Grammar Vigilante Causes Stir Among Editors

picture of graffiti on wallIn April, shortly after I returned from the ACES annual conference in St. Petersburg, FL, the BBC ran an article about a self-styled “grammar vigilante” who has been correcting punctuation on public signs in Bristol, England for the past decade. This “Banksy of punctuation” has even fashioned an “apostrophiser” (that would be “apostrophizer” in American English), a long-handled tool that can correct erroneous punctuation at heights unreachable by the human arm.

My first—and enduring—response to this was and is amusement. When I first heard about it, my imagination ran loose, conjuring up an image of a mild-mannered family man with OCD who just couldn’t let an errant or missing apostrophe go unfixed. Let’s call him Nigel. Nigel dons a black hoodie and sneaks out after the kiddies are in bed to ease his jangly nerves by “fixing” neighborhood signs. This guy would make a great character in a novel!

But many other copyeditors and linguists—including many prominent ones in the editing community—did not share my reaction, as evidenced by the current of tweets and blog posts condemning the vigilante that rippled through our corner of the internet. Linguist James Harbeck tweeted something to the effect of, “If your need to correct grammar compels you to deface someone else’s property, you should rethink whether it has anything to do with language.” (This is a very loose paraphrasing of the tweet; Harbeck is a prolific tweeter and I’d have to scroll through hundreds of tweets to find the exact wording.)

Harbeck’s tweet was generously liked and retweeted. Other similarly disapproving tweets, blog posts, and discussions proliferated across the electronic editorial community.

I scratched my head at my peers’ heated response to this story. “This man isn’t an editor—he’s an engineer,” I thought. Why were editors taking this so personally? Were copyeditors being pedantic about being pedantic? Not a single non-editor friend whom I asked found the story offensive.

Did my editor friends lack a sense of humor? No, that didn’t ring true; the conference had been full of goofy editors wearing tiaras, silly spelling bees, shuffleboard. So why did they seem to have a zero tolerance policy for the grammar vigilante?

I have found that the longer I edit for money, the less frequently I correct or even notice grammar and punctuation errors in the wild. When I’m off duty, I’m off duty. My husband is an auto restoration mechanic and the last thing he wants to do in his free time is lift the hood of a vintage Ferrari. Why would editors be different?

Maybe editors are different, and that’s why so many took this so personally. (I’m not implying that this is true by posing this possibility; what do you think?) Sometimes we get angry at another person’s actions because they remind us of things about ourselves we don’t like.

Of course I agree that editors should not go around offering uninvited corrections, but the “grammar vigilante” is not an editor. In my view, he’s a man with a compulsion that happens to revolve around signs and punctuation.

Harbeck, a man steeped in and passionate about language, is right: the actions of the vigilante have little to do with language. But I don’t think well-meaning editors need to defend the world from “grammar vigilantes” like this one, who was actually thanked by the owners of “Cambridge Motor’s” when he de-apostrophized it! And we don’t have to get angry about this to prove that we would never do such a thing.

If editors want to be perceived as less fussy, maybe we should start with being less fussy about quirky punctuation-obsessed individuals like Bristol’s grammar vigilante and his trusty apostrophiser. I, for one, remain adamantly bemused, and no copyeditor’s finger wagging about how I “should” feel about it can change that.