Wednesday, February 15, 2012

All the Same, It's Totally Different

This week, I had one of my math classes (with students who are a bit lower functioning) doing a worksheet that involved directions like "Go right 3," and, "Go up 4." As usual, when they asked what to do, I asked them to read what it said.

Here's the thing. In ASL, there are three different signs for "right." There's "right vs. left," "right vs. wrong," and "you have the right to remain silent." Kids that are strong readers will figure out from context which it means, but five out of six kids signed, "Go right-as-in-not-wrong." (When I pointed out the second instruction said "Go up," they figured it out and felt silly.)

So, Thing #1 to think about as a writer (particularly writing for kids): Words have multiple meanings. Make sure the specific use is clear.

I hate to mention highway signs and driving again, but seriously, I spend a LOT of time in my car. And although it's been a mild winter, it's winter nonetheless, and that brings out the ice signs.

Have you ever noticed there's no standard for those signs? Especially if you drive in different states, there's a whole variety out there. Lots of ways to say essentially the same thing, but I'll assert that some are better than others.


This one is the simplest, but perhaps my least favorite. More than 50% of the time, it's a lie. Too often, I pass these signs and think, "Yeah, it could be icy ... if it weren't bone-dry and 40 degrees!"


More accurate, but my snarky self thinks, "Yeah, I can tell you for sure they exist in Antarctica. Are you talking about here?" There's just something overly complicated about it, making it sound like the politically correct version of the sign.


Oh, look, a physics lesson in a road sign! This one isn't too bad on the surface, but hey—maybe the road is icy, too, in which case this sign is kind of pointless.


Ah, this is the one I like. It says what it needs to say simply. It doesn't over- or understate things. I wish they would use this one everywhere they need such signs.

Thing #2 to think about as a writer: There are many ways to say the same thing. Sometimes the "pretty" way is best for what we need to accomplish. But sometimes it's more important that it's functional and accurate. Don't be afraid of clarity.

What are some of the "same but different" conundrums you've run into? (Don't get me started on the different ASL signs for "run" ...)

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