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 jemcintyre@gmail.com, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/ and now at www.baltimoresun.com/news/language-blog/.

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 Having gone gray in more than thirty years of struggle against entrenched ignorance and slipshod writing, I have withdrawn to the last redoubt.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:

SOMETIMES YOUR THE DOG, SOMETIMES YOUR THE HYDRANT

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

Or this:

THERE BACK
CHICKEN FLAUTAS

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

FRESH CUT PENIS

Or the bakery:

SENTED HOLE WEET

Or the restaurant:

SOUTHERN BEASTRO

Sometimes it is just tangled syntax:

KIDS WITH GAS EAT FREE

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:

ENGLISH IS OUR LANGUAGE
NO EXCETIONS
LEARN IT

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

GET A
BRAIN!
MORANS

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.