Howling Wolfe: A salute to the grammar vigilante


Howling Wolfe: Toeing the (guide)lines, stalking bad grammar and baying at the moon.

Every month our Senior Editor and Proofreader Andrew Wolfe explores areas of the written word that interest, annoy and confuse even him. Here, he explores the actions of the UK’s “grammar vigilante” – and argues that there should be more heroes willing to stand up for what’s right.

As you might imagine, in my profession I see errors in punctuation, grammar and spelling on a regular basis. And, of course, I see them outside of work too. In my experience, some of the worst “grammar offences” can be found on chalkboards in front of businesses. I’ve even fixed a few of those chalkboards in my time by erasing an errant comma or apostrophe, my discreet edits only restrained by my lack of chalk.

Where does that apostrophe go?

The grammar vigilante of Bristol, UK, has taken the effort to fix punctuation and grammar to a higher level, even constructing an apparatus to help make changes a little easier – the “apostrophiser”. With his invention in hand, he has been correcting offending shop signs – painting on or removing apostrophes and commas where necessary.

I like what this guy is doing. It’s what I’ve often wanted to do but never quite cared enough to follow through on. I did fix the errors in the equations of motion for rockets on a t-shirt I bought at the Kennedy Space Center – using red ink, of course. My efforts were appreciated by many at my then employer, The Mathematical Reviews, but I was correcting my own property, rather than others’, so I certainly wasn’t as rebellious as the grammar vigilante. And while some object to his efforts, finding his changes rude and possibly costly, others appreciate them.

Many have pointed out that punctuation isn’t grammar, so he is more aptly named the “punctuation vigilante”, but I’ll go with grammar vigilante because I’m sure he would change poor grammar when he encountered it - and probably has over the last 13 years he’s been at his nightly avocation.

There are others…

The grammar vigilante is by no means alone in his efforts or the first to take on egregious grammar and punctuation. There is Acción Ortográfica Quito in Ecuador, a group of street artists who correct grammar, spelling and punctuation errors in graffiti and have inspired splinter groups in Mexico, Latin America and Europe to take up the cause. And then there’s the Typo Eradication Advancement League in the United States, a team of young punctuation protagonists who engaged in a 33-state trip hunting for and correcting grammar, punctuation and spelling errors along the way in what they called “The Great Typo Hunt”. Two members were even banned from the National Park System for a year for illegally vandalizing federal property after inserting an apostrophe on a 70-year-old plaque at the Grand Canyon.

Write it properly

There are those who say the grammar vigilante “should embrace the ambiguities of the English language”, but misplaced apostrophes, bad grammar and misspellings are crimes that need avenging. Take one of the signs the grammar vigilante fixed: “Amys Nail’s”. If we just embrace the error, what does the possessive on “Nail’s” actually mean? Nothing. Misplaced apostrophes convey no meaning. But there is no ambiguity about the meaning of “Amy’s Nails.” This vigilante is correcting mistakes that have been perpetuated because people have mindlessly allowed them to be.

Furthermore, in an era of texting, memes and emojis, shorthand is creeping its way into more formal writing at times – and embracing these errors in punctuation, grammar and spelling is just a really bad idea. The shorthand used on social media sites and other outlets has its place, but we should be careful not to let it overshadow good writing and reading skills, which form the basis of good comprehension and, overall, good communication skills.

The grammar vigilante has taken on a mission that many have wished they had the courage to accept. In many ways, he is a superhero we all need – he just doesn’t wear a cape.

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