Good grammar
Kim Carney / msnbc.com
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 2/3/2009 7:56:21 AM ET 2009-02-03T12:56:21

Some people avoid Krispy Kreme because of the calories. Angela Nickerson won’t go there because of the Ks.

“I confess, I’m a spelling, grammar and punctuation snob,” says the 35-year-old travel writer from Sacramento, Calif. “And I won’t patronize businesses with misspelled signs. It’s like hearing fingernails running down a chalkboard.”

Life isn’t easy for language lovers such as Nickerson. Over the past decade, her beloved mother tongue has been mashed, mangled and mistreated by everyone from a sitting president to a squadron of texting preteens. Misspelled menus have become the stuff of bad dreams. (Try our Sweat and Sour Chicken!) Punctuation is not only hit-and-miss, it’s potentially hazardous. (Employees must “wash hands.”)

But while blunders and bloopers have ever exasperated the spelling snobs and grammar grunions of the world, our recent woes — housing foreclosures, massive layoffs, rising debt and war — may be ratcheting up the pressure some feel to seize control of something (anything!), even if it’s just a properly placed comma.

“Hanging on to some kind of rule might be comforting to people,” says Bethany Keeley, a grad student from Athens, Ga., who runs The “Blog” of “Unnecessary” Quotation Marks. “People are looking for something they can control and ‘What should we do about our foreign policy?’ is a lot more complicated a question than ‘Should the period go inside or outside the quotation mark?’ ”

Video: Say what, Mr. President? Dale Siegel, a financial expert from White Plains, N.Y., whose spelling is routinely corrected, says she’s definitely noticed a change in people.

“In general, I think people are getting a little bit meaner about correcting others or sharing what they call their ‘observations,’ ” she says. “They’re uptight and stressed out about losing their jobs. And if it makes them feel better to tell me I have a string hanging off my skirt or I used the word ‘your’ when I really meant to use the word ‘you’re,’ then fine.”

The English patient
Stress can affect how forgiving people are of spelling and punctuation errors, says Pauline Wallin, a clinical psychologist from Camp Hill, Pa.

“When people are under stress, they have less tolerance for minor frustrations,” she says. “Think of the harried mother rushing around trying to get her kids ready for school who loses it when one of them can’t find his homework. Spelling is something concrete and has a definite right answer so it does make you feel temporarily in control.”

But there are plenty of other principles at play as well.

An obsession with proper usage may be related to some kind of perfectionist streak, she says, or it could have to do with childhood patterns of wanting to please adults or teachers by doing things right. Putting somebody down by pointing out their bad spelling also could be a power thing. Or it could simply be part of the brain’s natural function.

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“Our brains are wired to notice what’s different and when you’re sure of the right way and the wrong way, you notice mistakes more,” says Wallin, who admits to dropping out of an exercise class because the instructor kept misusing the word “lay.”

But we don’t just notice mistakes, the psychologist notes. We also pass judgment and assign blame for them.

“Attribution theory comes into this as well,” she says. “My mistakes are caused by external circumstances, but others’ are caused by a lack of skill or a character flaw.”

Gary Cohen, an executive coach from Minneapolis who’s been hassled about his spelling for years, says character has nothing to do with it.

“I didn’t have a choice about being a good speller,” he says. “It wasn’t about lack of effort or practice or laziness, which is what it can often be associated with. I grew up with learning differences. My daughter has them too.”

Indeed, researchers at Oxford University believe the ability to spell may have more to do with our DNA than the amount of time we spend with our nose in a dictionary. Others believe nutrition and sleep patterns can affect the way our brain manages the arduous task of learning the English language.

Revenge of the nerds
Regardless of the reasons we make mistakes — or feel the urge to correct the ones we observe in others — word nerds have definitely decided it’s time to kick adverbs and take names.

The past few years have seen a dramatic increase in books, broadcasts and puckish blogs that poke fun at common gaffes and proffer usage tips for those not in the know. Language love is celebrated via T-shirts, Facebook pages and shiny new holidays such as National Grammar Day. Even Oprah’s gotten in on the style and usage scene by asking Grammar Girl Mignon Fogarty to clear up confusion about compound possessives.

But these newly hip word warriors are doing more than writing odes to apostrophes and posting tips for people who don’t know their like or as from a hole in the ground.

The 350,000-member Facebook group “I Judge You When You Use Poor Grammar” encourages its members to “seek out the infidels (grammar offenders) and … document their acts of terror. Take pictures and post them in this group to serve as examples to all.”

