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Speaking Out

The Guys from G.A.F.F.E

Although the Six Working Papers have been subjected to the kind of microscopic scrutiny usually accorded to Finnegan's Wake or the directions for changing the wick in a kerosene heater, there is an ominous item in one of them that has not received the attention that it deserves.  I refer to the suggestion that the improvement of writing skills on this campus be put in the hands of roving bands of English department experts.  We can all, to be sure, benefit from some help in writing good, but if this scheme is not closely monitored or nipped in the bud, we may find ourselves figuring in a scene like the following:

A professor is scribbling away in his office.  There is a peremptory knock on the door.  Even before the professor can respond, the door bursts open and two persons enter, wearing T-shirts on which is printed "Lucid's Literati."  One of them snatches up the sheet on which the professor had been writing, while the other reads in a thin monotone from a card encased in plastic: "You have the right to remain silent."  His partner, whose moving lips suggest that he, too, has been reading, utters a sound of disgust and says: "What a piece of garbage! Limp style, poor organization, and lots of grammar errors. We'll have to do a real job on this mess…"

Here is another lively possibility. A student, the scion of a fine, old Secaucus family, is writing on a men's room wall, his forehead corrugated with concentration. Two persons rush in, wearing, in addition to the usual T-shirts, the soon-to-be dreaded red berets bearing the GAFFE (Grammar Assault Forces Fight Errors) emblem. One of them pinions the student while the other bellows: "If you don't want your windpipe torn out, you'll repeat one hundred times: "suck" is not an intransitive verb!"

Far-fetched, you say? Believe me, it could happen here as elsewhere, and it could get worse. Copies of our publications, red-lined and smeared with offal, will be publicly displayed. Soon they will extend to our speech the same scrutiny and the same rough reprisals, for what is writing if it is not frozen, stilted speech? GAFFE members in plain clothes will infiltrate our meetings with tape recorders so that they can later compel us to attend a Felicitous Expression Clinic. The minutes of Council will contain a list of persons who uttered solecisms of one sort or another. No one will be immune. While a member of the central administration is addressing rioting students who are protesting the capricious and arbitrary withdrawal of funds from the varsity quoits team, the sounds that will drown him out will not be the usual ingenuous obscenities, but, rather, sinister chants by GAFFE teams, like Lucid's troops will dump upon/sentences that are run-on, and clotted syntax we'll untangle/participles we'll undangle. Not only sit-ins, but other traditional academic ceremonies, such as graduations, will be subjected to the same harassment.

I know that there are cynics on this campus who say that the surest way to abort an idea is to put it in an academic planning report, but can we afford, in this case, to take a chance?

Clifton Cherpack, Professor of Romance Languages


Originally published in Almanac March 30, 1982




Cherpack Letters Index: