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The Blind Spot (or Is It Blind-Spot?)

I’ve always been partial (in a slightly ghoulish way) to the the notion of the vehicular blind spot. This is the idea that, while driving, you cannot see some areas of the road through  your rear-view or side mirrors or through looking due left or due right, and thus you have to turn around to see if it’s OK to change lanes, a risky move at high speeds.

This speaks to me because I feel that there are all sorts of blind spots in life: important things that are, almost by definition, very hard to know. When it comes to teaching writing, a key issue for me was suggested by, of all people, Donald Rumsfeld, in a well-known quotation from 2002:

… There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know.

If a student is consciously uncertain about a particular issue of spelling, punctuation, or grammar (a known unknown), there is help to be had in various kinds of online and print  resources. Sometimes technology can help prod a recognition of such, in the form of a squiggly red or green line. But not always. Oh, no, not always. And thus we have the unknown unknowns.

Anyone who has ever corrected a paper has confronted what are commonly called “spell-check errors” (so and so “lead” the way; something “peaked” someone’s interest; etc.), mistakes of which Microsoft Word tacitly approves. The same with most grammar and syntax problems and almost all (or perhaps all) punctuation errors.

The unknown-unknown problem that seems to have reached epidemic levels recently, for some reason, is word separation. That is, students seem to want to take compound words that have been recognized as such for decades, sometimes centuries, and take them apart again. I found a list of compound words at a Web site; here is the way many of my students would render some of them (of course, spell check signs off on them all):

  • Work place
  • Long time (adjective)
  • Life time
  • Fire works
  • Weather man
  • Mean time
  • Some times
  • Touch down (in foot ball; I mean, football)
  • Under ground (adjective)

I have no doubt as to the best long-term way to address all those problems: read a lot. But what should teachers tell students in reference to the assignment due next week? It’s a tough question; that’s why they call it a blind spot.

My best answer is the equivalent of craning your neck in a car. (Fortunately, this is totally safe at your desk or in the library.) That is, teach yourself that there is a category of unknowns having to do with the question of one word, two words, or a hyphenation. Learn to recognize the situations where the question arises, and that the trend of the English language over time is toward one-word compounds. If you have to make a choice—let’s say you want to refer to an underground, under-ground or under ground bunker—and if you are anything less than 100 percent certain which one it should be, look it up, in a dictionary or on a reliable Web site like www.nytimes.com.

The first couple of dozen times, your neck will probably feel pretty sore from all that virtual craning. But after time you’ll get a sense of the way the rules work, and you can cruise along, with the compositional equivalent of Volvo’s fancy Blind Spot Detection System.

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