Confessions Of A Proofreader

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This wonderful feature was originally published on 5 August 2010. It was written by our popular sub-editor and resident grammar Nazi, Dan Grosvenor, and went a bit viral when a grammar website in the US of A picked it up and started pulling it apart. To date it has been read 163,874 times. See the comments at the bottom, and enjoy! 

Warning: I may rant… rather a lot

The manager squinted in my direction.

‘So… what exactly is the problem, sir?’

‘The apostrophe button,’ I repeated, more firmly this time.

‘It’s broken?’ he enquired.

‘It isn’t there.’

He stared intently at the telephone, a baffled expression crawling across his face. After a few moments of careful scrutiny his eyes returned to me, nervously.

‘Just to confirm, sir, when you say apostrophe you mean…?’

I sighed a little and raised my hand.

‘The little flying comma thing, I elaborated, tracing its outline in the air with my index finger. The manager relaxed a little, foolishly thinking we were now on the same wavelength.

‘Ohh, you don’t need to worry about those anymore; this is the new model. Much easier to use. Just click on ‘symbols’ and it brings up a list of all the different faces…’

He’d lost me completely.

‘Faces?’

‘Yeah, you know… ? Emoticons?’

As he said the last word, his thumb and outer fingers balled up while the remaining digits formed those cringe-worthy animated quotation marks, and I wondered if my earlier display had made him think all punctuation had to be acted out for greater emphasis.

He held the phone up to demonstrate. The screen contained a disjointed amalgam of brackets, commas and hyphens which — if you craned your head in the right direction and closed at least one eye — faintly resembled a set of faces.

‘So you see,’ he continued confidently, ‘there’s nothing wrong with it; they’ve just phased out the apostrophe key because the faces now come pre-assembled. You can have animated faces, audio and picture messaging-‘

‘Do you mean to tell me that the only way to type an apostrophe on this phone is to insert a smiley face and then delete its mouth and eyes?’

‘Well,’ answered the man, puzzled as to why I was so insistent about this matter, ‘or nose and mouth. Depends if he’s winking.’

There was a long silence.

‘I’m afraid I need a phone that will let me use apostrophes for more than drawing smiley faces.’

‘But…’

I gritted my teeth and dreaded the words I somehow knew were coming.

‘…why else would you need one?’

*So this is me: emissary of the downtrodden apostrophe; Grammar Nazi; pedantic prick. I’m that guy who holds you up in the queue because he feels the need to tell the checkout girl that, technically, the sign on the express lane should read ‘Ten items or fewer’. The precocious little sod who berates you for saying ‘could of’ instead of ‘could have’ or who just can’t keep it to himself when he spots a lowercase ‘i’ or a hyphen where there should clearly be a dash. My ideal job would involve travelling across continents with a red marker pen, thwarting linguistic injustice wherever it lurks, be it billboard or subtitle. I place linguistic ability above every other quality I look for in my companions, and could not even consider dating a girl who doesn’t read or can’t spell properly. And while it may seem so, it is never a masochistic decision to become hated by those around me; it’s a compulsion that has gripped me since the day I learnt to read, and has showed no sign of relinquishing its grasp ever since.

Let me tell you how it started.

Even as a child I was a deep thinker, and took to language at a young age. I can’t remember exactly when the affliction developed, but a safe assumption would be that it wasn’t long after I learnt to distinguish between letters and food.

One of my earliest memories is being eight years old and seeing a sign in our leisure centre which read:

THE MANAGEMENT CANNOT EXCEPT RESPONSIBILITY FOR LOST OR DAMAGED PROPERTY

It was a large sign with bold lettering, hung above a set of wide double doors. For some reason it caught my eye, and I soon found myself more interested in the text than the play equipment. I was barely tall enough to see it, and remember craning my neck back and staring at it intently. The words stared back. A strange feeling crept over me, and I couldn’t help but feel something was amiss.

I read it several times and each time it puzzled me. I wondered why management could not except responsibility for lost items. Presumably that meant that all lost and damaged property was the responsibility of the management, with no exceptions? They must have been quite a generous company not only to abide by that methodology, but to advertise it. Surely, I thought, a more common approach would be not to accept responsibility for such incidents? I pointed this conundrum out to my playmates but for some reason they were uninterested. I briefly toyed with the thought that the people in charge had made a mistake, but soon cast the thought aside as it seemed illogical: after all, I reasoned, this was a sign hung high for the sole purpose of being seen by everyone in the leisure centre, of course someone would have checked the wording. After all, how could I — a barely educated eight year old — possibly notice something the (presumably adult) makers of this gigantic sign failed to spot? It didn’t seem plausible. I had to be wrong. When I got home I explained this enigma to my mother, who nonchalantly replied, ‘You’re right; it should be ‘accept’. This opened my eyes to a world of human error, and I have been unable to shut them since.

