An arresting argument for the grammar police

06/29/2008 12:00 AM

06/25/2008 9:38 PM

When I drive to work these days, I pass a billboard for Canadian Club whiskey with a punctuation-challenged message: “That's right your dad drank it”

More than once, I've imagined myself up on that board with a big marker, adding periods in appropriate places: “That's right. Your dad drank it.”

Ah, much better. I go through life this way – mentally changing “vacancys” to “vacancies” on an apartment sign, fixing the message board that suggests you “buy your teacher a end-of-year gift.”

Some people, I know, see my concerns as picky and unnecessary. But surely plenty of language lovers are on my side. They're the readers who telephone the Observer when we misuse a word or botch a spelling. In 2006, they made Lynne Truss' “Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation” a national best-seller.

They're folks such as Frazer Dobson, co-owner of Charlotte's Park Road Books, who recently got into a grammar debate with Thomas Upchurch, co-owner of Capitol Book & News in Montgomery, Ala.

The subject: The phrase “national bestselling author.”

It's wrong, Dobson says. Should be “nationally bestselling author,” with the adverb “nationally” modifying the adjective “bestselling.”

Upchurch disagreed. “Bestselling author” is a compound noun modified by “national,” he says. He put the question to a vote on his bookstore's Web site.

I'm thinking we should have grammar police to settle such disputes. They could also intervene in cases of egregious offenses. First time you place quote marks around a word for no good reason, a warning. After that, a fine.

The newsroom has its own grammar police: copy editors. They clean up muddled prose, catch errors, write clever headlines. In my youth, I complained about their picky questions. After they rescued me from public embarrassment a few times, I shut up. (Years ago, when I wrote a man's first name as “Frances,” a wise copy editor suggested a trick to remember that “Francis” is the male version: The “i” looks like a penis. I have never forgotten this.)

A New York Times writer recently opined that copy editors are a dying breed. As newspapers cut jobs, he predicts that “old-time, persnickety editing” will become a luxury, “an artisanal product, like monastery honey and wooden yachts.”

I'm hoping he's wrong. I'm also hoping people learn to use apostrophes. I am an optimist.

And in case you wondered: The vote in the great grammar debate fell to Dobson's choice, “nationally bestselling author.”

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