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Grammar Nazis Booted
August 22, 2008 8:12 AM   Subscribe

Typo Eradication Advancement League (TEAL), a couple of 28-year old "grammar vigilantes" who traveled the U.S. correcting errors on signs. On a visit to the Grand Canyon, they appear to have gone too far.

The TEAL website has been taken down and replaced with a message saying, "Statement on the signage of our National Parks and public lands to come."

Here's the Google cache of the page.
posted by Kirth Gerson (146 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite

 
Douchebags do incredibly douchey thing. Film at 11.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 8:19 AM on August 22, 2008 [8 favorites]


Ugh.

dnab gives the pithy version of what my response was going to be.
posted by flibbertigibbet at 8:21 AM on August 22, 2008


Grate post!
posted by Kabanos at 8:21 AM on August 22, 2008


Their's plenty of stuff that needs a fixing. Including Somerville.
posted by jsavimbi at 8:24 AM on August 22, 2008


Yeah, real winners, these two.

On the other hand, I find their use of "typo" interesting. Because to me, it's always seemed that "typo" is a way of avoiding responsibility for your errors--I can use apostrophes correctly, it was just somehow introduced by pure accident! I've even seen people refer to actual errors of fact as "typos." So you would think a group of people so righteously committed to fixing other people's mistakes would call a spade a spade, right?
posted by nasreddin at 8:24 AM on August 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


Asshast!

I would have punished them creatively without any cruelty by having them correct at least 3000 pages each at Distributed Proofreaders.
posted by elpapacito at 8:24 AM on August 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


There's some new info and fresh links here, but this is largely a double.
posted by Rhaomi at 8:25 AM on August 22, 2008


While I aplaud they're fight for grammer I think they went to far this time.
posted by Turtles all the way down at 8:25 AM on August 22, 2008 [10 favorites]


What a pair of fucking knobses.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 8:30 AM on August 22, 2008


So, Turtles all the way down, what ever happened to that great Grammar Nazi alliance of yours?
posted by Rhaomi at 8:31 AM on August 22, 2008


Yes, your honor, we know such things are frowned upon in the Louvre, but my friend and I have a blog that extols realistic depictions of the human form. We obviously couldn't just let it stand that some guy painted that chick without eyebrows. It was for the blog, your honor. For the blog.
posted by Greg Nog at 8:31 AM on August 22, 2008 [9 favorites]


So this $3000, "irreplaceable" sign was just unattended and open to the public?

Vandalism, sure. But who among us has not surreptitiously corrected a public sign? How were they to know it was a valuable antique? Stored in a watch tower. Open to the elements.
posted by DU at 8:33 AM on August 22, 2008 [2 favorites]


Christ, what assholes.

Not that I'm in favor of grammar errors, misplaced/missing apostrophes, or other violence committed upon our language - I'm an editor for cryin' out loud - but this is just truly assholish behavior and I'm glad they've been banned from national parks.
posted by rtha at 8:36 AM on August 22, 2008


"But who among us has not surreptitiously corrected a public sign?"

Well, me for one. Vandalism is vandalism, no matter what the higher and most noble purpose is.

you're kidding right?

And, define "public".. Different than a sign viewable by the public...
posted by HuronBob at 8:39 AM on August 22, 2008


Irregardless! Irregardless! Irregardless!
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 8:42 AM on August 22, 2008 [5 favorites]


I've never understood the thinking behind Grammar Nazism. Would there be any actual benefits from removing all spelling mistakes and syntax errors from all instances of written language?

As a programmer, I use very precise languages where spelling and syntax can mean the difference between success and disaster. But in the real world, spoken languages like English are filled with ambiguity, and people are able to understand communication even if it doesn't follow most of the rules of the language. Trying to force an artificial set of precise rules on top of such an imprecise language seems like a silly idea to me.
posted by burnmp3s at 8:43 AM on August 22, 2008 [2 favorites]


Should've pleaded insanity. One of them was stung by a spelling bee at an early age.
posted by jamjam at 8:44 AM on August 22, 2008 [4 favorites]


im for the judge dliberalty mispeling as much as posibil in his judgmint, hopefuly.
posted by ardgedee at 8:45 AM on August 22, 2008


What a smug pack of dick's.
posted by porn in the woods at 8:50 AM on August 22, 2008


But in the real world, spoken languages like English are filled with ambiguity, and people are able to understand communication even if it doesn't follow most of the rules of the language.

The use of correct grammar and spelling reduces mistaken ambiguity.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 8:55 AM on August 22, 2008 [5 favorites]


DU writes "So this $3000, 'irreplaceable' sign was just unattended and open to the public? "Vandalism, sure. But who among us has not surreptitiously corrected a public sign? How were they to know it was a valuable antique? Stored in a watch tower. Open to the elements."

To paraphrase Captain Picard, the reason the com system isn't secured is because a certain measure of self-control is expected of all on board. It's a bloody National park, the park service shouldn't have to tag everything as "Valuable, please don't vandalize."
posted by Mitheral at 8:55 AM on August 22, 2008 [3 favorites]


who among us has not surreptitiously corrected a public sign?

I haven't, because:

a) I'm not that arrogant a prick, and
b) Becoming a spelling commando may be the best thing that's ever happened to your Twitter feed, but it doesn't do anything to address the root problem of lowered educational standards and institutional apathy towards fundamental language skills.

It's just asshole look-at-me posturing.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 9:01 AM on August 22, 2008 [5 favorites]


Did they get thrown into the Grand Canyon? Because that would be excellent. Otherwise meh.
posted by Artw at 9:05 AM on August 22, 2008


Why did they pick grammar and not something meaningful (like sexism or racism) to be asshole vigilantes about. What a waste of their lives. Them be some sad motherfuckers.
posted by fuq at 9:05 AM on August 22, 2008 [3 favorites]


I'm all for laughing at bad grammar and general language-mangling on public signs, but correcting them? That just sounds like work.
posted by statolith at 9:06 AM on August 22, 2008


I would have punished them creatively without any cruelty

Are you kidding? I can't think of a case where cruelty is more called for. Keelhaul these pricks, and when they come up for air show them misspelled signs and laugh at them.
posted by languagehat at 9:08 AM on August 22, 2008 [2 favorites]


I enjoy pointing out and laughing at misuse of grammar and punctuation. Going around fixing it takes away from my enjoyment. They must be stopped!
posted by trebonius at 9:10 AM on August 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


The use of correct grammar and spelling reduces mistaken ambiguity.

Yes, but so would artificial languages such as Lojban. Virtually no one promotes using a language that is fundamentally less ambiguous than English, but large amounts of people somehow come to the conclusion that minor mistakes such as using lay and lie incorrectly are real problems worth eradicating.

My point is that the whole Grammar Nazi agenda is based on the idea that those kinds of mistakes are a big deal, whereas in practical terms they have very little actual effect on the real world.
posted by burnmp3s at 9:14 AM on August 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


The use of correct grammar and spelling reduces mistaken ambiguity.

Oh, come on. There is absolutely nothing ambiguous about the vast majority of English typos. Even the worst of them ("Puppie's for sale", "TACOS' 99c", "their not nice", "your lame", "I don't want to loose it") are usually perfectly understandable. English typos are generally context or spelling errors -- the former can be worked out through context, naturally, and the latter are usually phonetic enough to be understood.

There's certainly an aesthetic argument to be made, here, but a functional one? Not so much. When something like lolcats makes perfect sense to native speakers of English, you can not has mistaken ambigutiez.
posted by vorfeed at 9:15 AM on August 22, 2008 [6 favorites]


If they wanna browbeat grocer's into fixing a misplaced apostrophe, that is fine. But this is just pure asshole-ism.
posted by fixedgear at 9:15 AM on August 22, 2008


If these bozos are intent on stamping out problem grammar, they should call themselves something else.

Typographical Errors != Grammatical Errors
posted by Sys Rq at 9:20 AM on August 22, 2008


From the "Grammar Vigilantes" link:

"Herson and Deck carry an eradication kit with them, ready to add a "t" or an "s," or to erase an apostrophe or white out an extra letter. They hand out business cards. They work they're magic."

Evidently the magic doesn't spread as far as they're own article copy.
posted by FatherDagon at 9:21 AM on August 22, 2008


This just goes to show you that grammar doesn't directly correlate with intelligence.
posted by Eekacat at 9:21 AM on August 22, 2008


public signage and other venues where innocent eyes may be befouled by vile stains on the delicate fabric of our language

I think they're underestimating just how tough the english language is.

And if you really want to be self appointed guardians of "innocent eyes", I'd think you could find much worse than typos to eradicate.
posted by JaredSeth at 9:23 AM on August 22, 2008


If you think the fuss over grammar and spelling is about anything other than class, you're fooling yourself.
posted by obvious at 9:24 AM on August 22, 2008 [4 favorites]


English class, maybe.
posted by Sys Rq at 9:25 AM on August 22, 2008 [5 favorites]


Spellcheckers aren't worth a shirt.
posted by lysdexic at 9:26 AM on August 22, 2008 [3 favorites]


So, Turtles all the way down, what ever happened to that great Grammar Nazi alliance of yours?

