I have raised two lovely literary citizens. My teenagers appreciate literature and love to read. They enjoy attending author readings, and the boy’s favorite place on the planet is the public library. My son and daughter care about precision in the usage of English grammar in the written (and spoken) word, and though they are still in the process of learning, they pay attention to rules of punctuation and other matters of style.
The downside: I have raised two grammar rule snobs pained by a grammar-oblivious generation.
Jack and Grace gasp at every offending “alot” and noun-verb disagreement they encounter in emails, web articles, and Facebook posts. The nightly news is a heckle-fest. The boy corrects his family members, Brian Williams, and POTUS for the most minute infractions. The girl has been known to correct (boy)friends’ grammar in their texts. In training them in the way they should go, I have ruined them. I have burdened two innocent children with the belief that the people who start their sentences with “Me” (as in, “Me and my buddies are going to spend the day playing Halo but none of us are ever going to read books, ever”) are the huns who will destroy civilization.
It’s all my fault, but I can’t help it. I cringe when I read a friend’s blog and see her misuse of “none” (None IS! None is singular!) and “I” used in place of “me.” I admit it: I used to be one of those people who publicly corrected people’s misspellings and typos on Facebook. It burned my eyes. I couldn’t let it go. Ick on me. I am thankful my friend John-not-Jon Stewart called me out one December, lending me an epiphany that my habit was the height of cyber-douchebaggery. That January 1, I resolved not to edit my friends, not even in my mind, especially on Facebook and even in emails.
Still workin’ on the “in my mind” part.
So when my friend Susan recently gifted me with my very own subscription to Creative Nonfiction, you can imagine my excitement over the promise of an article with the tease Think you can be a copyeditor? It’s more complicated than it looks in the first issue in my mailbox, Mistakes. The article would exonerate me and justify my righteous indignation and panic over the online storm of messed up jots and tittles. As a writer whose job also requires occasional copyediting, with great anticipation I dove into to the article titled (not entitled, hear me?!) The Correctors, written by Carol Fisher Saller, the Subversive Copy Editor and editor of The Chicago Manual of Style’s online Q&A. (Squee!)
To me, Ms. Saller is a rockstar. As cool as Clapton, more hep-cat than Sting. As authoritative on writing and editing as Strunk or White, but updated. Anything Saller says, goes. Deep down I expected her to confirm my concern that the grammar hacks of the world will crumble life as we know it… But she didn’t.
She did one better. She corrected me, and chastening never felt so good.
“It’s not all that clear,” Ms. Saller says, “even to the experts, what’s ‘correct’ when it comes to great swaths of language and grammar.”
This is the queen bee of correctors we are reading here, the corrector of correctors, calling out correctors (including yours truly) for thinking we’re all-knowing.
Copyeditors themselves are not always current on the issues. People who haven’t studied history or engineering or biology since high school or college naturally assume that their knowledge is outdated—that the subject has evolved and changed over time. They wouldn’t dream of passing themselves off as professors or engineers or doctors.
When was the last English class you took? When was the last English class I took? Not this century.
Never mind that whoever taught us in 1992 was probably using grammar she learned in 1972, which very likely came out of a textbook published in 1952: we still believe that only barbarians could question the rules of English we learned in our youth.
Though they may sting a little, these words are the most incisive and insightful I’ve heard or read on the subject, from an ultimate subject matter expert:
First, have a heart. A typo is a typo, not a sign that the barbarians are at the gate. Second, educate yourself. Read the fun and informative posts at Language Log or Lingua Franca or Grammar Girl. Third, if you’re a writer, work kindly and collaboratively with your editor. And finally, resist the temptation to post those “gotcha” comments online, pouncing on every its for it’s. While you’re busy fussing, you’re failing to read for knowledge, inspiration, or pleasure.
“That,” says Saller, “would be the real mistake.”
Listen up, my beauties. Do as Saller says, not as your mother does:
*Especially when reading your mother’s work, including this here blog (but also remember the the impotence of proofreading)