I opened up a fortune cookie recently. It said: “You shall attain wisdom with each passing year.”
Now, if the fortune cookie writer had stopped with: “You shall attain wisdom,” I would have felt a little flutter of hope and let it go at that. However, the addition of “with each passing year” immediately nudged the word editor lurking inside me.
How can I “attain” wisdom “with each passing year”? You can’t have it both ways, fortune cookie writer. You must pick the year when I’m going to attain wisdom—such as, “You shall attain wisdom in the coming year.” Or, you must modify your prediction with, for instance, “You shall try to attain wisdom with each passing year.” The latter is far more likely, but certainly not as cheerful for the recipient of said fortune.
Having rectified the grammar, I began to envision the fortune cookie writer. He or she is here or somewhere in China, sitting at his/her kitchen table, notes and research materials scattered across the surface, trying to come up with the next fortune—number 10,386 in a list that has no memorable beginning and no foreseeable end. No doubt, for those fortune cookie writers who are not American-born, and who might be getting their inspiration from ancient Chinese proverbs, a lot gets lost in translation.
In addition to fortune cookie writers, who are the people who provide those humble written services we take so much for granted? Who composes menus—often with errors that I’m tempted to correct on the spot? Who writes the loglines—sometimes grammatically inexplicable—that appear on my television screen when I press “Info” on my remote? Why doesn’t anyone know, or care about, the difference between “its” and “it’s,” no matter his/her level of education? And, by the way, what has happened to the editing profession in general? When did The New Yorker‘s impeccable editing become a thing of the past?
Inevitably, I ask myself the question: Why do I care about grammar and the implications of grammatical error? No one else seems to notice.
We live in a culture that is erasing the arts—not to mention cursive—from its school systems. We think and write on keyboards, or dictate into a device that can’t comprehend the subtleties of language. We put up with and perpetuate online and social media writing that is careless, often vapid—reducing our communications, including news and world events, to brief “sound bites,” preferably 140 characters or less.
But how can we communicate or absorb the complexities of contemporary life in sound bites and tweets? Fortune cookies aside, our quest for wisdom cannot be reduced to the lowest common denominator.
I love the written word, and the rich, full-fledged, grammatically consistent sentence. I often write in cursive, a skill I learned in second grade and have used to great advantage ever since. Writing in longhand gives me the option of using a pen or pencil to form the words—slowly, deliberately, elegantly. I like to think of cursive as a sort of art form, a distant relative of the decorative art of calligraphy.
Thank you, fortune cookie writer. You are an unknown and unsung literary laborer, but you’ve given me food for thought—as well as the dry, tasteless cookie itself.