Um, yes, quite. I think the problem is that people like those linked in this thread give Grammar Nazism a bad name, mainly by being mean-spirited. I was surprised at the amount of vitriol directed at me in the MeTa thread you linked to. It made me realize that, whereas I have only ever tried to be helpful in pointing out mistakes in spelling and grammar, the recipients often appear to feel that this represents a nasty ad hominem attack. And then these TEAL fellows pointedly act like dicks in the name of grammer. Uh, I mean "gramar." Grammarr.
posted by Turtles all the way down at 9:27 AM on August 22, 2008


*goes back to marking up all the spelling mistakes in Chaucer
posted by mandal at 9:31 AM on August 22, 2008 [3 favorites]


Axes and Lies!
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 9:35 AM on August 22, 2008


Smug dorks. Not a good combination.
posted by BaxterG4 at 9:35 AM on August 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


Whatte the swyve?
posted by monju_bosatsu at 9:39 AM on August 22, 2008 [2 favorites]


A far better and more artistic solution than defacing other people's property would be to take a photo of whatever sign they have issue with, carefully proofread it with bright red markup, laminate it, and then affix it nearby the sign.

This allows them to make their statement in an attention getting way, without damaging anything, and would allow for an easy cleanup if the sign-holder found it objectionable.

They work they're magic.

FatherDagon : Evidently the magic doesn't spread as far as they're own article copy.

I'm sure it's meant to read: "They work. They are magic." Because they're sorcerers, doncha-know.
posted by quin at 9:40 AM on August 22, 2008


"Trying to force an artificial set of precise rules on top of such an imprecise language seems like a silly idea to me."

It seems to me that this point, taken out of context and literally, makes an interesting mistake. Specifically, burnmp3s, seems to believe that the rules of grammar are somehow distinct from the language itself, but this is not correct. The rules of grammar are the language (along with some other stuff, of course). If the rules change the language changes. If the rules change enough, then a new language is generated. In other words, there isn't this thing called "English" that is combined arbitrarily with this other thing called "the rules of English;" nor could we take "English" and combine it with "the rules of Latin."

(Well, I suppose we could do the latter but then we'd have a whole new language, neither English nor Latin.)
posted by oddman at 9:42 AM on August 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


English typos are generally context or spelling errors -- the former can be worked out through context, naturally, and the latter are usually phonetic enough to be understood.

Ironically, any typo that can be corrected by a random stranger is by definition not unclear or ambiguous.

The typos that can't be corrected are the problematic ones.
posted by smackfu at 9:45 AM on August 22, 2008 [5 favorites]


If you think the fuss over grammar and spelling is about anything other than class, you're fooling yourself.

I guess I'm fooling myself then. Or I'm misunderstanding you. Explain?
posted by rtha at 9:48 AM on August 22, 2008


(Because I know plenty of middle-class, college-educated people who can't be arsed to spell things properly, and who don't give a shit about apostrophes and such. Many of them are right here on MetaFilter!)
posted by rtha at 9:49 AM on August 22, 2008


> I'm sure it's meant to read: "They work. They are magic." Because they're sorcerers, doncha-know.

Is that actual magic or are they using magic as a metaphor? I can't tolerate that sort of ambiguity in communication. Kill them.
posted by ardgedee at 9:52 AM on August 22, 2008


Is there a link to a photo of the sign they defaced?
posted by Atom Eyes at 9:56 AM on August 22, 2008


Look, blogging about smoking weed and eating in shitty truckstop diners on your quarter life crisis cross country road trip has been done and isn't going to get you in the Times Style section any more, so these 21st century dharma bums really ought to be lauded for their ingenuity in finding their way into an insipid news blurb and getting their blog its four seconds of interweb notoriety. Twenty years from now you're going to have to blog about your cross country killing spree to get that shit.
posted by The Straightener at 9:56 AM on August 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


Grammar Vigilantes

Oh I've just come
From the land of the sun
From a war that must be won
In the name of truth
With our douchebags so brave
your freedom we will save
With our white out and our markers
And some help from God

I want to see signs error-free
No more mistakes typographically
I've got to fix them
It bugs me so much you see

You just can't believe
The joy I did receive
When I found that sign
in the Grand Canyon
Oh I flew through the sky
my convictions could not lie
And I changed a comma
And an apostrophe
posted by GuyZero at 10:00 AM on August 22, 2008 [6 favorites]


For all intensive purposes, these guys are douches.

If they really want to correct something, they can work on this.
posted by inigo2 at 10:04 AM on August 22, 2008


"The Dartmouth graduate told reporters he became passionate about grammar after winning junior-high spelling bees."

Outlaw spelling bees! For the children!
posted by Eideteker at 10:05 AM on August 22, 2008


Specifically, burnmp3s, seems to believe that the rules of grammar are somehow distinct from the language itself, but this is not correct.

No, I agree with you that grammar is a fundamental part of the language. What I'm rejecting is the artificial layer of made-up grammar that people insist must be followed in addition to the natural rules that have evolved as part of the language. If people use certain language constructs and other people understand them, those are by definition a valid part of the language, even if some people would regard them as incorrect.

nor could we take "English" and combine it with "the rules of Latin."

Except that this actually did happen, resulting in completely artificial rules such as not ending a sentence with a preposition.
posted by burnmp3s at 10:06 AM on August 22, 2008 [4 favorites]


Those guys are my age, and they've already gotten banned from more National Parks (all of them!) than I ever will. That's what I get for taking the one-at-a-time approach.
posted by Eideteker at 10:08 AM on August 22, 2008 [2 favorites]


It made me realize that, whereas I have only ever tried to be helpful in pointing out mistakes in spelling and grammar, the recipients often appear to feel that this represents a nasty ad hominem attack.

Pointing out someone's spelling/grammar mistakes is always a delicate action, kind of like pointing out a bit of mustard on their chin.
posted by philip-random at 10:11 AM on August 22, 2008


Would there be any actual benefits from removing all spelling mistakes and syntax errors from all instances of written language?

Other than discouraging their repetition, you mean? Not correcting a mistake is a tacit approval of it. And no, it's not life-threatening to let an apostrophe remain where it doesn't belong, and it's unlikely that even the most dedicated grammarian avoids all mistakes. But shouldn't we be discouraging mistakes, or better yet, encouraging avoiding mistakes?

I should add that intentional "mistakes" are fine, since language needs to be flexible to stay vibrant. There's a difference between "lolcats" (wherein the writer is intentionally trying to communicate a specific idea and the reader understands same) and "are'nt" (wherein the writer is either careless or ignorant, and the reader often bewildered). While readers can see such mistakes and substitute in the correction with little effort, the mind still stumbles slightly while reading it.

If you think the fuss over grammar and spelling is about anything other than class, you're fooling yourself.

For me, correct grammar is about not being a lazy ass. Do your own damned work to ensure I understand what you're intending to say, rather than expecting me to overcome your language deficiencies.

...and get off my lawn, damnit.
posted by GhostintheMachine at 10:11 AM on August 22, 2008 [6 favorites]


A friend of mine got banned from a National Park for "molesting a moose."

he was throwing empty beer cans at it
posted by marxchivist at 10:16 AM on August 22, 2008 [2 favorites]


I recently ate at a place that had a sign outside that read "Dynasty Chinese Restaurant." I was relieved to discover a few days later that someone had corrected the typo: "nasty Chinese Restaurant."
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 10:17 AM on August 22, 2008


Except that this actually did happen, resulting in completely artificial rules such as not ending a sentence with a preposition.

Similarly, the rule against splitting infinitives.
posted by Turtles all the way down at 10:19 AM on August 22, 2008


"What I'm rejecting is the artificial layer of made-up grammar that people insist must be followed in addition to the natural rules that have evolved as part of the language."

Examples?
posted by oddman at 10:19 AM on August 22, 2008


Virtually no one promotes using a language that is fundamentally less ambiguous than English, but large amounts of people somehow come to the conclusion that minor mistakes such as using lay and lie incorrectly are real problems worth eradicating.

That's because replacing widely-spoken natural languages with an artificial one is, not to put too fine a point on it, not going to happen. Encouraging the informed1 use of language is far more achievable (albeit not, I suspect, through the defacement of signage, my favorite grammar-nazi photo of all time notwithstanding) than spreading the glorious Lojban revolution. (I say this as the proud owner of a copy (lamentably unread) of The Complete Lojban Language personally inscribed to me by its author.)

Which is not to say that correcting infelicities of usage when one is neither a copy editor acting in one's professional capacity nor engaged in a battle of pedantry with a fellow practitioner is anything but obnoxious.

1. I prefer "informed" to "correct," which, as has been explained at length here and elsewhere, is obviously problematic. But knowledge of present and past usage seems to me unarguably desirable — we may decide, for example, that we will split our infinitives with reckless abandon, or that the people who complain about "hopefully" are batshit-fucking-insane, or even to affect the eschewal of "ilk" in other than Scottish-peer-related contexts, and generally to make stylistic choices as we fit and damn the rules2, but it hardly hurts to be aware of the prescriptions that have been bandied about. The eponymous greengrocers are often not making a bold stand in favor of the beauty of language as a living organism but would in fact prefer their signage to be perceived as standard and are unaware that their usage is seen as idiosyncratic (or perhaps that they have made a typographical error).

