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.


As you make your own plans to celebrate National Grammar Day on March 4, this account from the archives, published the day after the first National Grammar Day in 2008, may guide you.

One day past, the exhilaration of National Grammar Day has yet to fade. The cheers of the crowds lining the streets at the parade still echo in one’s ears. It was a swirl of events, the hourly cannon fire salute from the Citadel, the Te Deum sung at the Cathedral, the torchlight procession and laying of a wreath at the Cenotaph of the Unknown Copy Editor*, the fireworks display, the Semicolon Ball at the Ducal Palace, the governor’s generous clemency in releasing the detainees from the stockade at midnight. A glorious day.

*Hell, pretty much all copy editors are unknown.