By Noah BendzsaThe Department of English Language and Literature Student Blogger for 2021/2022
Would you believe… that I actually exclaimed “Ah-ha!” when I thought that I’d spotted an error in The New Yorker? I was out in public, and I’m sure my reaction would have drawn looks, if I hadn’t been in a parked car in an LCBO parking lot. (I was waiting for a friend.) The apparently offending sentence appeared in “Legitimation Crisis,” by Louis Menand, and was published in the August 16, 2021, issue. It ran: “In 1966, Congress passed the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act, which empowered the federal government to set safety standards for automobiles, a matter heretofore left largely to the states” (Menand, “Legitimation” 71).
Do you see it? Don’t squint too hard; you won’t find fault with the punctuation, and there is no egregious but invisible homophonic misspelling like “no-nothingism” (see Lizza 45). The problem, I felt, was the word “heretofore.” The article was not published, in 1966, just after the passage of the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act. My understanding, backed up by the Oxford English Dictionary, was that “heretofore” meant “before now” or “up until this point.” As I understood it, it did not mean “up until that point”—which is what Menand means.
If you have ever stopped reading right in the middle of a novel’s action sequence to ponder a word’s proper or improper usage; if you have ever paused mid-essay because of a superfluous or, more often, missing comma; if you have ever.…Well, I had to crawl through the first pages of Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt, because I kept getting stopped where my 2015 edition renders “co-workers”as “coworkers.” This is what grammar and usage are like for some of us (and maybe for you, too). They have a great capacity to get us riled up.
As it turns out, I hadn’t spotted a mistake in Menand’s work. When I got home, I realized that The New Yorker uses Merriam-Webster’s dictionaries (Norris 18), because of course they do. Oxford has been known, in the past, to merely refer readers to Webster’s (see Hyman 11031) and, as Webster’s itself notes, is in part responsible for the widespread, erroneous claim that Shakespeare coined x words, where x is equal to 1,700 or greater. Webster’s, on the other hand, tends to do the lexical heavy lifting. They are the champions of usage, telling us that, yes, “funner,” “conversate,” and “irregardless” are indeed words, and you can go right ahead and use them—at least, in casual settings. In their on-line dictionary, they define “heretofore” as a synonym of “hitherto,” which even Oxford defines as “until now or until the point in time under discussion” (my emphasis). Menand means “heretofore” in the sense of “hitherto.”
It would have been highly ironic if I had spotted an error in Menand’s article. It was he, more than anyone else, who first turned me on to grammar and usage. In ninth grade, when I was thirteen, I still had little notion of what a verb, noun, or adjective was—let alone what constituted a sentence or how to properly use a comma. In an attempt to better myself and my writing, I started reading Eats, Shoots & Leaves, by Lynne Truss. After getting a few pages in, not realizing that it was not a grammar and usage guide but a comedy book, I was puzzled. Even as a punctuator-by-ear, I could tell that there were many more solecisms than there ought to have been merely by chance or human error. This was a book whose title referenced a joke about the ambiguity generated by misplaced commas, and yet, in the text, there were missing and misplaced commas everywhere. Where were the copy editors? In my own naïve way, I was apoplectic: I had wanted to learn something and instead was, as I read, merely tallying vague grievances of my own.
As teenagers do, I turned to the Internet for someone who shared my opinion, for an expert who could precisely diagnose what was wrong, and validate what I felt. That expert was Menand. His 2004 review of the book, titled “Bad Comma,” begins, “The first punctuation mistake in ‘Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation’… appears in the dedication, where a non-restrictive clause is not preceded by a comma. It is a wild ride downhill from there” (Menand 102). I’ve read “Bad Comma” in its entirety maybe six or seven times, parts of it upward of a dozen; I have never made it past chapter two of Eats, Shoots & Leaves.
None of this is to say that I am now, or ever was, a stickler—that is, someone like Truss’s popular image. Truss’s narratorial voice is a part of a pervasive stereotype (maybe less pervasive in English studies) that says those who care deeply about language and grammar—just as much as they do about the meaning that words and punctuation together are trying to unambiguously convey—are uptight and have the irrepressible urge to correct any and all violations of language conventions. I think this originates, for most people, in primary school and older, prescriptivist systems of education, where teachers were intransigent when it came to anything but a very narrow range of usage. These people, Lynne Truss sticklers, hiss and recoil when someone uses so-called adman slang, like “accessorize” or “prioritize”; or uses “impact” or “loan” as a verb; or ends a sentence with a preposition. Assuredly, these people will have stopped reading this by now, because I have already split at least two infinitives in this post, one in this paragraph.
My anger at the mistakes in Truss’s books was the same kind of anger that she says she feels at the sight of a grocer’s apostrophe (mistakenly pluralizing a word by adding an ’s). But—and this is important—it was born out of disappointment and not out of fear or resentment; a book I believed capable of helping me, let me down. I don’t maliciously correct people’s usage in conversation, and I don’t think there’s any real need to correct minor errors in print. (Yes, it annoys me when a certain scholar writing on We Need New Names spells “Bulawayo” three different ways, but my thinking is, “As long as the scholarship is good…”) People make mistakes, and doubtless at least one grammar or usage error has slipped past me and my editor (more likely me) in the course of writing this very article.
I very often, in fact, try to pay less attention to rigid punctuation and grammar conventions, not that I have ever done this with any particular degree of success. I often wish I could write a little more like Styron, whose sense of restrictiveness is refreshingly broad. Sophie’s Choice begins with an omitted comma after an introductory clause (“In those days cheap apartments were almost impossible to find in Manhattan” ), and it just gets better from there. I’ve also come to really like the convention up until the middle of the twentieth century of putting semicolons between complete clauses and coördinating conjunctions preceding complete clauses. It can give a sentence a wired, pugilistic spirit, even if Henry James is the one doing it (“I slept little that night—I was too much excited; and this astonished me, too” ). And what about the British convention—bad form in the United States and much of Canada—of putting punctuation, like full stops and commas, outside quotation marks? Toril Moi does this so assertively that I was once helpless to not to do the same, after reading her.
Of course, there are also those writers whom none of us want to emulate. But their writing, hapless as it is, can be a lot of fun, too. That is, it can be funny, funny-ironic. This is especially true since the work is largely unimportant, the writer usually remains anonymous, and no one feels like they’re the direct butt of the joke. In other words, no one gets hurt. Grocer’s apostrophes, which are ubiquitous, are quaint but not funny; you almost feel that conventions will change to accommodate them, and someday soon. I’m referring to bigger things, ontological things. These sorts of things concern real grocery stores.
When I was working at Loblaws, the summer of 2019, there was a sign in the lunchroom that read: “WARNING: We regret that this is not an allergy free room.” As I didn’t care much for the building, I might have been using peanut butter after all. Many older Loblaws locations also have an ersatz Eastern European deli, complete with a red false awning. Under each awning is a sign that reads: “La Marchetta.” You might innocently think that this is Italian for “the market”—whoever commissioned those signs certainly did. Actually, it means “hustler” or “prostitute.” (The deli pictured doubles down, and a sign, on the left hand side of the frame, declares that it is located at “104 Marchetta Avenue.”) Who knew our grocery stores were living such full lives.
Compared to these—what are they, faux pas? snafus?—a lot of the grammar and language ambiguities on the Internet are relatively tame. However, I would be remiss if I didn’t take this opportunity to point out a similar transfiguration that I’ve noticed on-line, with the proliferation of writers referring to themselves as “dog mom”s or “dog dad”s. I guess it’s only to be expected; after all, at one point there were an awful lot of “dog lovers” in cyberspace. I wonder what Menand would say about that.
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