2. Except for the philistine haters of the serial comma, who will be taken out and shot when I am king. AP, I'm looking at you.

posted by enn at 10:24 AM on August 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


"Ghet! a', life".
posted by NedKoppel at 10:25 AM on August 22, 2008


I warned you. This is what happens when you let grammar Nazis run loose. You need to shut these bastards down any time you see them. First they make fun of your spelling since they can't argue merits, then they run around vandalizing things as if it actually makes the world a better place, next they burn your house down because you think spelling errors aren't really important.

These idiots go a couple rungs below PETA on the dickwad social scale for me.

Spelling and grammar Nazis are dangerous. Can we admit that now? The stupidity of their crusade slowly drives them psycho and they need to escalate things to justify their own worth as a human being.
posted by Ragma at 10:27 AM on August 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


Irregardless, it would be nice to see these clowns try to justify this.
posted by Ragma at 10:28 AM on August 22, 2008


Joe - Hey Bob what did you do all summer long?

Bob - I hung out with TEAL and took a road trip correcting public signs.

Joe - Ok....

Bob - We traveled across country and fixed public signs with poor grammer!

Joe - Why?

Bob - Because poor grammar needs eliminated!

Joe - So you traveled across country wasting gas, time, and effort for something this stupid? Was there a hot chick involved?

Bob - I, um, err... yes there was.

Joe - Well did your plan work out, did you get with her?

Bob - No I didn't. I got arrested and was told not to step foot in any national parks for a year.

Joe - FAIL!
posted by Mastercheddaar at 10:32 AM on August 22, 2008


"Not correcting a mistake is a tacit approval of it."

No. It's not. This idea is made up in your head and, is slightly insane. You need to get help before you start distroying public proporty.
posted by Ragma at 10:34 AM on August 22, 2008 [9 favorites]


oddman: It seems to me that this point, taken out of context and literally, makes an interesting mistake. Specifically, burnmp3s, seems to believe that the rules of grammar are somehow distinct from the language itself, but this is not correct. The rules of grammar are the language (along with some other stuff, of course). If the rules change the language changes. If the rules change enough, then a new language is generated. In other words, there isn't this thing called "English" that is combined arbitrarily with this other thing called "the rules of English;" nor could we take "English" and combine it with "the rules of Latin."

However, those rules are dynamic and negotiated on an ad hoc basis depending on a large variety of factors including medium, mode, context, and audience. The rules dictated for good writing for the NYT is radically different from the rules for writing for the New England Journal of Medicine. Extemporaneous spoken text almost never follows the same rules as written texts.

rtha: I guess I'm fooling myself then. Or I'm misunderstanding you. Explain?

Schools don't teach English grammar. There is no need because native English speakers have mastered almost all the important aspects of English grammar by the age of five.

What schools teach is a formal mode of writing that has been historically necessary for acceptance into management careers and higher education.

The confusion is quite understandable. What schools teach on this issue is, in all respects, misguided and wrong.

GhostintheMachine: Other than discouraging their repetition, you mean? Not correcting a mistake is a tacit approval of it. And no, it's not life-threatening to let an apostrophe remain where it doesn't belong, and it's unlikely that even the most dedicated grammarian avoids all mistakes. But shouldn't we be discouraging mistakes, or better yet, encouraging avoiding mistakes?

It depends. Good spoken conversation is NEVER grammatically correct because the pragmatics of conversational discourse mandate rapid adjustments to accommodate for non-verbal feedback.

If the pragmatics of the discourse are that I am an author submitting a paper to you as an editor, then by all means, it is your privilege as the gatekeeper for that mode of discourse to lay down the red ink.

However, in the pragmatics of most computer-mediated communication, you run into two problems. First, it is impractical to expect that persons not paid to post comments will spend the time needed to perform the 2-3 proofreading runs necessary to catch all mistakes. Second, pointing out the stylistic errors of a text is changing the subject in a way that is undesirable for the flow of discussion.

Grammar Nazis in their sophomorism are intentionally blind to pragmatics, modes, and media. As a result, they do not know or love English as a language.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:45 AM on August 22, 2008 [7 favorites]


Douchebags do incredibly douchey thing. Film at 11.

Ah, the old "film-at-11" comment!
A timeless classic.
Sign of the jaded I've-seen-it-all cynic.
posted by sour cream at 10:45 AM on August 22, 2008


Different strokes for different folks. Some people see disregard for the language of the sort burnmp3s is championing as contempt for the language, and, by extension, for lovers of the language. To them, it seems as the goddess of language is being manhandled like chattel, rather than appropriately revered. They don't want to allow easy clean-up, because that's like allowing the re-beating of a domestic violence victim you've nursed back to health.

The problem with society is that not everyone cares as much as you do about the things you care about. Some people care about the language, others care more about the sign (errors and all). This can cause a feeling of alienation. Why don't these people care about the things that are important, the things that matter? It leads to things like this FPP. In many ways, part of growing up—the growing up you do after you're done with school, when you're led to believe you should already be fully "adult"—is coming to terms with the fact that, yes, the world can come across as a cold and unfeeling place. Part of it is also finding the ways that the world is warm and compassionate. For some, it's joining a political party, (re)discovering religion, or joining MetaChat. For these guys, it was finding a buddy you could share your love of grammar and vandalism with.

My advice to the TEAL dudes is, don't stop. I mean, yes, stop defacing things, but don't stop searching for the warmth and compassion in life. Yes, it's tough coming to terms with the fact that the rules of language are just not important to the vast majority of people. But find those folks in your life who make your days brighter, who enjoy the same activities you do. Just keep it positive.
posted by Eideteker at 10:50 AM on August 22, 2008


Sign of the jaded I've-seen-it-all cynic.

Ugh. It was meant to be a lighthearted comment on the fact that a) these people are clearly douchebags, and thus b) it isn't surprising that they have done a douchebaggy thing.

Thanks for playing.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 10:51 AM on August 22, 2008


I have sad news for you, sour cream. There is no film at eleven. The film is a lie. =(
posted by Eideteker at 10:52 AM on August 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


GuyZero for the obscure New Order reference win.
posted by Joey Michaels at 10:57 AM on August 22, 2008


Obscure? Am I the only person who has been humming that song non-stop for the past, uh, 17 years? Crap, 17 years...
posted by GuyZero at 11:03 AM on August 22, 2008


"Not correcting a mistake is a tacit approval of it."

I agree completely, and wish more people would apply this to their politics.
posted by blue_beetle at 11:14 AM on August 22, 2008 [2 favorites]


Schools don't teach English grammar.

Mine did. Public school, btw. I sucked at it, but it was certainly taught.

Second, pointing out the stylistic errors of a text is changing the subject in a way that is undesirable for the flow of discussion.


I agree. However, style != grammar.

*goes back to editing nightmarish report about the marketing of Medicare Advatage programs*
posted by rtha at 11:22 AM on August 22, 2008


I am sort of aghast that they thought this was ok, but I'm also really really curious to see before and after pictures of the sign in question, just to put myself in their entitled little heads for a minute.
posted by redsparkler at 11:29 AM on August 22, 2008


These guys are assholes, and I can't even really support casual grammar harping with a straight face. As others above have pointed out, a grocer's apostrophe hurts no one. That said, when I see a misspelling, a misplaced apostrophe, or hear a malapropism, I feel--viscerally--an sense of "offness". I am curious about how this works.

I know other people experience this, too, so I am hoping someone has done research or at least some interesting thinking about this kind of psychic pebble-in-my-shoe sensation that arises. Anyone have any links?
posted by everichon at 11:32 AM on August 22, 2008


First they came for the typos, but I said nothing, because I could spell.

Then they came for the dangling participles, but I said nothing, since my participles never dangled.

Then they came for sentences ending in prepositions, misused possessives, instances where 'lie' is confused with 'lay,' and even gerund phrases begun with object pronouns, and still I did nothing.

Then they came for me, and by that time, there was no one left to speak up.
posted by alidarbac at 11:35 AM on August 22, 2008 [3 favorites]


I did find this archive of the original blog posting about the watchtower incident, but it's still pictureless. The author does mention a brief reluctance at altering the sign.
posted by redsparkler at 11:37 AM on August 22, 2008


Enough with the Niemöller unless it's ironic and even then.
posted by GuyZero at 11:48 AM on August 22, 2008


In a time beset by all sorts of problems (energy, economy, etc) which need the best and brightest to come forward with their energy and brains, there's been a diminution in the status of intellect and educational achievement. In most of Europe, for example, to be described as an "intellectual" in normal conversation is a great compliment. In America, it's a smear used to denigrate even someone who might run the country soon! This is a loss for America.

Many people realize that they have gaps in their knowledge of spelling and grammar, and they can be a little insecure about that. The main thing these morons have accomplished is to provide support for those who push the idea that "intellectuals" are snotty assholes who do little more than run around and boast about their überman status. People who know about the misuse of apostrophes (et al) don't need these jerks to point out public errors. Those who don't know about these mistakes are unlikely to care. If they wanted to make a difference, they could volunteer in schools or campaign for better English programs or something. Instead they took a vacation, vandalized private property and through the media and their site glorified their own "superiority" over others.

