From time to time, Katharine and I chat about the fact that most people don’t know what grammar actually is.
I certainly didn’t, not until I taught freshman writing and began reading grammar books.
Like virtually everyone else, I thought grammar was punctuation — punctuation and parts of speech. That was about as far as my K-12 education took me.1
These days I explain grammar to students this way:
If you learned every word in the French dictionary, you still wouldn’t know French because you wouldn’t know how to put the words together.
(I used to include an observation about dogs not having language, just words, but it looks like dogs may actually pick up some grammar, too.)
Putting French words together: that’s grammar.2
Putting an apostrophe between the ‘n’ and the ‘s’ in Gentlemen’s Outfitters: that’s punctuation.
A self-styled ‘grammar vigilante’ has revealed that he has spent years changing offending shop signs in the dead of night.
Wielding an ‘apostrophiser’ – a broom handle laden with two sponges and a number of stickers – the man has corrected tens of missing and misplaced apostrophes on shop banners across Bristol over the past 13 years.
The pedant, who is yet to reveal his identity, claims his efforts are needed to bring an end to the improper use of English. But critics suggest he should start with his own name – as apostrophes are strictly a matter of punctuation rather than grammar.
“I’m a grammar vigilante,” he told the BBC. “I do think it’s a cause worth pursuing. I have felt extremely nervous. The heart has been thumping.”
Jason Singh, 42, who owns the tailors Tux & Tails, claims that he potentially faces paying thousands of pounds for his sign to be corrected.
The issue, the omission of an apostrophe in “Gentlemens”, has been corrected with what appears to be two blobs of paint, or stickers, that do not sit well with the newly-fitted vinyl.
“I did take it lightly at first, but now I’m a little angry to be honest,” he said. “We think it’s paint, and this is vinyl, so if we have to replace it you’re looking at a few thousand pounds. I understand, but at the end of the day I’d have preferred him to come in and tell me.
“I think it could be considered rather rude. I think there might even be grounds for a police complaint, and if his name is revealed, I’ll be sending him an invoice for the damages.”
However, the vigilante has defended the legality of his work, telling reporters that some of the mistakes he redresses are “just wrong” and that “it’s more of a crime to have apostrophes wrong in the first place”.
Melania Branton, a poet from North Somerset, said that whoever the ‘grammar vigilante’ turns out to be “must be wincing at the misnomer, as punctuation isn’t grammar”.
1. I also learned the terms simple, compound, complex, and compound-complex — but, when I began teaching, I discovered that I didn’t actually know what those terms meant. ↩
2. It isn’t grammar, it’s syntax. Grammar includes the rules for putting morphemes together to form words. But same principle. (Comma splice intentional.) ↩