Guerilla Grammar

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Last week, the Philadelphia Inquirer profiled Jeff Deck and Benjamin Herson, who are promoting their book, The Great Typo Hunt: Two Friends Changing the World, One Correction at a Time. Deck and Herson—who  formed a Justice League of grammar nerds called the Typo Eradication League, or TEAL—traveled the country correcting unnecessary quotation marks, transposed letters, misspellings, and other niggling usage mistakes on signs, billboards, and storefronts. While it smacks of the kind of “Read About This Crazy Thing I Did for a Year” stunt journalism popularized by AJ Jacobs, the two come off in the Inquirer piece as genuinely sincere about teaching people the right way to use the English language. They also manage to practice their craft politely, unlike the New York woman who had to be forcibly removed from a Starbucks because the clerk had the gall to ask her to clarify if she wanted butter or cream cheese on her bagel or not.

Maybe it’s my conflict-avoiding, Midwestern upbringing, or that I’ve spent enough time living in the glass house of the internet to know better than to throw stones, but I don’t make a habit out correcting other people’s grammar. Unless you’re an English teacher or a professional copy editor, it’s a good way to get punched in the throat. I’m also not sure it serves the right purpose either. When Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck point their patriotic fingers eastward and sneer at the “liberal elites,” they’re talking about the type of person who scolds you for ending a sentence with a preposition.

I’ve read enough Jack Shafer to know that two stories don’t make a trend though, and of course grammar zealots have been around forever. In his 2001 Harper’s article, “Democracy, English, and the Wars over Usage,” David Foster Wallace used his family’s acronym “SNOOT” to describe this subspecies of  nerd, “the sort of person,” he said, “whose idea of Sunday fun is to look for mistakes in [William] Safire's column's prose itself.” The distinction comes with a built-in self-loathing that seems to come from acknowledging the futility of the obsession:

In ways that certain of us are uncomfortable about, SNOOTs' attitudes about contemporary usage resemble religious/political conservatives' attitudes about contemporary culture: We combine a missionary zeal and a near-neural faith in our beliefs' importance with a curmudgeonly hell-in-a-handbasket despair at the way English is routinely manhandled and corrupted by supposedly educated people. The Evil is all around us: boners and clunkers and solecistic howlers and bursts of voguish linguistic methane that make any SNOOT's cheek twitch and forehead darken. A fellow SNOOT I know likes to say that listening to most people's English feels like watching somebody use a Stradivarius to pound nails. We are the Few, the Proud, the Appalled at Everyone Else.

Come to think of it, I lost 20 minutes of my life last night watching someone called Prince Poppycock, dressed in what looked like an attempt at a Louis XIV getup, signing Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” on a TV show called “America’s Got Talent.” Maybe I’m not a SNOOT or a guerilla typo eradicator, but I feel their pain.