If You Can Read This…

There’s a truck that I come across in our parking lot at work regularly. It has a bumper sticker on it that says:

If you can read this, thank a teacher. If you can read it in English, thank a soldier.

I just want to start out by saying I don’t have a problem with the sentiment – in particular. I might argue that being over here on our own continent with Canada and Mexico as our neighbors, we’ve been pretty safe from any sort of invasion that might result in us speaking another language, but that’s just conjecture and ignores the point the person is trying to express.

No, I want to strut with my computer programmer and grammar nerd feathers spread in full display for just a bit. Some of you may remember me shining a light on my analytical neurosis when I blogged first about the fascinating designs of gum wrappers and then about the proper use and restocking of public restroom toilet paper dispensers. The fact that you are still here means that you are ok with my quirks, so I think maybe I won’t run you off with this one. We shall see. If you have joined me since those posts, consider this one your test of loyalty.

The word ‘if’ conveys the notion that there is a condition here. A condition that could or could not be true. If the statement is always true (or always false), then there is no value in first stating the condition. You are just stating what is already known.

In the programming world, there are tools that help find inefficiencies in your code. This is one of the things it looks for. If you set a variable to zero and then immediately say “if the variable is not zero, do blah blah blah”, it’ll declare the “blah blah blah” to be dead code because the condition is always false. Similarly, if you checked “if the variable is zero”, the condition is always true so why have the condition? Just do “blah blah blah” and call it good.

So back to the bumper sticker. The bumper sticker was written in English. That means that anyone who reads it is reading it in English. There is no possibility of them reading it in any other language because it was written in English.

“If you can read this, thank a Teacher” is good, because the possibility exists that a person can’t read it. And, obviously, since they can’t read it, they won’t be thanking a teacher.

But the second sentence? The word they wanted wasn’t “if”. It was “since”. It is strongly implied that the second condition is dependent on the first; that is, the reader’s ability to, well, read. And we already know they are reading it in English since it was written in English. So what they meant to say was “Since you can read it in English, thank a soldier.”

Yes, yes, I know I overanalyzed the dang bumper sticker. That’s what I do. From an English standpoint, there’s probably nothing actually wrong with it. They used the repetitive words to emphasize their point. But something has to keep this high-powered brain (hah!) working during that walk into work. And the bumper sticker just didn’t hold up under close scrutiny. I submit that most probably don’t.


18 thoughts on “If You Can Read This…

  1. Quirky, yes, a bit insane, well I didn’t say THAT!! Ha, ha! But in any case, that sticker is just kind of weird. There are so many people in this country that can’t speak English and I really don’t think it has anything to do with soldiers. I don’t know. If anyone is coming to this country and is allowed to come to this country they should be reading English (although I do sympathize because it’s not easy.) Those who don’t may just have an unwillingness to learn.

    • I think the bumper sticker’s point was not related at all to migrants’ ability or inability to learn English. I think their point was that we would have been occupied by some non-English speaking country (Germany or Japan, I’m going to assume) if soldiers hadn’t protected us. My response to that is that 1) we are not easy to invade, being on our own continent and all and 2) even if we were, they’d be hardpressed to force us into a new language.

      BTW, Melanie commented below and much of it is directed to you, which you won’t know since it wasn’t a response to you. Just doing my duty by bringing it to your attention. 🙂

      • yes, you are probably right re the whole takeover of America thing. While I do blame my own ignorance for this, I don’t think I’m alone. If Japan or Germany were to have taken over America it probably would have happened during WWII so I think when a lot of people talk about the ‘speak English’ issue, they are more concerned with the huge amounts of non English speaking people who live in the U.S. today. It just seems a bit untimely.

        • Oh, I agree completely that the “speak English” issue has to do with immigrants. But, like you said, thanking a soldier that you can read English simply doesn’t make sense in that context. So… as untimely as it seems… which, indeed, is what makes it that much more odd of a bumper sticker, I assume they are referring to soldiers protecting us from “the other”. It’s a popular sentiment in these parts.

  2. I’m going to say that the phrasing on the sticker is not perfectly fine from an English standpoint, and for the reasons you cited.

    Marissa, I would beg to differ. Speaking a language and reading a language are two entirely different skills. Both of these skills are far more difficult to acquire by the time one has become an adult. And both of these skills can be particularly challenging when the language is as complex and irregular as English.
    Consider that babies understand the language used when they are spoken to long before they are able to reply in phrases or full sentences. And it is even later in development when they are able to acquire necessary skills to begin reading or writing in their native language. The same goes for people of any age looking to acquire additional languages. And our country is one of the few developed nations which does not emphasize nor prioritize the teaching of additional languages (at least, not to the point of functionality) in schools. So our citizens rarely graduate with more than a few select phrases and some memorized conjugation of one of the Romance languages or, occasionally, one of the Nordic/Slavic languages or German, Cantonese, Greek, etc.

    I challenge anyone to move to a country where English is not at all dominant and see how long it takes before they are able to not only speak, but also read and write in the native tongue of that location.