As do many others, I request that people correct my grammar and English usage when they come across one of my mistakes. But having my mistakes shoved in my face by strangers is about the biggest turn-off I can imagine.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 12:01 PM on August 22, 2008 [3 favorites]


For anyone with a high-school degree, there is simply no excuse for confusing "their" and "they're".

Except, perhaps, having spent several years of your life as a prisoner of war.
posted by sour cream at 12:03 PM on August 22, 2008 [2 favorites]


"Schools don't teach English grammar. There is no need because native English speakers have mastered almost all the important aspects of English grammar by the age of five."

You didn't have to diagram sentences, then?
posted by klangklangston at 12:04 PM on August 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


Ironically, any typo that can be corrected by a random stranger is by definition not unclear or ambiguous.
The typos that can't be corrected are the problematic ones.


And real-world examples would be...? Other than numerical error (for example: typing "12" when "13" was meant) or typos in proper names (is "Jame" supposed to be "James" or "Jane"?), I'm having trouble thinking of a truly uncorrectable English typo. Usage mistakes like "the penultimate accomplishment", "it's a mute point", or "Col. Gaunt was very thin; his name belied his nature" (this last one managed to avoid the editor of at least one Dan Abnett novel, sadly enough) can generally be understood from context. Hell, we understand things like "what a mean fellow; it's certainly safe to say that he is not unkind", even though this is the exact opposite of what is actually meant. Even ambiguous sentences like "the peasants are revolting", "students hate annoying teachers", and "I ate the bread on the chair" can usually be worked out from context. Besides, the problem with sentences like the last three is logical error, not typographical error -- the problem is in the clarity of one's expression, not one's English grammar.

At any rate, I think it's ridiculous to pretend as if obsessing over grocers' apostrophes and errors like "restaraunt" has anything to do with preventing "typos that can't be corrected". The latter simply does not justify the former, so much so that I'd say that they are unrelated issues.
posted by vorfeed at 12:15 PM on August 22, 2008


Schools don't teach English grammar.

rtha: Mine did. Public school, btw. I sucked at it, but it was certainly taught.
Klangklangston: You didn't have to diagram sentences, then?


What you both either misunderstood or are disagreeing with is KirkJob's assertion that these are not "English Grammar" but the rules of a particular formal mode of English. A mode that is not used in regular conversation and that is arguably irrelevant in contexts such as advertising and grocery store signs.

Advertising is supposed to get your attention. If you notice & remember my sign more because I use weird punctuation to announce my Real "Beef" Hot Dog's, then that's not an error.
posted by straight at 12:16 PM on August 22, 2008


First, they came for the lesbian scene, but I did not come because I was not into lesbians.

Then, they came for the cleveland steamer, but I did not come because I was not into coprophilia.

Then, they came for the snuff scene, but I did not come because I am not into snuff.

Finally, I came, because everyone else had left the theater and I can't come when I think other people are watching me.

There, that should put an end to that.
posted by Eideteker at 12:18 PM on August 22, 2008 [4 favorites]


rtha: Mine did. Public school, btw. I sucked at it, but it was certainly taught.

Well, public schools also claim to teach biology and economics, while doing neither as well.

The actual grammar of a language is negotiated through use. To use one of my favorite examples, the lyric "lonely old lies/your rhetoric cries/I'll never learn nothing from you" is an excellent use of the emphatic negative. The emphatic negative is correct for works of popular music, but incorrect in more formal works.

straight nailed it. Humans don't speak in sentences, they speak in utterances that rarely have the strict syntax and morphology demanded of formal writing modes. Furthermore, many epistolary modes don't include all parts of the formal subject-verb-predicate form.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 12:28 PM on August 22, 2008


/avoids "beef" outside of vegetarian faux-meat context.
posted by Artw at 12:32 PM on August 22, 2008


Advertising is supposed to get your attention. If you notice & remember my sign more because I use weird punctuation to announce my Real "Beef" Hot Dog's, then that's not an error.

It certainly is if you can't bother to understand that "beef" in that context actually indicates that it is not beef - it will cause me to remember that there's no beef in the dogs, and I won't buy them.

What you both either misunderstood or are disagreeing with is KirkJob's assertion that these are not "English Grammar" but the rules of a particular formal mode of English.


And I'm still not understanding what differentiates "English Grammar" from "the rules of a particular formal mode of English." What is the difference, please?

A mode that is not used in regular conversation and that is arguably irrelevant in contexts such as advertising and grocery store signs.


Written signs are not regular conversation. I would think that it's even more important to communicate clearly and unambiguously what it is you're trying to sell if you've only got [tiny amount] of column inches, a piece of cardboard, or a T-shirt front available.
posted by rtha at 12:36 PM on August 22, 2008


rtha: And I'm still not understanding what differentiates "English Grammar" from "the rules of a particular formal mode of English." What is the difference, please?

Because English is quite a bit broader than one particular formal mode. It includes dozens of different modes, and each has its own variation on the rules. When grammar nazis complain about the abbreviated modes of chat, with paralinguistic signifiers of emotional state, or when they cringe at the use of the emphatic negative in lyrical folk works, they are betraying their narrow ignorance of the English language. "logging out, have fun, XD" and "can't get no" are grammatically correct units of language in some contexts, and incorrect in other contexts.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 12:52 PM on August 22, 2008


I applaud the idea, but not the implementation. The correct implementation is to photograph the sign with the error, put the photo on Flickr, provide information on the correction, and make enormous fun of it there. That's how we do it.

Making "corrections" on anything other than chalk or dry erase is vandalism.

Or one could actually be productive and approach the people that own the sign to make requests about getting it fixed.

The idea that they corrected an historic sign by Mary Colter fills me with horror. Sure, she made some mistakes -- but there is value in preserving her work as is despite that; she was an amazing person.

If you see incorrect grammar and usage everyplace, you tend to imitate it, and while the meaning may be clear in specific instances overall, the system begins to break down and we can no longer communicate in writing.
posted by electrasteph at 12:53 PM on August 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


If you see incorrect grammar and usage everyplace, you tend to imitate it, and while the meaning may be clear in specific instances overall, the system begins to break down and we can no longer communicate in writing.

Yes, because English was handed down to us by God himself and therefore any change must by definition be decay.
posted by Pyry at 12:57 PM on August 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


And I'm still not understanding what differentiates "English Grammar" from "the rules of a particular formal mode of English." What is the difference, please?

There's more than one set of rules that could be labeled "English Grammar" depending on the context. I'll wager the grammar rules at the grocery store, if they were written down, would say "We have several orders of magnitude more customers who read quotes around beef as indicating emphasis (or perhaps as synaesthetic suggestion that someone is saying the word 'beef' aloud) than customers who read them as indicating irony."

Grammar rules are the rules to follow to successfully communicate with a particular audience.
The rules you use in school are for communicating with people in a white-collar professional and/or higher-education context. But there are a lot of other contexts in our society.
posted by straight at 12:57 PM on August 22, 2008


(And in case there's any confusion, I'm actually not a grammar nazi. I recognize that yes, there is a difference between formal written English that you would use in a business email or a note to your grandmother, or maybe even a comment here on the internets, and language usage in lyrics or poetry. Please see this askme, and the meTa it spawned.)

On preview:

Because English is quite a bit broader than one particular formal mode. It includes dozens of different modes, and each has its own variation on the rules. When grammar nazis complain about the abbreviated modes of chat, with paralinguistic signifiers of emotional state, or when they cringe at the use of the emphatic negative in lyrical folk works, they are betraying their narrow ignorance of the English language. "logging out, have fun, XD" and "can't get no" are grammatically correct units of language in some contexts, and incorrect in other contexts.

I agree with you, quite wholeheartedly. Perhaps where we part company is that I don't agree that sign announcing "Banana's - $1/lb" falls into any of the above categories.

I think that what the TEAL guys did is completely dickish and out of bounds, although I understand their frustration. Which is why I've become an editor, and get paid to take care of shit like that.

On one more preview (and then I really have to get back to work):

I'll wager the grammar rules at the grocery store, if they were written down, would say "We have several orders of magnitude more customers who read quotes around beef as indicating emphasis"

And yet many grocery stores use italic text, or bold text, or underlined text, or TEXT IN ALL CAPS to get this point across. All of those are correct and non-cringe-inducing (in me, at any rate).

Grammar rules are the rules to follow to successfully communicate with a particular audience.

I see the abuse and misuse of quotation marks and apostrophes in high-end stores as well as stores catering to the gimme-a-40-and-a-pack-of-cigarettes audience. I also see correct signs in both places. I'd say it has more to do with the maker of the sign than the audience they're trying to reach.

I'll also argue that that is not a "grammar rule" but a stylistic adaptation, and an ugly one at that.
posted by rtha at 1:14 PM on August 22, 2008


electrasteph: If you see incorrect grammar and usage everyplace, you tend to imitate it, and while the meaning may be clear in specific instances overall, the system begins to break down and we can no longer communicate in writing.

Ahh, the whole "tower of babel" theory.

