Nobody likes a grammar cop, boy-o. Get that through your head now, before you even think of putting on the badge and slipping a brand new red pen into your holster. You may think you’re a hero, out there saving the city from awkward sentences and confusing signs. But the public? They don’t see it that way.
To them, you’re a fussy know-it-all. The guy who makes everyone nervous whenever they have to send you an e-mail or a Christmas letter. So before you hit the street and proofread your first billboard, son, keep this in mind: Grammar cops are at their best when no one notices they were there. Fact is, we’re a lot like Batman, saving the city from itself while hardly a soul notices. We’re Dark Knights of the Syntax, only without rock-hard abs and the cool car.
It’s taken me a lot of years to figure all that out, going all the way back to my first bust. What was the first one, you ask? Oh, it must’ve been when I was about five. My dad was a grammar cop before me. My mom was a Scrabble champion. So I came from the womb watching for rogue words. Dad would set me on his knee and say, “Adjectives are leeches in the pond of prose, buddy. They cost me a partner; don’t let them sneak up on you.”
One day, I noticed a sticker on my brother’s crib that said, “Pull lever towards foot of bed.” Towards? I was shattered. Did adults really talk that way? Was there anyone out there I could trust? I grabbed a crayon and crossed off the s, and I guess I’ve been on the beat ever since.
Everybody out there gripes that grammar cops only pull them over because we have a quota to make. Case in point: I’m listening to sports talk radio and hear the host say, “They need to get a Dwight Howard before the trade deadline.” Twenty minutes later, I’m down at the station writing a citation, telling him, “There’s only one Dwight Howard, sir. There’s no other free agent out there that can be realistically compared to him. So they can’t go get ‘a Dwight Howard.’” He grumbles and says, “Since you’re pulling me over for this, I’m assuming you’ve caught everyone out there who has a subject/verb disagreement?”
I try to explain. I don’t need any quota to be pulling people over. It’s not a matter of whether I can find a subject/verb disagreement to pull over. It’s which one is the worst. I let 10 go by everyday, just so I can find the big one.
But waiting on the big offenders isn’t easy. If I let the little violations walk, then how can I call myself a protector of the language? I don’t play favorites, and that can cost a guy. About 10 years ago, I busted a local politician. He waltzed into a restaurant and said, “I’ll take two Nacho Supremes.” I threw him on that counter and had him cuffed before he knew his nose was pressed against the Formica (cap that word, son; it’s a trademark). He wanted to know what he did. I said, “You don’t put a plural on an adjective in my town, mister, no matter who you are. You order ‘two Nachos Supreme’ or you take it somewhere else.” That one almost cost me my red pen. And it did earn me a year of hard time editing the junior-high newspaper. But guess what? I’d do it again. A stylebook’s not much good if it only applies to the little people, I say.
Do we grammar cops ever look the other way? Sometimes, when you know it’s for the better. English is an evolving language; they taught us at the academy. So am I going to wreck the future of some eager young teacher who tells a classroom, “That’s something I won’t put up with”? Technically, that’s a violation. But nobody says, “That’s something up with which I will not put” just to avoid a preposition at the end of a sentence. At least not the kind of people I want teaching my kids. So sometimes, I keep the pen in the holster and keep walking.
A long time ago, I realized it would’ve been better to work undercover all these years. It wears you down when in every class session your entire life you hear professors worrying that the editor in the room is probably picking their PowerPoint slides apart. But what I am supposed to do? Act like there aren’t five different spellings of the same word and incomplete sentences on every slide?
Can’t do it, any more than I can let any of the classics get by me. If I run into you on the street, know this: You’ll never get away with a few things as long as there’s ink in my pen:
Nothing can be “totally destroyed.” It’s either destroyed or it’s not.
If you have a meeting every six months, it’s “semi-annual” not “biannual.”
Steam was not literally coming out of his ears, and you were not literally blown away. In fact, let’s just leave “literally” out of every conversation; I haven’t met a civilian yet who can handle that word properly.
“Irregardless” makes no sense; let it go.
If you say, “I could care less,” it means you actually do care. Try, “I couldn’t care less” once in awhile.
Nothing is “pretty unique”; unique says it all.
And unless you’re really upset with an idea, you “flesh it out,” not “flush it out.”
I know what you’re thinking. It must get old, all that running around fixing every sign and conversation you run into. It might seem that way to you. But someone in our society has to care about the details, even if everyone else feels like the grammar cops are literally driving them nuts.