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 firstname.lastname@example.org, 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/.
Friday, January 29, 2010
Steam escaping under pressure
It’s only spelling: Yes, I know that using it’s for its is just a spelling error and not a capital offense. It’s just a spelling error when people make nouns plural by adding ’s. Seeing that does not raise my blood pressure. The people who are sacking three-fifths of the copy desk at the Star Tribune in Minneapolis — there you’ve got a felony offense. It wouldn’t be disproportionate for the people responsible to spend a day or two in the stocks, subject to verbal and physical abuse from passers-by.
But there are people who will think less of you if your writing is littered with spelling errors and typos, and those people will begin to think more about your trivial errors than they do about what you are saying. (Public speaking in analogous; the same people will notice that you have spinach between your incisors and that your fly is open.) I am not saying that these people are right to be so distracted, only that you should be aware of the likelihood.
That damn apostrophe: Yeah, yeah, we didn’t always use it to show possession, and we might not have to, and why not let it go away altogether except to make plurals at the produce section of the supermarket, where it will be found forever. You know, I don’t legislate for the language; I’m just explaining the conventions of formal written English as they exist today. The apostrophe may go by the time the state has withered away, and take whom with it, but this is today.
Chill, bro’: (There’s that damn apostrophe again.) I am not a peevologist. I do not maintain a kennel of pet peeves. I try to express an informed prescriptivism and give my reasons rather than resort to mere dogmatism.
I also teach editing, a complex and subtle craft that takes a great deal of time to master. That is why I begrudge the necessity of spending the first few weeks of every semester TEACHING UPPER-CLASS UNDERGRADUATES THE MECHANICS OF GRAMMAR AND PUNCTUATION THAT I LEARNED IN THE SIXTH AND SEVENTH GRADES IN PUBLIC SCHOOLS IN — OF ALL PLACES — EASTERN KENTUCKY* NEARLY HALF A CENTURY AGO.
Sorry. Sorry. Perhaps it is time for me to take my medication.
The Hamilton Tavern opens in half an hour.
*A region not famed, then or now, for book-learning.