    For the record, I am not saying these things to be hostile; I am simply hoping that we all consider what a monumental task it is to expect that anyone acquire strong language skills in a language other than their first language. Perhaps expecting others to read and write in a second (third, fourth, etc.) language prior to relocation isn’t a realistic goal for anyone, especially when the new language for that person is one as riddled with irregularities as English and the new location for the person in question is one which places little value on supporting secondary language acquisition for its own citizens, let alone language support for those who are attempting to immigrate here.

    • I think it’s reasonable to expect permanent residents who expect to be in a country for awhile to make an effort to learn the language, including the written form, but I agree it’s unrealistic to expect them to do it before they come or to necessarily be very successful at it. I, for one, would have to be immersed before I’d even have a shot at pulling that off.

      Many people’s frustrations in this country stem from feeling that immigrants don’t even try. While many do try and struggle, it is also true that many others, particularly those with good support groups in their native tongues, do not. I have a coworker who was asked to tutor a family from his same native tongue in learning English and he told the requestor no because that family refused to speak English at home and he asserted that you can’t learn the language without immersing yourself. That family can speak some English – they run a donut shop, they have to have some ability, but it isn’t very good.

      That’s all a bit beside the point of the bumper sticker. As I said in my response to Marissa, it wasn’t talking about immigrants. I’m fairly sure it was telling us to all be grateful that we hadn’t been taken over by a foreign entity that would force us all to speak a language other than English.

      • Definitely agree! There are always some people who won’t try. My brother is a Classics scholar who teaches history and languages. He studied some rudiments of various languages in undergrad (earning 2 degrees in 5 years), then moved to Rome with only a few weeks of prep in Italian. He said that so many Romans speak 3 or 4 languages including English that he could have gotten by without studying Italian. But his goal was language and cultire immersion, so he refused to let himself use English except when he was conducting class or tours (he taught English for university students who needed to pass the TOEFL exam). He bacame fluent within less than a year, and I suspect that was partly due to his perfectionism as well as his career goals. But he dated a Roman woman whose own mother had been dating an American for several years and that “gentleman” refused to try learning Italian; he never bothered to learn even the most basic, everyday phrases.

        But yes, I do think the sticker is more about supporting our military than it is about the concept of an official national language. But it seems often the two sentiments are inextricably bound, and that was all I meant.

        Sorry to distract from your point!

    • Absolutely Melanie. I actually tried to learn Spanish and couldn’t do it. Part of the reason though, is that I didn’t have anyone available to speak to me in Spanish on a daily basis. In any case, I don’t at all belittle the plights of people who come to our country speaking a different language. However, there is a certain group that is very prevalent in my community and rather than attempting to speak English, they try to speak more of their own language and build a community where I live that excludes English speakers. There is a woman in my building who knows just a little English and she told me she is not interested in trying to improve her English skills even though it is a great disadvantage to her in trying to get a job. These are the kinds of people I was referring to. I just didn’t want to go into such detail. Thank you for going into such great depths to explain exactly why adults have difficulty with the English language. Unfortunately, you didn’t tell me anything I don’t already know.

      • Hi Marissa,
        I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to single you out. I did address you initially but as I was writing my comments were more intended for a general audience. I’m sensitive to the subject for personal reasons, having worked with the public in customer service industry and non-profit education positions for two decades. Often as manager I’ve encountered customers who refuse to work with someone who has a heavy accent, etc. even though the employee in question is a good worker and fully capable of task at hand. I suppose those situations predispose me to over-compensation or excessive explaining. I didn’t mean to imply that you didn’t know anything about language acquisition. I apologize for doing that. And thank you for being so kind and civil toward me. The great thing about this blog is that the readers and commenters here conduct themselves in a dignified, polite, and respectful manner. And that keeps it “bright” indeed.

  3. It is sometimes hard to reply in the right place on WP when accessing from a phone. I couldn’t see more than Marissa’s comment because I got there by clicking on the email with original post, so unless I surf through screen options it just posts my comment to the general post. Still trying to figure out how to navigate WP on a phone vs desktop.

  4. Good analysis. I work in R code as part of my paid employment – God bless you for enjoying programming – I find it a bit like trying to remember a name or word that is right on the tip of my tounge yet it eludes me!!!! I will thank my Father for the fact I can read – public school really wasn’t much help. 🙂

  5. Ha ha – that was great (from a grammar-nerd perspective)..and also I’ve had some jackass yell in my face that we could all be speaking German… of which I like to quote back “of all the things that could have happened; this is what happened” sometimes you just have to go existential in the face of enraged stupidity…even better if I could quote it in German – but you gotta take what comes to mind in the heat of the moment.

    • I literally laughed outloud when I got to the thought of you quoting it in German. I would love to be a fly on the wall if/when someone responded in that way. You wouldn’t even have to say that quote – just any random German nonsense would work.

      The thing is… even if Germany had won WWII, I still can’t imagine we’d be speaking German. I mean, the entire world has been trying to get us to use the metric system for decades now and even though it’s a much simpler, more logical system, I still think in feet, pounds, and mph. It would not easy be to get an entire country to switch its language.

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