Stupid! Mindnumblingly stupid! Gobsmacked stupid! Flat earth and intelligent design stupid! Rubber costume in the cooler stupid! Lacklove and manless in stupid!

There are at least two mechanisms that ensure that language does not fragment into a babel of disjunct. In informal spoken speech, its feedback and body language. In formal publication, editorial boards enforce conformity to the style of a particular community.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 1:22 PM on August 22, 2008


GuyZero: Well, you and I have been humming it.
posted by Joey Michaels at 1:33 PM on August 22, 2008


I am very happy to hear that they've been charged and convicted. They sound insufferable.
Well, public schools also claim to teach biology and economics, while doing neither as well.
Right, because you know the true nature of Economics and Biology?
straight nailed it. Humans don't speak in sentences, they speak in utterances that rarely have the strict syntax and morphology demanded of formal writing modes. Furthermore, many epistolary modes don't include all parts of the formal bla bla bla
None of what you're saying in this thread is true unless your bizzare didactic definition of "english" and "formal modes", etc, was true. Since they are only philosophical constructs and thus not provable or disprovable in the real world, it's all just a bunch of wankery.

Not that there's anything wrong with wankery, sometimes you just can't find a partner, you know?

But, because you take your opinions about language as axiomatic, and riff on the implications as if they were true, your statements are all wrong, because they can't be true.
posted by delmoi at 1:37 PM on August 22, 2008


"What you both either misunderstood or are disagreeing with is KirkJob's assertion that these are not "English Grammar" but the rules of a particular formal mode of English. A mode that is not used in regular conversation and that is arguably irrelevant in contexts such as advertising and grocery store signs."

No.

What I'm objecting to is: Schools don't teach biology; people just grow.

Diagramming sentences is a form of descriptive linguistics, just as working out language rules from a corpus is. Schools very much give a groundwork for understanding what rules of English exist, as well as attempting to forge a common language through prescriptivism.
posted by klangklangston at 2:12 PM on August 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


delmoi: Right, because you know the true nature of Economics and Biology?

Well, actually I do have a misspent youth as a research biologist. So yes, I feel very comfortable in saying that the dry collection of pre-packaged theoretical concepts given in High School bears little relationship to biology as it is actually practiced.

None of what you're saying in this thread is true unless your bizzare didactic definition of "english" and "formal modes", etc, was true. Since they are only philosophical constructs and thus not provable or disprovable in the real world, it's all just a bunch of wankery.

Actually, yes sir, I have done real world research using real world collections of real world language use to show that, yes, real world grammatical rules really do depend on medium, mode and context.

And furthermore that research is a drop in the bucket compared to the rather rich community of peer-reviewed research that examines how language is actually used.

And if you want a trivial example of how grammatical rules change depending on context, I invite you to pick up any three publication style guides and note the differences in recommendations about how to deal with gender neutral language, punctuation, and first person vs. third person passive.

Until you pony up the empirical research to show that language use is not dependent on medium, mode and context, I feel more than comfortable in pointing out that you are ignorant and out of your depth, the intellectual equivalent of a Young Earth Creationist. I also feel quite comfortable in pointing out that you've brought nothing to your argument other than invective, probably because you have nothing else to bring to this discussion.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 3:53 PM on August 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


klangklangston: What I'm objecting to is: Schools don't teach biology; people just grow.

Well, this is a blatant strawman. The argument here is that much of the "biology" that students are taught in schools has only a bare shadow of an echo of a relationship to biology as both a body of theory and a professional discipline. Schools teach biology as a collection of facts and just so stories. A student in physics is going to be making predictions and performing experiments using Newton's laws of motion and Newtonian gravity. A student in biology will be lucky to get a week on evolution, and that presented as a historic narrative rather than the power of quantitative genetics. They will will be presented with taxonomy without the theory of how biologists construct clades. And in place of physiology they get a fetal pig.

And likewise, English grammar is presented to students in ways that have only a shadow of an echo of a relationship to the actual practices of writing, editing, or understanding English as a language. "Know your audience," gets snowed under a ton of prescriptive rules that are presented as platonic ideals rather than standards of community. Those stylistic rules are presented as grammar, and they are rather shamefully told that constructions that are perfectly valid in the right contexts are wrong across all contexts.

Diagramming sentences is a form of descriptive linguistics, just as working out language rules from a corpus is. Schools very much give a groundwork for understanding what rules of English exist, as well as attempting to forge a common language through prescriptivism.

Except, that's not how diagramming sentences is taught. There is no place in those diagrammed formulations for constructs like implicit subjects and objects. Schools teaching the wrong thing about double-negatives ends up doing nothing but creating a horde of sophomoric idiots who can't make the distinction between a class paper and a blues song. So what you have is a large mess of prescriptions that are valid in some contexts, and idiotic in other contexts.

The most important skill I have as a person who makes his living writing and editing is using effective language for the audience and context. Sometimes that means "lol." Sometimes that means "138 participants were recruited." Sometimes that means "Click on Bookmarks."
posted by KirkJobSluder at 4:35 PM on August 22, 2008 [3 favorites]


What i want to know is why "Fragment (consider revising)" isn't a fragment (that I should consider revising).
posted by Artw at 4:43 PM on August 22, 2008


Sweet Lord, this is like a little gang of hipster Martin Princes. Kill them and and then put ungrammatically carved stones on their graves.
posted by jonmc at 4:54 PM on August 22, 2008


I haven't found a picture of the sign, but here's a set of pictures of the Desert View Watchtower, the scene of the crime. It was built by architect Mary Colter, who also lettered the victim.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 5:11 PM on August 22, 2008


Schools very much give a groundwork for understanding what rules of English exist, as well as attempting to forge a common language through prescriptivism.

But this is solving a problem that doesn't exist, because students already have much more complicated rules of English burned into their brains by the time they first step foot inside a classroom. It also does a good job of alienating students who don't follow all of the rules of their arbitrary common language. Students who use the habitual be construct in speaking with their family and friends, for example, are more likely to be told that doing so is an ignorant corruption of grammar rather than a valid and useful enhancement of it.

As KirkJobSluder pointed out, these rules are presented as immutable facts about how English is supposed to work, rather than useful observations about how English is commonly used in the real world. This leaves students with unrealistically rigid and formal ideas about how language should work, which could in extreme cases result in people vandalizing signs to correct errors.
posted by burnmp3s at 5:20 PM on August 22, 2008


Dialect v. Grapholect
posted by Sys Rq at 5:27 PM on August 22, 2008


"Schools teach biology as a collection of facts and just so stories. A student in physics is going to be making predictions and performing experiments using Newton's laws of motion and Newtonian gravity. A student in biology will be lucky to get a week on evolution, and that presented as a historic narrative rather than the power of quantitative genetics. They will will be presented with taxonomy without the theory of how biologists construct clades. And in place of physiology they get a fetal pig."

Man, I'm sorry that your biology classes sucked ass. What we learned in mine was what the basic parts of cells are, what parts of cells do, how DNA and RNA work, how Mendel did his experiments, a smattering of anatomy and environmental studies… All in all, a pretty decent class for, what, '95-'96? And that class was retired after we had it, in order to replace the class with a multi-disciplinary set of classes that emphasized the use of chemistry, physics and biology all together. At the time, DNA and RNA mutation were the dominant mode of explaining evolution, which was taught in a resolutely secular way. While I understand that cladistics was a more precise way of examining relationships between organisms, since I had these classes before the computer modeling that has really increased the ease of cladistic study, I can understand why that wasn't taught. Likewise, the significant gains in DNA sequencing hadn't been made yet. It wasn't the greatest class, but for someone so quick to decry the thumping of straw men, this effigy of biology class you've constructed is pretty far from my experience.

"Except, that's not how diagramming sentences is taught. There is no place in those diagrammed formulations for constructs like implicit subjects and objects. Schools teaching the wrong thing about double-negatives ends up doing nothing but creating a horde of sophomoric idiots who can't make the distinction between a class paper and a blues song. So what you have is a large mess of prescriptions that are valid in some contexts, and idiotic in other contexts."

Bullshit. How diagramming sentences was taught to me in middle school was by having the class yell out sentences and having everyone diagram them. Implicit subjects and objects were definitely addressed, as you might imagine based on the sentences that middle schoolers would construct, though I'll grant that I don't remember them being specifically termed implicit. But since that happened in around '92-'93, I could be fuzzy. But I remember, when taking copy editing courses and when taking linguistics classes, that they echoed what we did (from the two different sides). Further, as those schools produced me, and I can clearly delineate between forms of casual use, or of different vernaculars, and have a pretty decent head for tone and context, fuck you. That traditional schooling can be tone deaf and over-simplistic does not mean that they have to be, nor that all that they do teach is useless.

It's you who's lashing out at a misrepresentation, an exaggeration intended to edify your jeremiad against traditional schooling. That there are bad teachers, or that schools do not teach as well as they could, does not mean that everything they teach is bad or that they can only raise idiots who can't differentiate between formal and informal English or prescriptive and descriptive frameworks.
posted by klangklangston at 5:42 PM on August 22, 2008


"But this is solving a problem that doesn't exist, because students already have much more complicated rules of English burned into their brains by the time they first step foot inside a classroom."

