Friday, April 11, 2008

Grammar Police: Our Duty is to Serve...Not to Serve Time

As regular readers of Professorial Musings will have noted, I'm appalled by the terrible typos, problematic punctuation, and grammatical gaffes that appear in ads, business documents, and on public signs. A colleague and friend of mine sent me a link today to an April 7, 2008, article on Gimundo titled "Man Drives Cross-Country, Correcting Typos." Apparently, 28-year-old college graduate Jeff Deck is touring America, correcting grammar as he goes.

He's my kind of guy. (Just a little young.)

He's doing what I've always dreamed of doing--correcting public grammar goofs so people don't mistakenly think that the mistake is the reality. While I admire his enthusiasm for the project, though, lessons learned in childhood conflict with my desire to make public people's mistakes:

  1. Don't deface other's people's property. My siblings and I were taught to treat other people's property with respect. Clearly, marking up people's signs--especially in a permanent way--is defacing property. It's quite possibly even punishable as a misdemeanor or felony, depending upon the value of what is defaced.

  2. Don't point out when other people are being stupid. This is a hard lesson for me to adhere to sometimes, and I'll admit that this blog occasionally pokes at people who haven't proofread very well. But to physically mark up a sign so that everyone can see the mistake, well, that's equivalent to posting a neon sign that says Stupid Works Here. And frankly, it isn't stupidity that causes people to make grammatical and other mistakes; it's usually simple ignorance of the rules. Why not find a positive way to instruct people instead of making people look stupid for not knowing or understanding the rules? Even people who work with language every day make mistakes and need to look up the occasional rule.
I will admit to having thought about correcting signs or offering unsolicited lectures about grammar. For example, it's difficult for me to walk through the vendor area at a craft fair and not stop to explain why the wood-burned house plaques should read The Smiths instead of The Smith's. Instinct cries out These errors must be corrected! Save our children from improper apostrophe usage! But I avoid that dark side and simply refrain from buying an improperly apostrophe-d plaque.

I did, however, relapse about a week ago. My roommate and I were dining in a local Mexican restaurant where I noticed that the whiteboard near the front counter announced the evening's Special's. As we walked up to the counter to pay our separate bills, I made my roommate go first in order to distract the employee at the register while I snuffed out the apostrophe.

At least I didn't deface their property, and removing the offending apostrophe only made them look smarter.


Steve said...

/hartman's law/ Er, don't you mean The Smiths'? /hartman's law/

In any event, I don't think The Smiths is wrong. You assume that The Smiths has to be understood as a genitive (as in, "This is the Smith's house") whereas it could just as well be short for "The Smiths live here" -- an ordinary plural noun. Think of it this way: The plaque is like a nametag but, instead of being on your shirt, it's on the house. And it would clearly be wrong (not to mention bizarre) to write "Joe Smith's" on your nametag.

Steve said...

Wait, I'm confused. In one of your archived posts from last April you endorsed The Smiths as the proper rendering. Perhaps your sentence just got mangled this time round...?

EnglishProf said...

Hi, Steve,

Actually, you're right, and believe it or not, I MEANT to write the sentence to show that "The Smiths" is correct, but apparently my synapses failed me in the moment. I've corrected the blog sentence to show what I meant to say. So many of those house-plaque vendors burn "The Smith's" (even instead of "The Smiths'" into the wood; I want to give them an apostrophe lecture! But I restrain myself. :-)

I appreciate the feedback!


Jeremy said...

While I am no grammatical expert, I have a college English professor drill into us that using the phrase "the reason why" is redundant and poor grammar. Since then, I almost cringe every time I hear someone saying it.

Thought you might be interested in this picture. In it, I am sitting by a sign in the Arizona desert on a road trip with my sons.