What NOT to do

Fossil Frog (Picture courtesy of kevinzim, via Flickr)

(Or, how grammar gremlins could see you ending up like the dinosaurs – extinct!)

IT WAS a scorcher of a day in the tiny Karoo *village. Not a whisper of wind stirred up the few dusty strips that pass for streets.

Even the usually free-roaming goats were stopped in their tracks, huddled together in the sparse shade offered by a few scrubby bushes.

It’s easy to believe you’ve arrived in the land time forgot, especially when you discover there’s not a petrol pump in the place and that not one establishment – even the guest houses – takes credit cards. Or that our “quirky” converted water tower accommodation (my fault – I hadn’t wanted a conventional chintz ’n cheesy B&B) came with a compost toilet. No flush, no water and a sign instructing male users to “sit or use the garden”.

The perfect day, then, to explore the dry river bed for fossils, which are one of the enchanting little town’s claims to fame, along with a world-renowned living playwright and the home-turned-museum of a dead-by-her-own-hand “outsider” artist.

I trotted, or rather dragged myself listlessly, to the fossil exploration centre, which is run in conjunction with one of this country’s most high-profile and well-respected universities.

The pamphlet I was handed there almost stopped me in my tracks. It’s reproduced below, as printed. Errors are noted in bold and *identifying names have been omitted:

The … Fossil Exploration Centre showcase the rich fossil deposits found at … and in South Africa in general. The centre was established as part of a collaborative programme between the … Institute for Paleontological Research at the University of the … (misspelt) in Johannesburg, the … Museum in … and the Department of Science and Technology to set up paleotourism and provide employment opportunities.
Paleontologists at …:
The story of paleontology in South Africa is also the story of personalities, such as the famous Dr Robert Broom, who collected fossils in the erea around … long before he found the first specimens of ape-man in the Cradle of Humankind in Gauteng. James …, who was brought up in … (misspelt), became internationally renowned for his ncanny ability to discove fossils and later became professor in paleontology at the University of the … In 1970 he was the first person to collect and identify a specimen of a Karoo therapsid in Antarctica and so demostate that Antarctica and southern Africa were once connected.
Past Enviroments:
The Centre tells the story of life in South Africa 253 million years ago during the Permain Period. This was 50 milloin years before the first dinosaurs, a time when the continents were joined to form the supercontinents. Pangea, and the mountains of the Cape were the size of the Himalayas. Proof for the existence of these animals and plants may be found in the rocks surrounding … At the time the area around the present day … was covered by huge meandering rivers which flowed in a northerly direction. The flooplains teemed with prehistroric animals which died along banks of the river, were covered with mud and are today preserved as fossils.
The rocks of … are part of the … (misspelt) Supergroup, which tell the story of life from 285 million to 180 million years ago. Visitors to the Fossil Exploration Centre can experience, on a short guided tour to nearby fossil-bearing rocks, the thrill of finding a fossil in the … Step into the Fossil Exploration Centre, and you enter a world without the plants and animals we know today. Life-sized models of prehistoric animals which once live in the … and paintings by the artist Gerhard Marx illustrate a time when there were no flowers or grasses, no mammals and no birds. Human would only arrive on (the) scene around 250 million years later. At this time the mammals (no apostrophe) ancestors (or therapsids) ruled the earth.
Prehistoric Plants and Animals of the area:
The chief predators of the Permain period were the gorgonopsians, or terrible eyes, with dagger-like canine teeth like those of sabre-tooth cats. Rubidgea, a tiger-sized animals and the largest (of the) gorgonopsians, which roamed the floodplains of this area was a formidable carnivore. The gorgonopsians preyed on the herbivorous dicynodonts (two dogteeth) which had beaks like tortoises and defended themselves with a pair of tusks like those of a warthog. Aulacephalodon and Dicynodon (different spelling) we two large dicynodonts that wandered in herds around the … area 253 million years ago. The pareiasaurs were another gruop of plant eaters that grew to the size of a cow. These animals may have been relatives of tortoises and turtles. Ferns and horsetails, which were common at the time, may still be found in damp spots today. The forests were dominated by Glossopteris trees whose fossilised leaves formed the coal which is mined in South Africa today.

Footnote – a startling response:
After my trip, I contacted the relevant university department, via the e-mail address on the pamphlet, and offered to edit the document. I couched my e-mail in gentle language and made it clear that the offer was made purely as a good-will gesture, and not for a fee.

The response – reproduced exactly as it arrived – left me speechless:

“Thank you i see the mistakes my friends mistakes i will make it correct.”

I doubted it.

“I’m a new guy on the job but thank,” the writer added for good measure.

“Warmly regards.”

The names of the university and the town have been withheld to spare the blushes of those responsible, whose bosses would no doubt be at their Wits’ end to learn of such incompetence.

(A version of this column by Stevie Godson first appeared in the Daily Dispatch)

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This entry was posted by stevieg on Sunday, August 1st, 2010 at 10:56 am and is filed under A Passion for Words, General . You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.


  1. Good blog! I truly love how it is uncomplicated on my eyes and the facts is well written. I am wondering how I might be notified whenever a new post has been made. I have subscribed to your rss feed which ought to do the trick! Have a nice day!

    • stevieg says:

      I’d really like to think your comment is coming from a real person. If so, thanks, but please comment using your name and not your company. I’d really appreciate it!

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