Again, that's a foolish argument. That they have more complicated rules forged by practice does not mean that they understand the reasons behind those rules. It's like saying that there's no need to teach biology because people have already grown.

"Students who use the habitual be construct in speaking with their family and friends, for example, are more likely to be told that doing so is an ignorant corruption of grammar rather than a valid and useful enhancement of it."

Except that it's not a valid and useful enhancement in academic English or professional English. Which is why it was taught to us as valid for dialog, but something to be avoided when we were doing formal projects, like writing papers.

"This leaves students with unrealistically rigid and formal ideas about how language should work, which could in extreme cases result in people vandalizing signs to correct errors."

Yes, and yet I'd wager that there are far more people who graduate without the ability to communicate clearly, and that are hampered in achieving their goals because of poor communication skills. That a few idiots went on this "correction" spree doesn't mean that all prescriptivist grammar is flawed.
posted by klangklangston at 5:52 PM on August 22, 2008


klang, I admire your energy, but you're barking up the wrong tree. Your personal experience does not invalidate the findings of linguistics. And I have to wonder why you have such a bug up your ass about it. Nobody wants to pull down the pillars of the English language.
posted by languagehat at 6:06 PM on August 22, 2008


Yes, and yet I'd wager that there are far more people who graduate without the ability to communicate clearly, and that are hampered in achieving their goals because of poor communication skills.

I don't really understanding this response. It's true that a lot of people graduate without the ability to communicate clearly, but what does this have to do with language prescription?

Anyway, there are two senses that prescribing grammar in an education context could be taken, and I'm not sure which one you mean. If you mean that it's a good idea for schools to encourage students to learn and adopt (at least in certain circumstances) a particular, actual (and presumably relatively prestigious) dialect of English, then I agree.

But a lot of prescriptivists don't mean that. They want to teach a dialect of English that has no actual speakers, one that exists only in schools. This just seems crazy to me. I don't see the point.
posted by Mr. President Dr. Steve Elvis America at 6:18 PM on August 22, 2008


So, as sign in some tourist trap built in the 1930's is a priceless artifact for the ages but we bomb the living shit out of ruins in Mesopotamia that are from 4000 years ago?

Why do people hate Americans?
posted by Megafly at 7:01 PM on August 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


klangklangston: Man, I'm sorry that your biology classes sucked ass.

Well, I'm not saying my biology class "sucked ass."

I'm saying that the standards around which biology classes are created "suck ass" because they overloaded with conceptual trivial and short on theory and inquiry.

And given how your argument that your class did not "suck ass" is essentially exactly what I feel is wrong about the way in which biology is taught -- a laundry list of concepts -- you don't make your case well. Your arguments that it was unreasonable to teach some concepts is factually incorrect, because the DNA explorations of evolution were rolling by '90, cladistics as a methodology was invented before either of us were born, as was quantitative genetics.

The rest of your yammering seems like misplaced outrage because you appear to agree that grammar should be taught descriptively, and then go into a mess of anecdata that you, personally, grew up understanding the differences between contexts. Which is fine. I'll admit to being over the top with my hyperbole, but no more so than my opponents who claim civilization will grind to a crashing halt if students are taught texts that use different linguistic modes.

But then wait, on preview.

Who is arguing against teaching a deep understanding of the English language, with a particular focus on the modes that are necessary for later academic or career achievement?

*listens to crickets chirping*

I don't know of any person who is putting forth the argument that we shouldn't teach the standard academic, business and literary modes in school. That's not what this debate is about.

Instead, what we have argued here, is that tolerance of ANY expression that doesn't conform to those modes results in functional illiteracy.

First of all, you can't teach a prescriptive grammar that covers contemporary business, literary, AND academic rhetoric. The passive voice used for academic writing is very bad business and fiction writing. And the bulleted list is sometimes a good choice in business, but very bad in many other contexts.

Secondly, well, I spent a good chunk of time looking at thousands of chat messages by 5th grade students. And I feel pretty darn safe making the claim that writing dozens of chat messages didn't harm their ability to read and write more complex texts. We are arguably seeing the most literate generation ever, built on the popularity and ubiquity of email and text messaging.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 7:04 PM on August 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


Picture of the sign accompanying CNN story
posted by XMLicious at 7:50 PM on August 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


I could have gone my entire life without ever having to know about "emense".
posted by Crabby Appleton at 7:53 PM on August 22, 2008


What a couple of stupid fucks.

This looks to me like another example of "adults" who decide to "do something cool and put it on the internet." I.e., idiots without a sense of what a real life involves, who are stuck in an immature mentality that leads them to do "gags" rather than live a real life. They basically thought they were cute by doing this stupid stunt of correcting signs all over the country, and I love seeing them getting slapped really hard over it.
posted by jayder at 8:33 PM on August 22, 2008


Today: everyone here makes fun of these jerks.
Tomorrow and yesterday: everyone here makes fun of the way people write on Youtube and Yahoo Answers.

Conclusion: It's cool to make fun of people who don't understand the rules of grammar, as long as it is done behind their backs and you don't deface anyone's property.
posted by Kwine at 10:11 PM on August 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


If people understood correct grammar and punctuation these vigilantes would not have anything to do.
posted by asok at 6:01 AM on August 23, 2008


"Instead, what we have argued here, is that tolerance of ANY expression that doesn't conform to those modes results in functional illiteracy." ugh, ambiguous should be "What prescriptivists are arguing here..."

I flat out reject the claim that misplaced punctuation on signs contributes to functional illiteracy.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:01 AM on August 23, 2008


You're right. It's a result of poor literacy, not a cause.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 9:28 AM on August 23, 2008


Thanks for the signlink, XMLicious.
posted by redsparkler at 11:21 AM on August 23, 2008


Good spoken conversation is NEVER grammatically correct because the pragmatics of conversational discourse mandate rapid adjustments to accommodate for non-verbal feedback... However, in the pragmatics of most computer-mediated communication, you run into two problems.

There are at least two mechanisms that ensure that language does not fragment into a babel of disjunct. In informal spoken speech, its feedback and body language. In formal publication, editorial boards enforce conformity to the style of a particular community.

(Quoting both because the former was in direct response to my comment, and the latter more succinct.)

So, uh... these signs at the National Park. Or the ones at the grocery store. Conversation, or computer? Informal speech with body language, or formal publication with editorial conformity?

Don't misunderstand; I'm not in support of these guys and their obvious idiocy. Nor am I obsessed with some monolithic English, wherein lie the rules which must be obeyed. But unless you can argue that "banana's" is better than "bananas", then I gotta say, when there's a right way to do something and a wrong way, I would much prefer people at least aim for the right way. Doesn't seem that much to ask.

There are rules for casual, everyday speech as well. They're different from written grammar, of course, but they're still there. Try inflecting your voice oddly while speaking, or altering your normal gestures, and you'll find out quickly. Same with online, if you're going for sarcasm (as an example). Ignorance of the rules is not endearing.
posted by GhostintheMachine at 5:11 AM on August 25, 2008


You do realize, right, that those "rules" that enable you to do things "right" are a relatively recent invention? Shakespeare, Pepys, and all the rest of the pre-moderns spelled and grammared however the hell they liked; Shakespeare spelled his name dozens of different ways and would not have understood your asking which was "right." So if people got along fine without rules back then, why exactly are they so important now?
posted by languagehat at 6:20 AM on August 25, 2008


Because both of those men you named were members of the most vicious, barbaric tribe every to disgrace the face of the earth: The British.

Surely we can be a bit more civilized than a culture whose chief aims were to rape the world, force its peoples to smoke opium, and teach them to love cricket. *shudder*
posted by Eideteker at 8:03 AM on August 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


Yes, languagehat, I understand that. Shakespeare, Pepys, and all the rest also bathed infrequently and took great liberties with food preparation. If the rules they followed for personal hygiene and sanitation were good enough for them back then, surely they're good enough for me today?

I'm not in the camp of those suggesting you violate the rules of language at your peril. It's a living language, fluid in its composition, and that's the way it works best. But as others have pointed out, even for people with little or no interest in grammar, something instinctively feels wrong about certain typos, even if they cannot identify them. They're mental stumbles, certainly not life-threatening (even at the Grand Canyon, which looks unkindly at other kinds of them), yet bothersome nonetheless.

So why are "rules" more important now than in Shakespeare's day? The relative literacy rates between now and Shakespeare's day may have something to do with it. Shakespeare was writing for his actors and stage directors as well, not for a lay public, so the importance of exacting grammar is small (I can picture him saying, "here's the words I want you to say, now let me tell you how I want you to say them"). As for the spelling of his own name, that's a subject I have no knowledge of so I can't even begin to guess why it was done, or how common it might have been.

Clarity in communication is all I'm asking. If A understands B, then it's fine by me. The odds of this are increased by B's using a standard grammatical structure, but it is by no means a requirement. However, just because the rules are not always required does not mean they should always be avoided.
posted by GhostintheMachine at 12:13 PM on August 25, 2008


Shakespeare, Pepys, and all the rest also bathed infrequently and took great liberties with food preparation. If the rules they followed for personal hygiene and sanitation were good enough for them back then, surely they're good enough for me today?

