Confessions of a grammar snob
"What do you have to be to be a good copy editor?" asked the speaker at a seminar dedicated to that topic.
We, the audience, ticked off a long list: meticulous, observant, well-trained, willing to learn.
To each, he barked at us, "NO!"
Exasperated, we started making jokes. Someone in the back squeaked, "Anal retentive?"
"YES!" he screamed. "That's right!"
It was an odd feeling. We were satisfied with ourselves that we had found the answer he so passionately elicited. I felt a second layer of satisfaction because I know I am anal retentive, and therefore have the chops to be a good copy editor. Then the accompanying sad realization washed over me.
I'm a grammar snob.
The speaker explained you can't be a good copy editor unless you're always looking for errors. I realized I fit that description, as I had earlier in the day, while in the rooftop pool admiring the Reno landscape, noticed an advertising billboard with a grammatical error. The worst part: I let that grammatical error bother me for several minutes as I swam laps.
I left Reno knowing full well that I'm a grammar snob. I wondered if there were any 12-step programs to rid myself of such a thing.
While it is good professionally, I have three major problems with my membership in that club. First, someday I'm going to retire, and I'd rather not spend my golden years correcting the grammar of gossiping teenagers at the movie theater. Second, no one likes a grammar snob, so I have to squash every instinct I have to be an insufferable know-it-all.
For instance, when a friend asks you to "itch" his or her back, my immediate reaction is to say, "Well, I will, but 'itch' is the sensation you feel. 'Scratch' is what you want me to do." I'm usually able to suppress that urge to say those words out loud, but it's hard.
Third, and perhaps the biggest problem, is that no grammar snob is perfect -- no grammar snob knows everything. I confess I don't know the connotations of every word in the dictionary (far from it) or even every rule in the "Associated Press Style Manual," which is the industry standard for grammar snobs in the newspaper business. Therefore, being a grammar know-it-all is dangerous; there's always someone else around the corner who knows something you don't. When two grammar snobs lock horns, it's an endless struggle to which there are no winners. It's sort of like a "Star Trek" fan arguing with a "Star Wars" fan, or a Beatles fan arguing with a Rolling Stones fan: there's a lot of heated argument, but nobody wins.
Here's an example. You can always spot a grammar snob because you'll ask them, "How're you doin'?" and they'll say, "I feel well." Not "I'm good," you know, like a normal, decent person would say. They say they feel well. It's because "well" is an adverb, and that particular grammar snob thinks they're somehow superior by using it as such. However, I recently listened to a podcast from "Grammar Girl" -- yes, I really do listen to a podcast called "Grammar Girl" -- and she pointed out by saying "I feeling well" you are really saying your capacity to feel is functioning correctly. The correct phrase is "I feel good." How's that for a mind-bender?
As I said, being a grammar snob is great for the time I spend at work. At the newspaper, you should abhor errors, and you should take it personally and feel like a fool every time you make one. It makes for a better paper. But I must admit there are times I want to take a screwdriver and pry out the little voice inside my head when he says, "This says 'affect' but the author really meant 'effect.'"
People often point out that we have simple typographical errors in the paper. "Don't you ever read your own paper?" the grammar snob will ask me.
The truth is, we do. Several times. But we're also making many generations of edits to stories. We're not just looking to correct spelling errors when we copy edit, we are looking to improve the story -- add a fact or two, add perspective. It's often in the fourth or fifth generation of an edition -- and often in the final edit -- that we introduce a typo. That's when it isn't caught.
Some crazy things slip by proofreaders when you're under the pressure of a deadline. When I'm asked why we make such simple mistakes, I have an example I use to illustrate how those happen. I say, "Here, find the error in this sentence." The subject can easily find it. Then I say, "Here, find the error in this sentence, as I beat you with a Nerf baseball bat." That usually explains it. I've been through the pressure cooker of a looming deadline, and I've been beaten with a baseball bat (that's another column), and sometimes I think I prefer the bat.
But these errors are, of course, unacceptable to me and to everyone here. I'd like to think our reporters, Anna Erickson and Sara Hacking, are also grammar snobs. Maybe it's just because misery loves company. But I do know we've gotten into arguments whether "T-shirt" or "t-shirt" is the proper usage. Yep, I think we're all grammar snobs.
And that's a good thing, until we have to venture outside these walls and interact as human beings with other human beings. Then it gets tricky. In the interest of integrating with normal homo sapiens, I'll promise to bite my tongue when I want to point out you don't use an apostrophe (never! ever!) to make a noun plural. I'll do my best to look the other way when you improperly use quotation marks in written text. I'll do my best not to point out the proper usage of "lay" and "lie" no matter how much I'm dying inside.
OK, that's a lie. I'm a grammar snob, I'm insufferable, and there's no stopping me.