John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, and now at

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Here comes the judge

Sharon Eliza Nichols boasts that she has more than 300,000 members on her Facebook group, I Judge You When You Use Poor Grammar, and these valiant battlers against the forces of darkness have submitted more than 7,000 photos in judgment.

Now the two or three dozen of you in the English-speaking world who have yet to sign up for Facebook can have a limited access to this trove of photographic evidence of subliteracy by buying I Judge You When You Use Poor Grammar: A Collection of Egregious Errors, Disconcerting Bloopers, and Other Linguistic Slip-ups (St. Martin’s Griffin, 146 pages, $9.99).

I myself have passed up the opportunity to sign up for the Facebook group. Having gone gray in more than thirty years of struggle against entrenched ignorance and slipshod writing, I have withdrawn to the last redoubt. No more flailing against the grocer’s apostrophe (MELON’S) or defective signage, e-mails and text messages, I huddle behind a few crumbling ravelins and revetments to defend what is left of published prose attempted in standard written English. No doubt Ms. Nichols and her sidekicks are younger and more agile.

What they have discovered is the abiding difficulty that people who write in English have with contractions, possessives, pronouns, and homonyms.

The it’s/its confusion crops up repeatedly. So does the your/you’re issue, as in this Highland Park Junior High School Sign:


(No doubt the ageless wisdom counterbalances the grammatical issue.)

Or this:


Some of the confusions are homonyms are deeply regrettable, as at a nursery that presumably had peonies for sale:


Or the bakery:


Or the restaurant:


Sometimes it is just tangled syntax:


But for my money, the most regrettable lapses occur with people who are attempting to be superior, as in this sign from the Village of Crestwood, Chester Stranczek, Mayor:


A lesson apparently yet to be learned by a protester carrying a handmade sign:


There is little doubt that we speakers of English are a judgmental bunch, quick to calculate our relative superiority or inferiority against everyone else who speaks or writes the language, and this book will give you a sense of that quiet, buoyant sense of superiority that is so much to be desired.

Good for you.

When you think you know something, come to me.


  1. In my younger days, I often got mad and corrected grammar. I railed against a sign at Wal-Mart for "decrative frames," I corrected my friend's mispronunciations, and sadly, I was even an online grammarian. In those days I was in college, or graduate school, and by and large free from real cares. As I must now pay bills using the language...writing it, editing it, and worst of all, teaching it...the need to correct anything I am not being paid to correct has entirely left me.

  2. I wonder how Sharon Eliza Nichols might feel to find herself singled out on an FB group titled I Judge You When You Wear Those Icky Clothes or I Judge You When You Cannot Fix Your Own Plumbing Problems. While I am entirely in favor of using "grammar" correctly (generally meaning punctuation or spelling in such contexts, it seems), I don't see the point of devoting oneself to simply mocking others about something that, let's face it, most people don't really value very highly.

    The ability to wield an apostrophe correctly is certainly essential in certain circles. But it would be an unusual personals ad, for example, that touted one's ability to do this as a primary attractant (or that garnered favorable responses as a result). Nor, I am guessing, does it probably impress the auto mechanic whom Sharon Eliza Nichols probably pays $83/hour because while she was mastering the arcana of punctuation, someone whose "grammar" she seems compelled to judge was out learning something that can actually make her car run, or replace her burst water heater, or frame the addition to her house.

    But then, peevology in general makes me cranky. Obviously.

  3. Amen to LastBestAngry Man. I've had people say to me, "Oh, you're an editor--I better watch what I say or you'll correct my grammar." I respond, "No, I only correct people's grammar when they pay me to do it." Sound a little cynical? Maybe. But as I've gotten older my concerns in life have gotten much greater than being upset at mistakes in handwritten signs.

  4. I'm not cured of my grammar judgment, but I am in recovery. After many years of dating eloquent cads who lied, cheated, and treated me badly, I met a wonderful, kind, loving man who writes me notes that say, "Your the most beautiful woman in the world." I hardly miss the apostrophe and the e at all.

  5. Is it okay to judge a band that can't even spell its own name?

  6. Spelling and punctuation errors in handwritten signs can be amusing, but judging people by their knowledge of punctuation, formal register English grammar, and the bizarre conventions of English spelling seems arrogant.

    Nevertheless, there are circumstances where I do think it's fair to allow an orthographic error to serve as a basis for an unflattering judgment of the perpetrator. My favorite spelling mistake appeared in a photo in the New York Times Magazine section a number of years ago--a scrawl that defaced a rock overlooking a pond in a park. It read: "SATIN LIVES."

  7. In my profile of a mean person I wrote that he always went for the juggler. Years later, I still regret that an editor caught and corrected the error. That editor gave me kind of a compliment. She said, "Your errors are hard to catch."

    To my credit, I learned to spell "ninth," albeit at age 65. Unfortunately, I now pronounce "ninth" as "nenth." "It's the bottom of the nenth." Worse, I can't say "nenth" without thinking of Monty Python. Then I think of a killer rabbit.

    For spellers like me, the greatest modern invention is the spell check. Google is the next best thing to an error check. What's needed is a spell check for handmade signs. Also, a fact check for Republicans.

  8. My favorites were both in the Sun's (sorry!) sports section. One quoted Pat Summit as saying two of her players (Holdsclaw and Catchings) "complimented" each other on the court; the other from the reporter saying that Freddie Lynne played with "wreckless abandon"... alas! If only the latter had been so...

  9. I don't know...I have to think about Southern Beastro. It may just be a good wild game restaurant.

  10. I enjoy reading online stories that clearly got a miminal edit, or online story comments, and trying to figure out what they really meant. This week I saw "towing the line" in a newspaper story and a story commenter saying he was 'giving prompts" to someone. Finally figured out he meant "giving props."

  11. The only time grammar needs to be changed is when it obscures meaning. That is the only rule.

  12. Patricia the TerseOctober 6, 2009 at 5:43 PM

    Grammar can't "need" anything: need has become an irritatingly overused and misused construction. Grammar should, or can or ought or must. And there are rules, for which I am thankful.