The implication of that analogy is that their "bad grammar" was objectively bad/dangerous in the same way as the bad sanitation, but that's completely absurd and you immediately withdrew the implication, so I'm not sure why you bothered wasting both of our time on it.

So why are "rules" more important now than in Shakespeare's day?

They're not. I'm sorry you find this so hard to come to terms with, but the fact is that the "good grammar" you prefer does absolutely nothing for communication/understanding, despite all the morons who pretend they don't understand someone who breaks the "rules." ("Oh, you said 'You don't know nothing,' and a double negative is a positive, so you're really saying I do know something! Thank you!")

Clarity in communication is all I'm asking.

You say this, but it's not true. You're asking for rules to be followed, and dressing it up with an appeal to "clarity."

If A understands B, then it's fine by me. The odds of this are increased by B's using a standard grammatical structure

No, they're really not. I'm an editor, and I constantly run across perfectly "grammatical" stuff that's completely unintelligible. I very rarely have problems understanding people who don't use "official" grammar. Believe it or not, people do not need grammar courses to communicate effectively.
posted by languagehat at 12:22 PM on August 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


Sigh. Would you mind not lumping me in with the compulsives who believe the slightest derivation from the Queen's English should be met with a firing squad? Hell, I'm not one of those. Please try to read my comments with this in mind.

The Pre-moderns didn't follow rules that didn't exist, so I shouldn't follow rules that do exist? How does that make sense? Do you think if Shakespeare began his career today he would or would not (in general) follow a grammatically consistent path? Or do you think he would understand the rules, and break them wherever they were required to be broken?

Here's three examples. Which (if any) qualify as good English?

1. Iquante Lo?ren I think we,,,! halloo;ooo quepsis deri"vitive one night good with ham satisifactions.

2. There was me, that is Alex, and my three droogs, that is Pete, Georgie, and Dim, Dim being really dim, and we sat in the Korova Milkbar making up our rassoodocks what to do with the evening.

3. 'Yes-en I's rich now, come to look at it. I owns mysef, en I's wuth eight hund'd dollars. I wisht I had de money, I wouldn' want no'.'


I think we can all agree that #s 2 and 3 are excellent uses of English. Their grammar is a little rough, the spelling atrocious, and plenty of made-up words in all three. Yet somehow my contribution to the trio just doesn't quite convey the same quality. Why is that? I'm trying to convey a thought, expressing it however I want to express it. Surely it's as good as the others, No?

The clarity of communication I'm talking about *exists* in examples 2 and 3, even though they don't follow "the rules", because I'm pretty damned sure the authors of those pieces knew the rules and made deliberate choices, using their violations of the rules to convey further information.

No, they're really not.
Yes, they really are. The odds of understanding are increased; I never said they're guaranteed. Just because something is grammatically correct doesn't mean it suddenly becomes intelligible. I readily agree that it is possible to communicate effectively without a deep knowledge of grammar - but having that knowledge will enable more effective communication. A wilful ignorance of grammar does no good to anybody.
posted by GhostintheMachine at 12:54 PM on August 25, 2008


Sigh. Would you mind not lumping me in with the compulsives who believe the slightest derivation from the Queen's English should be met with a firing squad? Hell, I'm not one of those.

I'll believe it when I see it, namely when you stop making up things about English to justify your irrational beliefs.

The Pre-moderns didn't follow rules that didn't exist, so I shouldn't follow rules that do exist?

You're not getting it. The "rules" do not exist except in the minds of people ruined by nonsensical classes/books. The real rules of English are in the minds of every native speaker and are pretty much the same as they were in Shakespeare's day, give or take a few strong verbs and prepositional uses. You can use the pretend rules, just as you could walk to work while refusing to step on any cracks, but your claims about real-world effects/causes (want to communicate effectively; don't want to break mother's back) are equally dubious in either case.

Yet somehow my contribution to the trio just doesn't quite convey the same quality. Why is that?

Because it's bullshit that you made up for the occasion and has nothing to do with anything. I could type random nonsense too; so what? It might be useful to keep red herrings and straw men out of the discussion. If you want to prove that your alleged rules are necessary for clear communication, you're going to have to work a lot harder. But I'd really suggest that you read a book or two (I recommend Robert A. Hall's Linguistics and Your Language and Jim Quinn's American Tongue and Cheek) so you'll actually know something about the subject.
posted by languagehat at 3:18 PM on August 25, 2008


Oh good grief. What do they teach in classes on editing then, languagehat? At some point there's prescriptivism in written English at least some of the time.
posted by GuyZero at 3:28 PM on August 25, 2008


I find it interesting that languagehat is railing against obeying 'arbitrary' rules.. and yet appears to follow all of them. Huh.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 6:19 PM on August 25, 2008


Oh good grief. What do they teach in classes on editing then, languagehat? At some point there's prescriptivism in written English at least some of the time.

Well, sure, nobody denies that, and as an editor I enforce those prescriptivist rules in the material I edit. Look, I'm not denying the rules exist, however snarky I may get about them; my point is that they're essentially arbitrary and have nothing to do with the real rules of language, which as I said above are internalized very early in life and do not need to be taught in school. Frankly, I'm grateful for the chaotic nature of English spelling and the complex system of arbitrary rules enshrined in books like the Chicago Manual of Style, because they earn me my keep. I just wish people could distinguish between the rules of (real) grammar, like -s for third person present endings of verbs, and the rules of artificial standardized written English, and realize that the latter do not show clear thinking or effective communication or any such nonsense, but simply that one has had the luck to get the kind of education that fits one for a relatively cushy spot in this unequal society.

If people were able to say "I enjoy all kinds of styles and dialects, but I happen to prefer using Standard English for formal occasions and I like it when others use it as well," I'd have no problem, and wouldn't have to get all red in the face and sputter. It's the absurd equation of "correct" "grammar" (whichever collection of shibboleths that means to any given grumbler) with intelligence, culture, etc., and the revolting use of it as a club to beat those who don't pass the shibboleth test that I despise, as I despise elitism in general. I hate President Bush with a passion, but there's nothing wrong with his pronunciation of nuclear, and those of you who think there is are letting yourself be distracted from real issues by an irrelevant prejudice.
posted by languagehat at 7:20 PM on August 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


I'll believe it when I see it, namely when you stop making up things about English to justify your irrational beliefs.

What the fuck are you talking about?

The "rules" do not exist except in the minds of people ruined by nonsensical classes/books.

Seriously, what the fuck are you talking about?

Look, I'm not denying the rules exist, however snarky I may get about them; my point is that they're essentially arbitrary and have nothing to do with the real rules of language, which as I said above are internalized very early in life and do not need to be taught in school.

So... honestly. What the fuck are you talking about?

It's the absurd equation of "correct" "grammar" (whichever collection of shibboleths that means to any given grumbler) with intelligence, culture, etc., and the revolting use of it as a club to beat those who don't pass the shibboleth test that I despise...

Really, I gotta ask... what the fuck are you talking about?

What exactly have I made up about English? I've gone back and read *my* responses, just to be sure, and I honestly can't see it. Perhaps you're confusing my comments with another's? Or are you taking the elements and positions of the arguments of others, and viewing my comments through that perspective? I honestly believe you're confusing my words with others.

Here's some of my comments, from above (emphasis added):
I should add that intentional "mistakes" are fine, since language needs to be flexible to stay vibrant. There's a difference between "lolcats" (wherein the writer is intentionally trying to communicate a specific idea and the reader understands same) and "are'nt" (wherein the writer is either careless or ignorant, and the reader often bewildered).

I'm not in support of these guys and their obvious idiocy. Nor am I obsessed with some monolithic English, wherein lie the rules which must be obeyed. But unless you can argue that "banana's" is better than "bananas", then I gotta say, when there's a right way to do something and a wrong way, I would much prefer people at least aim for the right way.

The odds [of understanding] are increased by B's using a standard grammatical structure, but it is by no means a requirement. However, just because the rules are not always required does not mean they should always be avoided.


I do enjoy all kinds of styles and dialects. I thought I made that quite clear above, but apparently not. So I'll repeat it. I enjoy all kinds of styles and dialects. Use 'em myself all the time, too. Don't honestly give a damn about "Standard English", and have never taken a single class, course, or lecture in it.

As for suggesting I'm elitist... screw off. You're seeing something that just isn't there. Honestly.
posted by GhostintheMachine at 5:36 AM on August 26, 2008


dirtynumbangelboy: I find it interesting that languagehat is railing against obeying 'arbitrary' rules.. and yet appears to follow all of them. Huh.

No, he's railing against the prescriptivist tendency to put on airs and pretend that those rules are not arbitrary and dependent on context.

The prescriptivist is guilty of a bad case of induction, concluding that the rules that were taught to him as a student are the Platonic ideal to which the good use of language must conform.

The descriptivist argues that rules change among contexts, media and modes, and that it is more important to to use the language of your audience if you want to be understood.

The antithesis of prescriptivism isn't linguistic chaos, it is the honest recognition that as writers, editors and teachers, no single set of "rules" is going to cover all forms of communication.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 6:30 AM on August 26, 2008


What the fuck are you talking about?

