Martyn McLaughlin: Grammar vigilantes should embrace inconsistencies
If ever there was a quintessentially British superhero, it is surely Bristol’s so-called grammar vigilante. A mild-mannered professional by day, come nightfall he turns into a rebel with a clause, correcting erroneous spelling and misplaced punctuation on signs around the city.
Having quietly pursued his passion for 13 years, he has given his first interview this week, insisting that his work will inspire future generations, at least when it comes to the use of possessive nouns. A hero to some, a prat to others, he is part of a proud tradition of grammatical puritans who conducted their mission with a militant bent.
In the US, there is an organisation called the Typo Eradication Advancement League, a rather grand-sounding institution given its membership consists of just two men, Jeff Deck, a magazine editor, and Benjamin Herson, a bookseller. The Avengers this is not.
Armed with plentiful supplies of chalk, paint and pens, Jeff and Benjamin’s corrective zeal took them on a cross-state road trip, remedying errant signs outside coffee shops, petrol stations, shops and public buildings. The mission, Jeff explained, was not borne from selfish regard for the English language, but a desire to help individuals and small businesses project a positive image of themselves to the world.
“If you put a bunch of typos out for the world to see, people might draw conclusions about attention to detail in other matters,” he said.
The duo claimed that, in many instances, their softly softly approach was appreciated by unwitting signwriters. One Seattle manufacturer of “dillettante” chocolate, Jeff said, graciously accepted their observation that there was one “l” too many above his shopfront and promptly printed out a new version of the sign.
Not everyone, however, agreed with the duo’s altruistic acts. When their mission took them to the Grand Canyon, they spotted a crude, handwritten notice posted on an old watchtower, before making the necessary changes to its idiosyncratic punctuation. The problem was that the sign, put up by architect Mary Colter in the 1930s, was a National Historic Landmark.
Its custodian, the US National Park Service, took a dim view of the league’s actions. Jeff and Benjamin were fined £2,400, banned from every national park in the country for a year and ordered by a federal judge to desist from their nationwide crusade.
In the eyes of their supporters, the punishment was unduly harsh, but those who took umbrage at the pair’s serial defacement of public property believed justice had been served. Although I am not inclined to agree with the latter point of view – once an artform, signwriting is now as functional as it is forgettable – it was only right that they were stopped in their tracks. The same fate, hopefully, will befall Bristol’s watchman – anyone found roaming the streets at night with a bagful of commas is guaranteed a long sentence.
It is one thing to right obvious mistakes in language, but where do you assign the full stop? Nearly all of us are irked by grammatical bugbears, myself included. A well-worn paperback edition of Essential English by Harold Evans has pride of place by my office computer, alongside a copy of The Scotsman’s style guide, a fearsome tome compiled by generations of gnarled sub-editors. Yet even these bibles of my trade are not immutable. The English language is a glorious hotchpotch of inconsistencies. When our common tongue boasts auto-antonyms such as sanction, cleave and weather, it should come as no surprise that robots have yet to become fluent. They deal in binary solutions, whereas we, thankfully, must wrestle with any number of ambiguities.
The problem with both the Typo Eradication Advancement League and the West Country vigilante is that they believe their grasp of language is objectively right when no such standard exists. Asserting a claim that one use of English is correct above all others misses the point entirely; the joy lies in its messy disregard for certainty and its constant state of flux.
If English was preserved in linguistic aspic, there would be only the one dictionary, with no need for revisions.
Thankfully, the way we define language is forever shifting, with loan-words taken on board, and any number of small but appreciable fluctuations in the meanings of words. The same applies to punctuation, essentially a set of conventions once viewed in part as an elocutionary guide. From the ancient Greeks through to the authors of the US constitution, it has been ignored or misplaced throughout history.
Only in recent years have some become so perplexed by its use that we now have amateur lexicographers in spandex.
Language works by the consent of the majority. Its rules are only defined by how people use it – otherwise we would still be writing in Middle English. The grammar vigilante may be well-meaning, but his unsolicited corrections reek of self-importance and serve only to shame those who devised the original signs.
In any case, who seriously wishes to see an end to spectacular gaffes on shopfronts and sandwich boards? Their idiosyncrasies are a welcome relief to sanitised, homogenous high streets.
A baker should be expected to produce succulent, golden brown pasties. If they know what a coordinating conjunction is, all the better, but we should not expect it of them.