Self-proclaimed grammar vandal Kate McCulley took up her standard — or rather her Sharpie pen and sheath of press-on commas — a year and a half ago, determined to fix the pesky punctuation errors she encountered along the streets of her native Boston.

“I don’t go out and do this every day, but if there’s something exceptionally bad, I can’t resist,” says the 24-year-old marketing analyst, who also posts pictures of badly punctuated birthday cakes and misspelled billboards on her blog, The Grammar Vandal.

Keeley, 25, also has joined the fray with her “Blog” of “Unnecessary” Quotation Marks, which gently mocks those who advertise “beef” goulash or post beware of “dog” signs. (It’s actually a very scary hamster, she ribs on her site.)

But much like the occasional diacritic, there are those who go over the top.

Christopher Kenton, chief executive of a social media software company from Fairfax, Calif., says his late father, a former New York Times editor, simply could not let a mistake go uncorrected.

“He carried five pens in his pocket at all times and would edit his morning paper at the breakfast table,” Kenton says. “My worst embarrassment was when he corrected someone’s bumper sticker in a public parking lot with passers-by staring.”

Spyro Poulos, a 39-year-old associate publisher from Brooklyn, N.Y., says he’s encountered grammar cops as well, including a few who act as if they’re on “some superhero mission to save society from the evils of an erroneous double negative.”

“My girlfriend will correct my punctuation when she reads my blog — I get my ‘its’ and ‘it’s’ mixed up sometimes — but she’s an editor and doing it out of love,” Poulos says. “We have a friend, though, who pathologically has to correct people’s grammar and it takes every iota of control I possess to not lash out at her.”

Nickerson, the writer who refuses to patronize stores that bear misspelled signs — including her neighborhood “bagle” shop — acknowledges that she may have crossed the language-use line at times.

“I noticed a new dry cleaners was opening and the apostrophe was in the wrong place on their brand new sign,” she says. “So I called and left a message. They called back and were not nice. I guess they were offended.”

But word warriors aren’t just offending people. Some are offending the law.

Last August, two self-proclaimed grammar vigilantes were charged with conspiracy to vandalize government property after they fixed punctuation errors on a historic hand-painted sign in Grand Canyon National Park. The pair was sentenced to a year’s probation, banned from national parks, prohibited from making any more corrections to public signs and ordered to pay more than $3,000 in restitution. (No information was available as to whether the sentence was complete or incomplete.)

Even spelling and grammar snobs say they’ve come under fire by zealots.

“We actually revoked one membership from a woman who refused to accept that ‘fun’ can now be used as an adjective,” says Martha Brockenbrough, founder of the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar and author of “Things That Make Us (Sic).” “Some people can’t acknowledge that language evolves. [They’re] over the top with their expectations.”

Misplaced motives?
How can you tell if your love of language is driving you to verbal (not to mention adverbial) abuse? Wallin advises a close look at your motivation for correcting others.

“If it’s to show how smart you are, it will probably backfire, especially if the other person feels embarrassed,” she says. “However, if you want to help your spouse or child present themselves well on a job application or school assignment, then it’s OK to correct them. But even here, make sure that you don’t come across as condescending or critical. Focus on the misspelled word rather than on the person’s lack of spelling skill.”

Luckily, many of today’s word nerds opt for gentle humor — as opposed to a usage guide up alongside the head — to help get their message across.

“The Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar doesn’t walk around with a pen correcting signs,” Brockenbrough says. “[But] we do write funny, tongue-in-cheek letters to grammar offenders. Think of it this way: If you were walking around with your zipper down, wouldn’t you feel grateful to the person who kindly pointed that out?”

And while there are myriad motivations behind the impulse to correct — perfectionism, eagerness to please, payback for eight long years of the word “nucular,” and perhaps even rampant unemployment — diehard spelling and grammar snobs insist they’re only trying to help.

“When I go through and mark up a menu, I’m not doing it to humiliate the person,” says Nickerson. “I just want them to know so they don’t look uneducated. When it’s your public persona, it’s important to be accurate.”

And perhaps to remember that nobody’s perfect.

“I once used the word ‘right’ when I meant to say ‘write’ on a friend’s Facebook wall,” says grammar vandal McCulley. “She’s a writing professor and immediately wrote back to chide me for using a homophone. I told her I was going to go put my head in the oven.”

Diane Mapes is a Seattle freelance writer and author of "How to Date in a Post-Dating World."

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