I could make various snarky comments, but I'll just ignore all variants on this, since they seem completely content-free other than as declarations of ignorance.

In general, you seem to be a nice guy with a basically decent attitude who has absolutely no idea how language works or why linguistics exists (which is presumably why you don't know what the fuck I'm talking about); that's why I suggested a couple of books for you to read. If you want to go on your merry way babbling about "clarity of communication" and "rules" as if they had anything to do with each other, I can't stop you. But proud declarations of ignorance are not really an effective strategy.

To dnab: Obviously I enjoy standard written English; that doesn't mean it's the only form of the language I ever use, much less the only one I find acceptable. I like wearing hats, too, but I don't wear them indoors and I don't mock others for not wearing them.
posted by languagehat at 6:40 AM on August 26, 2008


Look, I don't want to come off as hostile or hectoring. It just gets tiresome when people are so quick to defend science against irrationality in all other areas but take the side of irrational prejudice when it comes to language. We have learned a lot about how language works in the last century plus, just as we have about astronomy, biology, etc., but somehow it hasn't percolated into the schools except in the form of specialized linguistics classes in college, which hardly anyone takes. It's as if a few biology majors knew about evolution but everyone else, even educated people, happily went around proclaiming that all species were created 5,000 years ago just as they are today. It's not easy to remain calm and understanding.
posted by languagehat at 7:17 AM on August 26, 2008


babbling about "clarity of communication" and "rules" as if they had anything to do with each other

But they quite demonstrably do, and this is obvious to anyone who speaks any language anywhere. That the rules are mutable is a given, but claiming that rules and clarity have nothing to do with each other is manifestly stupid.

Consider volleyball and beach volleyball. Fundamentally the same sport, but each has specific rules. You can't have one side playing regular volleyball and the other side playing beach; they're mutually exclusive. The rules ensure that everyone is playing the same game.

Ditto language.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 7:23 AM on August 26, 2008


But exactly (and I mean exactly) where do I take the side of irrational prejudice? I'm honestly not seeing it.

From KirkJobSluder's description, I fall into the descriptivist camp. Is there a problem with that? You keep asserting that there are no rules, but there are rules, even in languages like eubonics or verbal speech. Maybe it's the connotation of "rules" that's the problem, that these are somehow imposed-on-high immortal regulations, rather than an agreed-upon set of conventions between speaker and audience that can vary with each new iteration of speaker and audience. The rules I'm talking about aren't top-down, they're bottom-up.

I can't just make random noises and gestures and expect those around me to understand what I intend. I need to use some sort of structured language, which means rules. With my friends I can use one set of rules, with my co-workers another, and with the world at large yet another. None of these are wrong, or poor English, unless I'm failing to convey my intentions to that particular group.

Acadians speaking franglais mix English and French words in a way that can baffle fluently bilingual outsiders, but I've heard about studies showing that there are rules or patterns governing what words are chosen from each language. There are rules in all forms of communication, and if you want to communicate with a particular group, you'd damned well better use a form of communication they'll accept.

For the life of me, I can't see that as irrational or elitist. I really would appreciate if you could point that out to me, because it suggests I just fundamentally don't understand something here.
posted by GhostintheMachine at 7:52 AM on August 26, 2008


(which is presumably why you don't know what the fuck I'm talking about)

Maybe you're just a shitty communicator.
posted by Sys Rq at 8:12 AM on August 26, 2008


Having just been a spectator here until now - GhostintheMachine, from statements you've made like

...when there's a right way to do something and a wrong way, I would much prefer people at least aim for the right way.

it seems as though you're designating some sets of rules as the right way and some as the wrong way, and I think those sorts of distinctions are what languagehat is reacting to.

dnab, good point about volleyball; but I think within a certain scope, people playing a game with non-identical rule sets can still successfully play with each other. I'm a great fan of Monopoly, for example, and I love to play the dick legalistic rules lawyer. I've frequently found out, a good half hour or hour into the game, that the people I'm playing with hold some particular rule differently from me. Many people do not observe the "housing shortage" rule, that there's a finite supply of the little plastic "house" pieces. Whether or not you observe this rule makes a significant tactical difference in the game, so when it comes up you definitely have to come to an agreement on it. But it's quite conceivable for a group of people with rules that differ to play an entire game of Monopoly unbeknownst. And of course, once I observe that someone is about to, say, use pennies in place of houses because they've run out, I could conceivably just let it slide. Not that I ever do, muahahah.

It seems to me that similarly in language there's a sort of spectrum of compatibility between rules and a contextuality to it, rather than a strictly compatible-or-incompatible thing going on. And unlike with games, it's not intelligible to say that it's unfair that someone used punctuation differently than you would.
posted by XMLicious at 8:43 AM on August 26, 2008


Yes.. but there are things that are not correct in any context, and come from complete lack of understanding of any purpose behind any of the rules of English. Which is what was beign discussed here.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 8:46 AM on August 26, 2008


Thanks, XMLicious. I can see how that might be misinterpreted, depending on the inflection or importance given to "when". My meaning was more like "in those specific instances where there is a clear right and wrong way", rather than a more universal "there's a Right Way and a Wrong Way". I thought the example leading into it clarified this, but apparently not.
posted by GhostintheMachine at 9:08 AM on August 26, 2008


Here's a thought - another thing that could potentially interfere with clarity of communication is to follow up a grammatically-correct, correctly-spelled sentence with "Wink wink, nudge nudge, ay guvnor? Ay?" (To take something that's completely unrelated to linguistic convention.) But doing so could also potentially increase clarity of communication, depending on the context. Would it really make sense to say that doing that is wrong, because under some certain conditions it might interfere with clarity?

A nod's as good as a wink to a blind bat, ay?
posted by XMLicious at 9:15 AM on August 26, 2008


(Just to, uh, clarify, that wasn't a direct response, that was really just a passing thought. I realize that it doesn't match up to what either of you mean by "not correct in any context" or "in those specific instances where there is a clear right and wrong way.")
posted by XMLicious at 9:21 AM on August 26, 2008


I know what you mean, I know what you mean, if both parties were familiar with the source. If I said that to my mother, though, she'd wonder exactly what the hell was wrong with me (as you said, it depends on context). Doing that would certainly be wrong if I was talking to her, but that's different than suggesting it's just plain Wrong.

But is there ever a case where using an apostrophe in place of a plural is correct? If you pointed out a wayward apostrophe in a sign, would the writer just shrug and wonder why it matters, or would they defend it as correct among their peer group? I get the feeling that most people - even those doing it - view it as a mistake, but just can't be bothered to correct it.

...waiting for someone to add the obligatory "say no more", which I think more than a few people are likely encouraging at this point.
posted by GhostintheMachine at 9:50 AM on August 26, 2008


To respond more directly: dnab, the case you're talking about that's "not correct in any context" and GhostintheMachine, your "specific instances where there is a clear right and wrong way": do these instances really result in a breakdown of communication, or are they simply violations of convention?

I think that's what languagehat means: this category of rule-breaking is violation of rules of convention, rules which are conventional by ensconcement in tradition and academia, or perhaps are regarded as conventional because they are the most average set of rules amongst English-speakers. And they're nothing more than violations of those conventions - they aren't instances of unintelligibility or communication errors, they're more like failure to follow protocol.

If I've understood everyone correctly and the type of mistakes under discussion I agree with languagehat. But I think everyone has been speaking sharply in the heat of battle and dialectical synthesis, including him.
posted by XMLicious at 9:52 AM on August 26, 2008


But is there ever a case where using an apostrophe in place of a plural is correct? If you pointed out a wayward apostrophe in a sign, would the writer just shrug and wonder why it matters, or would they defend it as correct among their peer group? I get the feeling that most people - even those doing it - view it as a mistake, but just can't be bothered to correct it.

Are you familiar with the phrase "grocer's apostrophe" which is alluded to by many above? I think that's a case of exactly what you are talking about - the wayward apostrophe is considered okay in that peer group because all the grocers do it.

I definitely have run into people (who aren't grocers) who consistently do this. In the cases I'm thinking of the individuals could be persuaded it's a mistake because they wouldn't consider themselves to be an authority. But amongst a group of people who all do the same thing (and consequently, who figure out whether a plural is being indicated via context like in spoken English) they would never under any analysis (analysis without outside input, I mean) conclude that doing this is a mistake. Because identification of it as a mistake is a convention, not a rule that could be derived in any other way.
posted by XMLicious at 10:08 AM on August 26, 2008


I think that's what languagehat means: this category of rule-breaking is violation of rules of convention, rules which are conventional by ensconcement in tradition and academia, or perhaps are regarded as conventional because they are the most average set of rules amongst English-speakers. And they're nothing more than violations of those conventions - they aren't instances of unintelligibility or communication errors, they're more like failure to follow protocol.

Exactly right. If you find XMLicious's explanation clearer than mine, listen to XMLicious rather than me.

But I think everyone has been speaking sharply in the heat of battle and dialectical synthesis, including him.

Yup, and I'm sorry for it. But I get excited about this stuff.
posted by languagehat at 7:24 PM on August 26, 2008


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