Monday, March 6, 2017

Spelling and Grammar and Punctuation – Oh, my!

It started when I was very young. Sometime during dinner, someone would make a grammatical error in speaking, and it was corrected. My mother would then say, “Speak good English, and good English will speak for you.” It always happened this way – without exception.

My mother was full of proverbs, but the grammar one was about creating a first impression, putting forward our best selves. It stuck. Four siblings continue to monitor the grammar (and punctuation) of the world. By monitor, I do NOT mean correcting people! I mean quietly noting the offending tense or case or number disagreement and letting its disturbance pass through our systems.

If we’re occupying the role of editor, yes, we make the correction. If something is being published, it needs to be correct. And that’s probably how grammarians find each other. Maybe you’re in charge of editing a document and you make a change. Someone speaks up and says, “I was debating whether it would fall into the objective or subjective case, but …,” and you glow all over because you’ve found a kindred spirit.

Abbe and I found each other because we both insert the comma in our emails: “Hi, Abbe.” After a while, you start passing grammar questions back and forth to each other. Eventually one of the kindred spirits sent me this video, Vigilante Copy Editor. This is the story of a sculpture garden with placards describing the art – but the placards have lots of grammar mistakes. A rogue grammarian corrected them with a Sharpie. Was he or she being an asshole … or someone restoring the dignity of the art after the poor wording on the descriptive placards?
I walked by a white board in an elementary school with the science word of the day: “spongue.” It killed me. Children would learn the wrong spelling! So I crept up and secretly erased the offending “u.”
We former philosophy students enjoy exploring the narrow boundaries between behaviors: what’s acceptable? What’s reprehensible? Grammar problem as moral issue.

A while back, I discovered a whole new literary genre: humorous grammar and punctuation books by copy editors. Eats, Shoots & Leaves was my first, but then I loved Between You and Me. Now I’m reading Yes, I Could Care Less: How to Be a Language Snob Without Being a Jerk. Sometimes I laugh out loud. Sometimes I cringe because I’ve discovered an inadvertent mistake I’d been making. (A real grammar nutcase enjoys a cringe as much as a laugh.) And now I’ve discovered that there are wars among “descriptivists” who say grammar is what people say, “prescriptivists” who say grammar has rules, and assorted “purists,” “sticklers,” and “bullies.”

So there I was, writing my blog post about Stealth De-cluttering. Right there in the third sentence, I faced a grammar dilemma:

“I tried to find the owner, waited for him or her to call, but they never did.”

Oh, the problem! Owner is singular, so if I’m going to be gender-neutral, I have to say “him or her.” But two “him or hers” in a row?!? “I tried to find the owner, waited for him or her to call, but he or she never did.” That’s a mess!

I took the high risk alternative: I opted for the “singular they.” Since English doesn’t have a gender-neutral singular pronoun, I’d heard talk of this “singular they.” I debated including an asterisk so my vigilant grammarian friends would know I wasn’t making a stupid error in number agreement, but I thought that would just call attention to it.

Minutes later – minutes later! – Abbe sent me this: “The singular ‘they’ has been declared Word of the Year.” Immediately, I went back online and added my asterisk.

Meanwhile, the family grammarians have weighed in. My brother pointed out that I’d just needed some more thinking ahead to steer clear of the difficult words: “waited for him or her to call, but no one ever did.” Yes, yes, yes! That would have done it!

I could go back, delete the asterisk, change the wording, fix the whole mess. But where would the story be in that? The story of dilemma and conflict, decision-making and revelation – the grit of a good grammar saga.


  1. Great post! As someone who thinks that punctuation is simply an embellishment to sentences and words I have no clue about what is grammatically correct or what just looks nice on my la difference.....and I love ........

  2. I can relate to this big time! Another grammar book you may know and love is Patricia O'Connor's "Woe is I".

  3. I believe grammar, punctuation, and spelling matter.


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