Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The Curse of the Grammar Nerd ~ Leah St. James

The first thing I do on Sunday morning (after reading the Roses of Prose blog, of course!) is open the Sunday paper. I know, I know, I'm a dinosaur. But since I work for the organization in my "day job," and I answer calls from readers who are generally ticked off about one thing or another, it behooves me to arm myself with knowledge before heading to the office on Monday morning. (Although I read the eNewspaper on my phone, so maybe not such a dinosaur?) :-) 

I start with the "centerpiece" stories on the front page (A1), move to the publisher's feedback column on A2, then work my way back to the editorial and letters to the editor, and so on. This Sunday I made it all the way to A5 before I found my first uh-oh moment.

It was a headline about a third of the way down the page. I couldn't get to the story itself because I got stuck on the headline:  "Virginia is for felons? 1980's petty theft law lingers," by two reporters from the Associated Press.

Did you catch it, the misplaced apostrophe? At least I assumed it was misplaced, because here's what I learned about how apostrophe placement/usage affects the meaning:

1980's = something "belonging to" or attributed to the year 1980
So as I read it, it would mean the law was enacted in 1980.

1980s = the general time period between 1980 and 1989
So the law was enacted in the decade of the 1980s.

1980s' = Well now I'm just confused....

I know, most of you are probably shaking your heads thinking, WHO CARES, LEAH? It's the story that counts! You've probably already read the story while I'm stuck at the headline, trying to decide the exact meaning of the stupid apostrophe! I can't help it though. That's just how I'm wired. 

As a kid I excelled in English and grammar, scoring way at the top of the standardized tests. At my first job in the FBI, I was pulled from the typing pool to work on a team writing staff commendation letters because I scored high on my grammar placement test there. (My first professional writing job!)

But what was a blessing back then has turned into a curse in these days of lackadaisical spelling and grammar rules--because errors are everywhere. I see them in television commercials, in the little news tickers running at the bottom of news programs, in the closed captioning on television shows.... Trust me, there is an endless supply of grammar goofs in the world, and each one annoys the you-know-what out of me.

None of us like finding errors, especially copy editors, and we have an especially talented group. One young woman, close to my heart, has a sign on her desk that reads:  "I'm silently correcting your grammar." (I want one!)

So I chalked the error up to the fact that it's a wire story. Our editors are so busy proofing/editing the locally produced content, they might not be able to pay much attention to the wire stories. But I must say I felt vindicated when Googled it and found that other news outlets ran the same story but with the correct (in my opinion) headline!

(This is from the Boston Herald online.)

Now I'm trying to figure out how to respond to the critics who have probably already called our feedback line with comments like:  "You morons! There's no apostrophe in that headline!! This is why no one trusts the news anymore!!"

Finally, to put it out of my mind, I read the story (which is about how Virginia has a terrifying low dollar threshold for a theft to be classified as a felony rather than misdemeanor) and decided a misplaced apostrophe in a headline is probably pretty low on my worrisome threshold.

For fun, here are a few quotes about grammar. They made me smile. Maybe they'll give you a chuckle as well!
Sometimes with 'The New Yorker,' they have grammar rules that just don't feel right in my mouth.
Author David Sedaris
Anarchy is as detestable in grammar as it is in society."
Author Maurice Druron
"Texting has reduced the number of waste words, but it has also exposed a black hole of ignorance about traditional - what a cranky guy would call correct - grammar."  
Author Richard Corliss

Leah writes stories of mystery and romance, good and evil and the power of love. As much as she loves the use of proper grammar, she tries really, really hard to be respectful of others' need to flout the rules! Learn more at You'll also find her posting odds and ends about her life on her Facebook page.


Vonnie Davis ~ Romance Author said...

Calvin is the newspaper reader in the house. He reads our local paper in print and then 3 or 4 of the big ones online. He'll often say, "What's wrong with this headline or sentence (depending)." He taught English for 40 years so, grammar is his thing. We both have trouble with the noun-pronoun number agreement that seems to be part of our culture. We use their instead of his/her and that drives me batty. But, for me, the drive to being batty is a short ride. Great post, Leah.

Brenda Whiteside said...

