by Janis Patterson
I can’t stand it any more. I have become an activist.
I cannot bear the unending mangling of our beautiful language, or the overwhelmingly blatant demonstrations of ignorance that surround us daily. Now I rarely go out without being armed with my trusty Marks-A-Lot™ with which I gleefully commit corrective acts of sabotage.
Nor am I alone. After starting a loosely knit organization called 5/A (also known as the American Association Against Apostrophe Abuse) I have discovered that there are others who dislike the grammatical ignorance that is so prevalent today. We are few in number, but growing.
My main target is usually the grocery store, because that’s where it all began. One day while I was shopping there was a spotty youth writing a sign for bananas. I remember it exactly – Banana’s – 49 cents. (Of course, he used the cents sign, which has sadly disappeared from all modern keyboards.) I asked him, which banana’s what did he mean?
He looked at me as if I were mad. “These bananas,” he said politely enough. I then explained that it wasn’t true – what he was writing was a singular possessive, which meant something (so far unstated) that belonged to one of the bananas present. After a few more moments of enlightening conversation he turned tail and ran for his manager.
The manager was kind, very soothing and thanked me for bringing the matter to his attention – employees are usually very kind to strong-minded older ladies with canes – then brought out a new card and, as a concession to customer relations, wrote Bananas’ – 49 cents. He couldn’t understand why I started laughing, albeit somewhat hysterically. Neither did he understand it when I patiently explained the difference between singular possessive, plural possessive and simple plural.
I still shopped there for several years afterward, though I swear when they saw me coming all the stock boys grabbed their sign-making materials and ran for the back. No one ever said a word when I corrected their signs with my trusty marker, either. I should drop back by, though, and see if they have improved any – I don’t shop there any more, as the store is in Dallas. Ever since the demagogues in the city council forced that idiotic and unwanted plastic bag ban down the citizens’ throats I try not to shop in Dallas at all, preferring not to let whatever sales tax I spend go to support such stupidity. For what it’s worth, judging from the increase in traffic in the stores of the satellite cities, I’m not alone in that, either!
Nor is my educational zeal limited to grocery stores. There was a lovely shop with a huge parking lot bearing a sign Customer’s Parking. I finally called them, asking if one needed to make an appointment in order to shop in their store. They answered of course not and gave me their open hours. I then asked where I could park close by, as their sign made it obvious their parking lot was restricted to one customer at a time. After I explained and again asked where I could park that would be within their stated limitations – and without relying on luck that I would be the sole customer at any given moment – they hung up on me. Apparently some people just do not care to learn what is correct. I never did shop there. There is justice, however, because they went out of business not long after. Apparently grammar does count!
And it should – language is perhaps the highest development of humankind. It is what allows us to communicate not only with each other, but with generations yet to come. It should be exact, for it conveys information that can and should be understood forever. Perhaps a misplaced apostrophe or wandering comma in itself is no great solecism, but the greatest rents start with the tiniest of holes and before long the entire fabric can become shredded and useless. As writers we are the guardians of not only of language, but of the concept and execution of language, and both deserve our best.