Saturday, January 06, 2007

A Grammatical Rant

After reading the chapter "r/ Inse^t a Carrot e/" in Anne Fadiman's book Ex Libris about how she and her family are compulsive proof-readers; and the very next evening seeing this post on my cousin Katy's blog about her meticulously constructed, lovingly composed, mis-punctuated wedding invitations; I have been musing about my own aversion to grammatical and punctuation errors.

First, after reading Anne Fadiman but before hearing of Katy's dilemma, I arrived at a new theory explaining why I hate it so much when people misspell my name: In addition to just being annoying and insulting, it offends the same part of my self as do errors in books, on signs, in store windows, and in periodicals. I take time and go out of my way to make sure I spell people's names correctly, and even the myriad e-mails I write every day at work are re-read at least once so I send very few errors to my co-workers. Misspelling my name is like a regular error made personal, so no wonder it bothers me.

A short exposition about "Meredith" and its origins:

The most common misspelling of my name is "Merideth," which I am currently faced with every time my coworker RJ sends me an e-mail...I corrected him once, but since he immediately reverted to the same misspelling I haven't had the heart to correct him again because he's a good guy and I like him. I have also had people spell it "Meredeth," but the current winner for gross misspellings of my name goes to two relatives of Paul's family who each wrote on their Christmas cards this year "Paul & Merrideth"; I think they must have collaborated. However, I can't be too annoyed at this because my own parents addressed their Christmas card to Paul's parents "Edwin & Linda," and Paul's Dad's name is Ed, short for Edgar...this mistake was probably my fault, at least partly; although I have never thought his name was Edwin, so I'm not sure how the mistake got passed on to my parents.

Over 43,000 people work for SAIC, so I searched the name "Meredith" and found:

  • 4 people with the last name "Meredith"
  • 12 people with the first name "Meredith," including me
  • 2 people with the first name "Merideth"
  • 1 person with the first name "Meredeth"
  • 1 person with the first name "Meridith"
If you look in a baby names book the only spelling listed is "Meredith," so the four other Mer_d_th's above are victims of parental creative mis-name-spelling (a phrase I intend to patent as an often-abused practice and subsequently lead protest against).

(As a side note, "Meredith" is the only spelling listed on, as a Welsh name for a boy or girl meaning "Lord"; however, I did find "Merideth" and "Meridith" on, which listed "Meredith" and "Meridith" as girls' names and "Merideth" as a boy's name, and all as English names meaning "Defender of the Sea," which is what I've always known it to mean...Wikipedia says "Meredith is an uncommon first name in the English language. It was originally a Welsh male name, (Meredydd; in its earliest recorded form, Morgetiud), in which final element, iud, means 'lord'; the meaning of the initial element(s) is unknown. It is often wrongly explained in name books as 'protector from the sea' due to confusion with the Latin mer and the Old English Edith. It can be used for either gender, but is more commonly a girl's name in English-speaking countries." A search of Wikipedia for Merideth reveals that it is a small town in Victoria, Australia; searches for Meridith and Meredeth yield nothing. I still consider the only official spelling to be "Meredith," but would like to do some more research on its origins.)
Last night after reading Katy's post and calling her to express my sympathies, I had some further thoughts about grammar and punctuation. I notice errors all the time in public places, and it always bothers me. If I'm with Paul, I can point them out to him, and while he won't particularly care, he won't be annoyed either (unless I'm correcting him, which I do, and he doesn't always like it). If I'm with most people, I don't feel comfortable pointing out these errors because they wouldn't share in my annoyance and amusement. If I'm going to notice these things, I would most like to be with my mom and sister, because they will both revel with me in the awfulness of such public mistakes.

Once soon after I moved, Mom, Dad, Han, and I were all in a restaurant near my VA apartment. This restaurant is still a favorite of Paul's and mine, and we've been there many times. It's decorated in a southwestern theme with big mirrors in hand-carved wooden frames that the restaurant commissioned from a local artist. Each mirror frame has some quote carved into it in giant letters; one is "If you don't know where you are, your riding down the wrong trail." Right there in the middle of a big, popular restaurant! In gigantic carved wooden letters! This is, to me, one of the worst public errors I've ever seen, I think because it feels so permanent and uncorrectable. When I walk past a sign in the mall that says "Come in for you're free gift," I know it could be corrected fairly easily, even if it never is; when I read an article in Time Magazine with the sentence structure of a 12-year-old, I know it will be tossed in every one's trashcans by the time next week's issue comes out; when I proofread a friend's paper, I can make corrections outright; but when an artist has been commissioned, paid, and carved huge letters into wood, there is no hope.

I anticipate that many readers of this post (excepting my mom, Han, and Katy) will not only agree with my decision to refrain from correcting public errors and not sharing my notice of them with friends and co-workers, and furthermore might even feel that I am being way too hard on them and should cut everyone some slack.

To you I say: you're right, BUT.

It is true that I can't expect most people to be as picky as I am. They weren't taught these rules well enough in school or were perhaps interested in other things too much to absorb it all, and now they are surrounded daily by common errors such as its/it's, your/you're, and there/their/they're going uncorrected and unacknowledged every day.

This, then, is my BUT: It is exactly because these errors have become so commonplace and are unopposed and unchallenged that everyone is caring less and less about them. If every printed sign, every book, every periodical were corrected each time an error was committed, soon those errors would start to be much less frequent in the first place because everyone would be unconsciously absorbing the RIGHT usages instead of the wrong ones. This is exactly why I had little sympathy for my education major friends who had to re-take the grammar test over and over before they could become teachers: if we have teachers who use incorrect grammar, we can't hope to have our children do any better!

It may be unfair to hold Joe Schmo accountable for his poor grammar, but only because we don't hold those in control of education and popular media accountable. These are not difficult concepts; they are just not in the public mind. If we mentioned these issues on a few popular news and talk shows, NPR, The Daily Show with John Stewart, etc. it would be ridiculously easy to make good grammar practices popular instead of taboo, and within months I think we could see a drastic reduction in the most common errors.

Maybe I'll start a facebook group.


  1. There is a facebook group for it. I'm a member actually because it bothers me too (possibly the journalism major in me..and the fact that I lose over 1/2 a grade for every mistake I make...). You should join us... :o) Love you.

  2. Don't forget the genetic component to good grammar habits. In our case, it has come through both sides of my family, thanks to both my grandmothers. That is why you and Katy and Hannah are cursed with finding these mistakes everywhere. Anne Fadiman has the gene, too. Kelly R, how have you come to have the grammar gene? It is in Kelly D's family, too. We stick together :0)

  3. I just recently noticed the Facebook group "I judge you when you use poor grammar" and I almost joined, because it's true, but I also felt it was kind of...snotty. So I joined Mer's instead. But I agree...I hate misspellings, mispunctuations, and the like. It drives me nuts. And poor spelling...although I think that poor spelling has something to do with genetics...some people just can't spell. Perhaps it's the same way with grammar/punctuation, and the problem is that no one took enough time in grade school to properly help those who needed it most. But that is just speculation.

  4. i can't imagine you're conversation with katie. or maybe i can......hee hee

    i'm often horrified but usually don't correct people. i point it out and laugh behind theyre backs.