard row to hoe."

"A hard row to hoe" = a difficult endeavor
This is hardly evidence that America, generally speaking, is illiterate. It is not evidence that even the one American who said "hard road to hoe" is illiterate, for illiterate denotes inability to read and write and at worst connotes a level of intelligence below that of the accuser. So the accuser meant that one person (and, it can be conceded, probably many, many more Americans) do not know the proper form of every idiom they have occasion to use.

To further make the case that mis-worded idioms are no more evidence of national illiteracy than the split infinitive at the beginning of this sentence, though the phrase "a hard road to hoe" is demonstrably inaccurate, it clearly has some precedent in common usage.

Furthermore, people who say "road" in place of "row" may simply be making a phonetic slip, the two words being identical in pronunciation apart from the terminal consonant in "road." Thus the "wrong" idiom is not even evidence of lower intelligence, much less illiteracy--simply evidence that we all make, technically speaking, slips of the tongue.

Furthermore, even if someone knowingly utters the phrase "a hard road to hoe," it must be noted that a road and a row are not entirely disparate objects. Not nearly as disparate as, say, a road and a respiratory virus. Or a row and a Justin Bieber. So what is so wrong with the phrase "a hard road to hoe"?

Finally, in the accuser's defense, it must be pointed out that the heretofore mocked accusation was a performative utterance in the highly informal context of a lunch conversation, where hyperbolic speech and pedantic prescriptivism should certainly be much more readily forgiven than in a book on grammar or a lecture on English usage.

No comments:

Post a Comment