I’ve always had a thing for grammar.
In kindergarten, I corrected Tracy Reynolds for splitting an infinitive during Show-and-Tell. I knew the difference between “disinterested” and “uninterested” before I was allowed to cross the street by myself. While other teenagers tacked up posters of Simon & Garfunkel or Hall & Oates on their bedroom walls, I put up a poster of Strunk & White.
I figured out early on that my fascination with grammar, spelling and punctuation bugged other people, not to mention making it nearly impossible for me to get a boyfriend. I just couldn’t understand why everyone didn’t care as much I did.
I see typos everywhere, and I’ve always felt obligated to point them out. Frequently, during family movie night, for instance, I’ll catch something fleeting on screen, like when an angry police commissioner slams a newspaper down on his desk.
“Wait!” I say. “Did you see that? The headline on that paper said, ‘State of Emergancy’!”
Everyone shushes me. But I press on.
“No, really! Let me see the clicker, I’ll show you.”
Rather than congratulate me on my keen eye, they groan (“Why does she always do this?”) and then take out their phones while I prove — frame by frame — that “emergency” is indeed misspelled.
We don’t have a lot of family movie nights.
But that’s me: I’m a lone crusader fighting for the English language.
I’m the person standing in line at the supermarket who says, with an eye roll, “Doesn’t anybody know it’s ‘10 items or fewer’?”
I correct typos, in pen, in doctors’ office magazines.
I yell at the TV, “‘For him and I’? Are you kidding me?”
While I tend to want to point out errors made by friends (and sometimes strangers), I’ve learned that most people prefer, or even insist, that I keep my knowledge to myself.
So — though it kills me — I’ve stopped explaining why two spaces after a period went out of fashion with typewriters. I force myself not to blurt out, “You’re saying ‘literally,’ but you mean ‘figuratively.’” I turn away when I see shop signs that say “Closed Monday’s” or front door plaques that read “Welcome to the Elliott’s.”
It’s probably good that my husband, Mark, is as unconcerned with the minutiae of grammar as I am obsessed. His native tongue, Vermont vernacular, manages to communicate his feelings quite well, despite its lack of adherence to strict grammatical rules. If I point out that he has dangled a modifier or incorrectly used the past perfect tense, he just communicates his feelings even more clearly, or at least louder.
While one could argue (and I often do) that at least some respect for the agreed-upon conventions of language is necessary for discourse in a modern society, others argue that plenty of people live rich, fulfilling lives even if they write “would of” when they mean “would have.”
Agree to disagree.
I will accept, however, that maybe I’m the only person who lies awake at night fuming about typos in Amazon Prime’s show descriptions. So how does a person like me find a positive way to channel my need to fix grammar?
Here’s how: Last summer I got a job as a copy editor.
Nitpicking the language — the very compulsion that once caused me to lose friends and irritate people — now earns me a paycheck. I’m in heaven.
I just have to remember to keep things in perspective. A couple of weeks ago, for example, Mark and I sat down to dinner to talk about our day. He went on about how he’d spent eight hours outside in the wind and freezing rain, fixing some rotten siding while ice water ran down the back of his neck, and how he maybe had a touch of hypothermia, blah, blah, blah.
“Yeah?” I said. “Well, I spent an hour trying to give an 18-point bulleted list a consistent grammatical structure. Then I had to edit a 24-page document that kept switching between present and past tense. And the writer kept using ‘which’ when she should have used ‘that.’ I’m exhausted.”
Mark put down his fork. He stared deeply into my eyes and touched my face, saying, “I literally don’t know how you do it.”
We don’t always speak the same language, but I know when he’s mocking me.