“When I go through and mark up a menu, I’m not doing it to humiliate the person... I just want them to know so they don’t look uneducated." Is this persnickety dame a recession casualty?
The woman quoted above is, MSNBC tells us, at the vanguard of a new movement: recession grammar police. Some people have always been good spellers and had excellent grammar. Loads of folks are bothered by errors. A few have always been kind enough to correct their friends and loved ones. But apparently the economic downturn and the corresponding lack of control people feel over their lives has driven language vigilantes to new heights of activism. The results are sometimes funny, frequently annoying, and occasionally illegal.
To hear MSNBC tell it,
The past few years have seen a dramatic increase in books, broadcasts and puckish blogs that poke fun at common gaffes and proffer usage tips for those not in the know. Language love is celebrated via T-shirts, Facebook pages and shiny new holidays such as National Grammar Day. Even Oprah’s gotten in on the style and usage scene by asking Grammar Girl Mignon Fogarty to clear up confusion about compound possessives.
But for every "'Blog' of 'Unnecessary' Quotation Marks" (yes, that's what it's called) there's an irritated co-worker chafing at constant criticism; for every copy of Eats, Shoots & Leaves sold there's a nursed grudge; for every article on famous authors' spelling errors, there's apparently an obsessive dad who carries color-coded pens and corrects strangers' bumper stickers. As for the illegality, that came about when a couple of folks corrected a historic hand-painted sign in Grand Canyon National Park.
Those who bridle at a misplaced pronoun probably feel themselves on some level to be guardians of the language, a bastion of order in an increasingly anarchic universe. (The fact that Jane Austen, doyenne of order, apparently couldn't spell may or may not reassure them.) Perhaps this is why people are sometimes more than merely annoyed by such criticism: it suggests a fundamental failure. Then too, there is the issue of implicit educational superiority, a naturally touchy subject. The fact that the critic is always right — that there is, in fact, an objective validity to such criticism — can only serve to increase the recipient's sullen truculence. Then too, there is something to be said for appreciating a touch of anarchy: most of us get a kick out of the occasional Tonight Show-style malaprop, and the woman who refuses to eat anywhere with a misspelled name (she counts "Krispy Kreme" and, yes, is the same one whose quote opened this post) is probably an anomaly even amongst high sticklers. Whatever the stakes — and one can certainly make a good argument that proper usage is far more than a mere nicety — anyone who worries about the fraying of society's fabric must acknowledge that civility is at least as crucial.