Monday, September 18, 2006

Being Tough on Langauage is to Hard

A friend in Minnesota alerted me to an e-mail he got from the office of Lori Swanson, the Democrat running for Minnesota. She's Smart, She's Tough, and She's on Your Side.

But her campaign e-mail said something odd in the subject line: "If Your Still Undecided..." It's tough to be smart when your mixing up you're yores.

My friend was feeling ornery so he shot off an e-mail to Lori HQ and got the following reply:
Thank you for pointing out the error in our last email--you are correct that the subject line should have read "you're," not "your." The volunteer who re-typed the subject line before the email was sent made an inadvertent error. The person has been volunteering such long hours in the closing days of this tight race that it has led to a lack of sleep and bleary eyes! Lori prides herself on taking care with the English language, and we appreciate that you took the time to point out the error to us.
Thanks again. We hope to earn your vote.
There's a lesson here: Edit yourself and then have at least one other person edit your writing.

As an editor by profession, I'd like to add some professional advice:
1. Do as Ms. Swanson's office did and be gracious about being corrected.
2. Do as my friend did and a) check the rule to make sure you're right, and then b) tell the public personality that that they made a mistake. They need to know.
3. Never call yourself a langauge expert. Call yourself an enthusiast. We all make mistakes. And sometimes they get published.

Reminds me of an uppity woman name of Lynne Truss. Claimed to be tough on grammar and wrote a book about it. But Eats, Shoot & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation got a nasty review in the New Yorker on account of its bad grammar. Part of it, to be fair, was that it was written for the U.K. audience, and they have different usage there. But Louis Menand found much more to quibble with than mere Britishisms:
The preface, by Truss, includes a misplaced apostrophe (“printers’ marks”) and two misused semicolons: one that separates unpunctuated items in a list and one that sets off a dependent clause. About half the semicolons in the rest of the book are either unnecessary or ungrammatical, and the comma is deployed as the mood strikes. Sometimes, phrases such as “of course” are set off by commas; sometimes, they are not. Doubtful, distracting, and unwarranted commas turn up in front of restrictive phrases (“Naturally we become timid about making our insights known, in such inhospitable conditions”), before correlative conjunctions (“Either this will ring bells for you, or it won’t”), and in prepositional phrases (“including biblical names, and any foreign name with an unpronounced final ‘s’ ”). Where you most expect punctuation, it may not show up at all: “You have to give initial capitals to the words Biro and Hoover otherwise you automatically get tedious letters from solicitors.”
Some of Truss's goofs could have been prevented with simple fact-checking:
And it is stated that The New Yorker, “that famously punctilious periodical,” renders “the nineteen-eighties” as the “1980’s,” which it does not. The New Yorker renders “the nineteen-eighties” as “the nineteen-eighties.”
Oh, it's hard being punctilious. Better not to say you are. Is that the cheap way out? Maybe. Bloggers have it easy. The medium is like the Wild West (should "wild" be capitalized there? Suddenly, I'm nervous) -- no need for editors, speelcheck or proper grammar.

There's another lesson, too. For every rule you think you know about English usage, there's an expert somewhere who has thought through why that rule isn't correct, necessary, or current.

A good example is that common supermarket checkout line sign: "10 items or less." When my dear mother pointed out how wrong that was ("less mashed potatoes, fewer peas," she said), it started to bother me whenever I saw it. And then Target changed their signs to "fewer." Many of us Minnesotans smiled every time we saw those Target signs. They seemed to confirm something about our shopping at Target: how un-Walmart this place is.

But Bill Walsh, copy editor at the Washington Post, makes an argument in his website The Slot that maybe "less" is okay. His claim is that the sign is short for "10 items or less than 10 items." He says that the sign would be wrong if it said "10 or less items" because then the "less" applies to the countable (items). I think what he's saying is that the sign we're used to is a shortened mathematical statement of the "greater than / less than" variety, which is okay. Agree with him or not (he says "10 items or fewer" sounds ridiculous), he's got a good argument.

I'm so distressed about apostrophes these days that when I see things like CD's and DVD's in the New York Times I get upset. But the apostrophes in those cases stand in for the missing letters -- it's an abbreviation: C[ompact ]D[isc]s. So it's not wrong, but we over-correct. Like when people say "and I" when they should be saying "and me."

I have a policy in this blog. Any reader who spots one of my typos or misuses or other language mistakes (the inadvertant ones, not my jokes like "speelcheck" or "yore") gets a prize. The friend who told me about Lori Swanson's campaign goof notified me of a typo in the description of this blog -- a mistake that sat there for about two months. No one said anything until he did. It gave me the idea: Let my readers be my editors. These goddamn blogs. They got no rules.


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