It is a curse, agreed. I find it hard to read for fun because I'm always spotting the grammar errors. I do think you might be pickier than I am! LOL

Rolynn Anderson said...

I believe sloppy speech likely reveals sloppy thinking, which scares me about You-Know-Who. The more important a person's office, the more precise thinking and speaking is required. Wars are begun by errant wording. That being said, as an English teacher, I learned a good portion of students do not learn by memorizing rules or diagramming sentences...they learn about sentence structure and apt listening to 'good' speakers, reading 'good' books, and honing their thoughts on paper. Parents and teachers have to consider children's learning styles and help them practice, practice, practice!

HOWEVER: Just saw a cartoon about a man saying to his lover "I want you so bad." She says, "You mean badly." He pivots and walks away.

'Nuff said.

Jannine Gallant said...

I'm a total grammar freak, too. I text in complete sentences. I read FB memes and wince over poor wording. It's a sickness... Great post, Leah!

Margo Hoornstra said...

It is a sickness like Jannine says. In my case, hereditary. My mother was an English teacher. Her mother too. I'm like the rest of you. Can't help but silently correct on television, on line. Whereever poor English is rampant, which is everywhere! The misused apostrophe is one of my biggest pet peeves. Nice to know I'm in good company. Thanks, Leah.

Leah St. James said...

Oh, Vonnie - the noun/pronoun thing kills me. I actually cringe when I hear/read "their" for a singular noun. I know it's easy. I know "everyone" does it. But I can't get over it!

Leah St. James said...

Hi, Brenda - Yeah, I'm pickier than almost everyone I know! LOL!

Leah St. James said...

Rolynn, it's funny you should mention different methods of learning. Even though I am a "words" person, I find it easier to learn by observing (as opposed to reading a text). I'm sure I absorbed much of my knowledge about grammar by reading from a young age. Same with vocabulary, sentence structure, etc. (Although I do confess to a love of sentence diagramming!) :)

Leah St. James said...

Jannine - You and I have the same sickness. I text in full sentences, with punctuation. My kids want to text and I tell them, "Call me. It's easier and faster!" I won't share memes if they have errors in them! :-)

Leah St. James said...

Margot, You and I might have some shared genes somewhere. Romance writers. Grammar nerds. Plant killers. We could be twins! :-)

Alison Henderson said...

I'm a proud grammar Nazi, too. I can't help it, and I refuse to apologize. Be glad you don't live here. One glance at our local paper (The Monterey Herald), would give you apoplexy. Everyone who works there can't be that ignorant of the rules. I think people simply don't take the time to ever re-read the copy, much less proof it.

Leah St. James said...

It's aggravating, Alison! I can say our typos/errors are happily few and far between, but we catch grief for them from our readers every time! Sometimes readers get more worked up over a typo than the actual news. ... Uh, sort of like I did! :-)

Barbara Edwards said...

I also get stopped cold by any grammar error. Have you noticed the crawl line on the bottom of the TV screen is full of errors? Makes me crazy.

Leah St. James said...

Yes, Barbara! I understand the need to abbreviate for space issues, but some of it is just wrong. Argh.

Alicia Dean said...

I feel your pain, Leah. Ha! I also cringe when I see grammar errors. I want to go through Facebook correcting posts. :) I don't know if you watch Moone Boy, but it's a comedy I discovered, set in Ireland. And it's very funny. One particular bit had me laughing. The dad has a sign-making business. He had an argument with a customer who thought he'd short-changed him by not giving him an apostrophe for 'beds' - The dad told him that an apostrophe didn't belong, because then 'Beds' would be possessive, like they belonged to someone named beds. The other guy said, "Every other sign around here has an apostrophe, no one is coming into the store, because they think I'm shrimping on the sign." - It was soooo funny.

Diane Burton said...

I'm in the same boat as the rest of you. I cringe at "creative" spelling and grammar. I do laugh at memes like why commas are important: "Let's eat Grandma." vs "Let's eat, Grandma." If a book contains too many mistakes (or wrong word choice, like rein vs reign) that book goes DNF.

Leah St. James said...

Oh my gosh, Alicia, I never heard of Moone Boy, but I need to find it!

Diane, The mistakes are becoming so commonplace, I'm afraid I'll forget the correct words and punctuation!