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Grammar vigilantes' comeuppance

I haven’t said anything about the two gentlemen who set off across the United States with their Sharpies to correct grammar and punctuation in signage on a continental scale. The whole project looked fatuous. Now, it turns out, they have overreached: After defacing a marker at the Grand Canyon, they have been charged in federal court, pleaded guilty, banned from the national parks and ordered to pay restitution.*

Punctuation in signage varies widely, particularly with proper nouns. In Maryland there is a county named Queen Anne’s. In adjacent Talbot County, there is a town named St. Michaels. (Messrs. Deck and Herson would have had a busy day there.) That’s just how it is.

If the young gentlemen were to pass an Eastern Shore roadside stand proclaiming “LOPES” for sale, would they excise the quotation marks? Would they add an apostrophe? (I knew an Episcopal priest some years ago who insisted on writing the verb for making a telephone call as ’phone. Would his newsletter get marked up? Or would we have to go back to writing ’cello as well? **)

Or how worthwhile is it to get into an argument was a grocery store manager about his checkout sign limiting to 10 items or less? Or quibbling with the manager of a restaurant whose menu offers a cup of au jus? If that’s the kind of place where you dine, grammar is probably the least of your worries.

What is annoying about the whole enterprise is that it trivializes grammar, and reinforces the public image that people concerned about grammar and usage are (a) preoccupied with trifles and (b) busybodies whose joy in life is to correct other people publicly.

But let me salute the anonymous copy editor at the Republic who wrote an apt headline:

Typo vigilantes answer to letter of the law


* A link to the article in the Arizona Republic and associated commentary can be found at Language Log. And thanks to all the readers who sent links to the story.

** The original name of the instrument was violoncello.



Posted by John McIntyre at 2:00 PM | | Comments (9)


A farmer's use of LOPES is one thing, but the gov't should be held to a higher standard. Maybe we need a No Government Employee Left Behind Act. Those boys should have gotten a constitutional law attorney to defend their free speech rights.

On another note - is there a more constructive way to draw attention to the ridiculous number of grammatical errors on signage, menus, etc. in our daily lives? Or should we just ignore it all and endure the dumbing down? I think what these guys were doing is mildly funny.

p.s. Did they get the NYT for putting an apostrophe in decades (such as 1990's). Ugh.

Please note that this is not your typical National Park signage. The sign in question was originally hand painted by the architect and artist Mary Colter, who created the Desert View Watch Tower in 1932. It is, in and of itself, a national historic landmark and vandalizing it with white-out and a permanent marker is akin to, say, painting graffiti on the Lincoln Memorial.

1990's is a style preference, not a commonly accepted grammar rule.

Those guys needed to have read Miss Manners from August 20:

I will fess up to having corrected graffitti in the NYC subway system (I figured they'd have to paint the wall eventually anyway; my comma wasn't going to make that job harder), and having added a comma to an Ikea ad in the same venue; but
to actually modify something that isn't temporary, that can't be fixed easily?

The sign in question may have been a national monument in and of itself, but frankly even a sign on the inside of the bathroom stall shouldn't be vandalized.

(I guess it's my basic contempt for advertising that led me to mark up Ikea's poster--that and the knowledge that it was going to go away in about 2 weeks anyway)

Quoth the maven:

a cup of au jus?

Now, would that correctly be Au jus - or as some would say, Gold Water?

Or is it an Australian product sold via the net ('net) ...

What was written on the park sign that they corrected?

Here's a link to an image of the sign:

Great headline in the Republic, and I also liked my own paper's hed (not written by me!): "Grammar vigilantes get a complete sentence"

I'm afraid I must confess complicity with the Sharpie gang, since I have done the same thing in the past, both to insert and delete. As a corporate trainer, I carried chalk and now carry dry-erase markers with me wherever I go. If I think I can get away with it without being arrested for vandalism, I'll correct it surreptitiously.

This weekend I did my part to educate by erasing the apostrophe from a Maine pub blackboard running a special on "chili dog's."

My rationale is that we are performing an educational service. Otherwise, children reading the flawed grammar will assume it's correct because it's in the public eye and therefore official.

Some of you might enjoy the Whose Responible? feature in City Paper, featuring typos, bad grammar, and unfortunate juxtapositions on public signage.

Bourbon Girl - The United States Constitution does not contain a protection for the people from bad grammar or permit them to destroy the property of another, even if that property is public property and they are a member of the public.

A constructive way to call attention to public and published faux pas would be through letters to editors, letters to administrators, publication of photos of the offenses in a newspaper, web site or blog. You can probably think of others that do not call for harming others, interrupting their happiness or destroying their property. If destruction is the only option, buy it first, then it is your to destroy.

Tally Sue and Robin might take the foregoing comment to heart. Neither our society nor individuals cut out the tongues of those who misspeak or say things that offend us. We don't sever the limbs of athletes who make errant throws. We don't unplug the computer of every writer who leaves a word out of a sentence, thereby changing the meaning of the thought they wanted to write. Neither should any one of think it is acceptable to damage or destroy the property of another because we think it contains some error.

I now return you to your regularly scheduled programming.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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