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Why Observer writes the Pen Cop column

By Kodi Barth

Early primary education in the United States focuses on three Rs: reading, writing and arithmetic. All learning until Fourth Grade, what Americans call elementary school, cares about little else.

For at least three years, kids come home with repetitive homework: mastering vocabulary; sketching out basic sentences; and adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing stuff up.

Of these three Rs, reading stands out the most. It’s a culture that parents read to their kids – and when the kids learn to read, they read for themselves – at least 15 minutes every night.

Teachers focus like a laser on these three Rs because they’re the foundation of all disciplines. By the Fifth Grade, start of middle school, kids who have been doing well just take off. Majority will grab a book and scan-read a full page in what seems like seconds. Their mental math skills will be sharp. And when they write, they will not misspell.

It turns out, therefore, that most Americans will judge a working-age person over misspelling. I have never forgotten the shame of being told, at 30 years old with a rural Kenya primary education, that “advice,” a noun, is not the same as “advise,” a verb.

They may not say it out loud, but they’ll rate you as undereducated, simply for misspelling or misusing a word.

Misspelling. Wrong pronunciation. Wrong diction. Slanty angle in a story or a series. Verbiage. Over here in East Africa, these are small things. When they happen, we dismiss it with excuses like, “English siyo mdomo yangu.” Or kizungu ilikuja na meli.”

 But a newspaper written in English – or any language for that matter — ought to care about these “small things” in linguistics. Because they matter. The brain, in Kenya or in America, knows it.

This is why every Monday The Observer, under the Pen Cop column, presents you with a sprinkle of “small things” in the week that wrinkled our journalism. Here, recent examples:

  • When an event is postponed, is it pushed forward or back? (Nation, August 27)
  • “Man dies completely…” (K24 TV, an online headline, August 22). How else does anyone die?
  • “[…] administrators of secondary schools who do not facilitate course selection for Form Four learners would not be spared” (People Daily, August 18, p.2). “Administrators of secondary schools” are principals.
  • “Jokes have been made and memes circulated making fun of stutters” (Standard, August 12, p.14). “Stutter” is a verb. A person who stutters, as intended in this sentence, is a “stutterer”.
  • “The autopsy was contacted by three pathologists […]” (K24 TV online, August 5). An autopsy is conducted, not contacted.
  • “Police […]  are yet to establish when and how he met his death” (Standard online, July 26). People die. They don’t meet death.
  • “A wealthy cleric who has been lying in the morgue for close to two years over a burial dispute between his wives will finally be laid to rest.” (Star, July 14). A morgue is a building in which dead bodies are kept. So, it’s unlikely that a wealthy cleric was lying in the morgue. His body was.
  • “Pascaliah Nyansera says Moraa has kept herself fit by eating well and maintaining a healthy diet” (Standard, July 13, p.26). “Eating well” is the same as “maintaining a balanced diet.”

The Pen Cop column underlines that doing small things right matters in journalism.

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