Letter from America.
For the past couple of days, some of my friends have reminded me that National Grammar Day came and went in early March without my paying any particular homage to it. Honestly, whatever do they think of me? I am about as close to being a captain on the Grammar Police Force as I am to being a dog whisperer, tap-dance instructor, member of European royalty, or star of my own reality show.
In my opinion, I much more closely resemble a somewhat officious Grammar Safety Patrol Girl, issuing pithily and pitilessly worded but toothless demerits to the offenders I come across as I stroll, fashionably sashed, down the school hallway of life. Just prior to National Grammar Day, I did permit myself to vent after reading sentences containing “quaffed head” and “sullen hair” in two different (and otherwise rather enjoyable) books. How on God’s green earth could any copy editor worth his paycheck have neglected to correct these remains beyond my comprehension.
Grammar mistakes in dialogue rarely cause me any heartburn because I fully recognize that, in spoken language, all but the purists among us make occasional mistakes. Writing dialogue is difficult for a purist but he or she has to write the words as a character in a book would utter them. Take “lay” and “lie,” for example. Few people get that right, so I’d expect to see these two words mangled frequently in written dialogue. That said, however, I do expect the professional writer who employs either of these in narrative portions of a book to use each correctly. So sue me.
If I wallowed in my displeasure each and every time I discovered an egregious error in a book, a blog, an advertisement, a grocery store circular, or a bible, I’d be reaching for an antacid every 20 minutes. By the way, if you don’t believe me about the Bible, just look up the Bug Bible, the Treacle Bible, the Place-Maker Bible (which contains more than one error), and the Owl Bible, among others. Probably the most infamous of Bible booboos is contained in the Wicked Bible (also called the Sinner’s Bible and the Adulterous Bible), in which an essential word was omitted. In Exodus 20:14, the printer neglected to insert the word “not,” thus rendering a commandment as “Thou shalt commit adultery!” The printers were fined a hefty sum when their mistake was noted and all but a few copies of the book were destroyed.
Some of the errors in those bibles resulted from mistranslations, not necessarily by bad copy editing or poor typesetters, but a few of them had to have been caused by a scribe who was off his game one day while performing his quill-and-ink duties. Maybe an insolent but perfectly quaffed trollop distracted him with a toss of her sullen hair as she passed the window of the monastery in which he toiled. Maybe a cat was laying down on the scroll he was attempting to copy. Or maybe—just maybe—the scribe was a garden-variety trouble maker, hell bent on making mischief. I like to think it was the trollop.
I am not always annoyed by errors in grammar or inappropriate word placement. A great source of amusement to the reader in me exists in signage. An illuminated sign outside a grocery store recently announced to the public:
I immediately envisioned a bunch of teenagers from the high school drama club flocking to the store to fill out employment applications. (Who among them wouldn’t claim to be a ham in order to bag groceries at a few bucks above minimum wage?) I further imagined myself shopping there after the club members were all hired. While bagging my groceries, the kids would break into song-and-dance routines, eliciting smiles from all present and uplifting their more sober-sided fellow employees. I’d no doubt return day after day to pick up unneeded items—diapers, dill pickles, denture adhesive, hamster chow, almond chocolate milk, foam hair curlers, and institution-sized blocks of limburger cheese—just for the free entertainment. Shoppers all over town would do the same. Sales would soar. Other stores would jump on the bandwagon and, before stage-struck baggers all over the U.S.A. could belt out a chorus of “Proud To Be An American,” our nation’s economy would recover from its slump. What a country!
Finally, a note to all who just haaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaad to remind me about National Grammar Day: While I’ll continue to support the mission of the Grammar Safety Patrol, I solemnly promise to issue fewer demerits henceforth. After all, I’d like to retain the small circle of friends I still have. I’ve probably scared too many away already.
By Cara Sheridan O’Donnell
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