Friday, January 29, 2010

Steam escaping under pressure

Some of the people who commented on this week’s posts “Keeping up with the Joneses” and “English, the slut language” acted as if they were apprehensive that I had gone off my medication. To reassure them, some responses.

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.


  1. Hahaha... Oh, no, no, John... never give up. PLEASE. Everyone needs your advice though most of them (insert looking daggers at "them", here) don't want to hear, to learn, to make an effort.

    I was just wondering why they get angry for being taught, instead of being grateful for all the help you give... daily and freely. It's so weird.

    So, please, don't take any medication, don't go to that tavern... just stay there, as always. I'm sure a monument to you will be erected somewhere, some day. Just wait, and be patient.

    We love you. :)

  2. [The "urban dictionary" has just helped me (to) decrypt and find the meaning of the "Aw shucks". See? Your teaching is transequatorial! Or... hmmm... "trans-equatorial"?].

  3. Patricia the TerseJanuary 29, 2010 at 5:21 PM

    There are few places in the country that are now famed for "book-learning." Snide remarks about eastern Kentucky can be applied to pretty much anywhere. Perhaps the good people of eastern Kentucky were and remain on to something the rest of the nation has discarded.

  4. Keep the advice going....we need it.
    There are certain individuals out there that dont give a darn and that is too bad for them.

  5. Not to be syrupy (is there such a word?), but since discovering your blog several weeks ago you have added a great deal of entertainment and knowledge to my life. Thank you and keep it up.

  6. I found this blog a couple of weeks ago (linked from David Hobby's Strobist blog). I've since managed to read every post back to the beginning. I've really enjoyed your comments on language and culture as well as the decline of the news media. I'm a mathematician by education, and a photographer by trade, and I worry greatly about the future education of my son, both in English and mathematics.

  7. My monument to Professor McIntyre is not stone or bronze, but the link in my RSS reader.