The Grammar Police: To Serve and Correct
I love words. All sorts of words, and the weirder the better. I learn new ones all the time, even getting a word delivered each day to my inbox so I can increase my vocabulary. My favorite part of words is their etymology, and if I had a chance to study word origins specifically, I would. I had a chance to edit a friend’s novel, and since it was a period piece, one of my tasks was to look up the origin of words I thought didn’t fit the time frame in the story. Did you know that “okay” didn’t exist until the 1950s? It’s true, so medieval characters can’t say that word in a novel set in the 1500s. My friend was not pleased when I took that one away.
I am rather obsessive about correctness with words. I mentioned in my article, “Welcome to the No-Slacking Zone” that if my students tell me they want to be a teacher, their language will receive extra scrutiny because they will be a model to kids, so it must be perfect. It still amazes me, though, how many mistakes show up in everyday things. I know it’s annoying to constantly be corrected, so I try to keep from doing it a lot, but my former students seem to be the biggest victims. But when they get on Facebook and say things like, “Look at Nathan cutie!” and there’s no punctuation, they can expect some confusion on the part of their readers, so I feel obligated to help them. From my perspective, I’m helping them to avoid looking like an idiot; from theirs, I’m just nit-picky.
A post I read a few days ago was a rant against the Seahawks in the Superbowl, going on and on about “stupid calls” and “run the ball,” etc. etc. The problem was, the fourth word she used in the post was it’s, which should have been its. I got stuck, and I couldn’t read any further. I told her so, and that the misuse of “it is” made the entire post lose momentum. She didn’t respond, but she removed the post rather than fixing it. I guess she couldn’t be bothered to remove one lousy apostrophe. Now that Facebook has an editing option, there should be no reason for so many mistakes, unless people just don’t care. Sometimes I have to stop reading. I can’t fix them all.
My friends and I take pictures of blatant misspellings and grammatical errors in signs around town. Don’t people realize how important correctness is for signs that will be viewed in the public, and that mistakes are a reflection on the establishment? Take for instance this sign in front of a local grocery store:
Three signs, count them, three, were displayed with the same error. My mom, a former elementary school teacher, and I went inside with one of them and waited through the giant line at the service desk to inform the management of this rather humorous misuse of the word “scrapper.” (I thought about using the blank space to draw a couple of ice cubes facing off, tiny stick-arms raised. One says, “You want a piece of me?” with a parent cube cheering them on, saying, “Well, son’s a chip off the old ice block!”) We were told that the signs came from “corporate” and there was nothing they could do. So, when I went to the same store two weeks later and the signs were still there, I corrected them with a sharpie. I have done that at least twice on other signs in the same store since then. It’s not corporate. It’s someone who doesn’t know any better not paying enough attention to their work and that, to me, is unacceptable.
The next one shows a complete lack of proofreading, because not only is it a run-on, but it makes no sense. I wonder if it’s deliberate in order to confuse the customer into believing their money is well spent:
Here’s a stereo that will never sell, even for $35. Or is it 35 o’clock?
I don’t know what the owner expects, but if you’re not sure how to spell a word and placing two vowels close together seems odd, wouldn’t you look it up? For goodness sake, most phones have voice-to-text, and the phone will spell the word for you. Then, even though it looks weird, write down the correct spelling. You may get $20 for that stereo.
How about this news article? I found this one especially pertinent since this was published about a year ago, and now it’s been two years since Kelsie Schelling went missing. Apparently the police is still looking for her (and no, the grammar checker didn’t catch that agreement problem just there).
Here’s one I found in a local Asian supermarket. After reading this sign, I am glad the box was empty, or it would have gotten pretty loud in there.
I walked by this sign in front of a downtown hotel. I couldn’t tell what was wrong with it at first, so I did a double-take.
Closed for maintence? What is that? When the person printed the sign, didn’t they bother reading it? And just how long is the maintence supposed to last? If it were maintenance, at least I could expect a time frame. I think that’s part of this rampant problem: people think that if the spelling is close enough, the public will get it, and that’s ok. Well, it’s not.
Here’s one that shows exactly what the employees at a local equestrian center own—the “only.” And they mean it, because there are three exclamation points!!!
I tell my students that apostrophes have two rules: possession and contraction. Most people know the contraction rules, so the problem is with the possession rule. So, if something owns something else, use an apostrophe. If there is no ownership, if the word is simply plural, don’t use one. And most important, “when in doubt, leave it out.” Why do people think they have to attach every ending “s” with an apostrophe? After seeing this one all over Sundance, Wyoming the week before the Sturgis rally, we all kept saying, “Welcome biker is. Welcome biker is?”
By far my favorite sign is this one, which we found in the deli at the PX a few years ago. Comma placement is crucial.
Someone did try to add the comma with a pen, so it reads, “Look, hot turkey legs!” like it’s supposed to. I much prefer the comma after the word “hot” though. When my friend calls and invites me out, she says, “Look hot, turkey legs!” What a great pickup line. That one hasn’t gotten old yet.
I suppose I shouldn’t be so picky about everyone else’s grammar, but I can’t help it. Signs that are posted in public should be correct, and management should be able to trust that an employee tasked with making a sign cares enough to do it right. I’ll just have to keep surreptitiously erasing the apostrophes off whiteboard and chalkboard menus with my thumb, and carrying a sharpie and a white-out pen with me for emergencies. After all, I don’t make the rules, I just enforce them. I am a proud member of the grammar police: to serve and correct.