As my knowledge of the English language grew, so did my ability to annoy people who couldn’t speak it as well. I would regularly scold my peers for using words like ‘sumfink’, for pronouncing their L’s as W’s and, of course, for the cardinal sin of uttering a double negative. At times I was reprimanded: I refused to join in a school assembly on the grounds that one of the songs had ‘ain’t’ in the title, and was caught several times correcting the spelling of the graffiti on the school gate. But I was never once dissuaded from my vocation. If anything, the more discouragement I was given, the more it drove me to seek out and rectify the horde of mistakes slaughtering our language.

By the time I reached high school, I realised my knack for spotting words that were out of place was not a common pastime, and sharing my interest with others yielded some undesirable results. I would pipe up and correct teachers who made mistakes on the blackboard, hoping to impress them, and find myself in detention (which I enjoyed as it involved writing lines: something I saw as an opportunity to improve my handwriting and impress the teachers further).

I came to notice that I can’t help but see things literally when it comes to words. When presented with what is and what clearly should be, I lack the imagination to see the latter. I struggled with metaphors, and took an immediate disliking to poetry: the thought of invisible worms flying through the night gave me nightmares. I developed what can only be described as ‘editor eyes’: where other people saw stories, plots and characters, I saw grammar, punctuation and spelling. Consequently, any book with the misfortune to fall into my hands left dripping with red ink. While most literate teenagers laid their novels on their bedside tables and drifted off to romantic thoughts of Cathy and Heathcliff, I’d lie awake thinking about the role commas play in Emily Brontë’s sentence structure.

By university it had taken over. Fuelled by the number of English students I encountered who couldn’t (or didn’t bother to) spell properly, I sought out and learnt every rule of style and structure I could uncover, determined not to become one of them. I found work as an editor and proofreader, where I honed this ability until what was once an eccentric quirk grew to an uncontrollable obsession. I can no longer walk past an error without rectifying it. I vandalise poorly punctuated shop signs in the name of grammar, gallantly correcting tenses and thwarting rogue apostrophes wherever they lurk. Even taking off my glasses doesn’t help: I notice the outline of the lettering and that’s all I need to know if a rogue apostrophe is lurking.

But that in itself is not a problem. Getting annoyed at a sign that says SMILE: YOUR ON CAMERA just means I’m observant and well-educated, right? (If you can’t see what’s wrong with that sentence, pray that I never meet you.) It only becomes a problem when you consider the extent to which it rules my life. Being pedantic is one thing, as is being irritating, but I am better defined as ‘dangerously neurotic’ when it comes to noticing errors. Once I spot one it not only occupies the forefront of my concentration for as long as I’m in its presence, but remains embedded somewhere in my skull forever. What is forgivable to most is abhorrent to me. When you come across a typo or a grammatical error you probably pass it by and get on with what matters, but to me that error is like a blemish on the face of an angel. It attacks my senses like nails on a chalkboard. Because of this, reading is a strenuous activity: I’m forever reaching for a pen to circle some mistake, highlighting it so the next person to read the book sees it the way I do. Bold, red and glaring fiercely.

It’s been a good few years since I read it, but I can still tell you that Robert Langdon — contrary to popular belief — did not wander the streets of Paris looking for the Holy Grail after his tussle with Teabing.

He actually wandered around Paris looking for the Holy Grail. Look it up. Corgi edition, 2004. Top of page 589. And while it still wasn’t as bad as watching the film, for me the ending of that book was destroyed by images of Robert Langdon bent over and jumping down the ChampsÉlysées like a chimpanzee. And, despite the mountain of fascinating ‘facts’ that comprise the novel, that is the one part of the book that will stay etched in my memory.

And how, on page 49 of The Unbearable Lightness of Being (Faber edition, 1984), Milan Kundera tries to convey the horror of a man jumping in front of a train. Tragically, he starts the sentence by saying: ‘Early in the novel that Tereza clutched under her am when she went to visit Tomas…’ Subsequently I spent the remainder of the chapter oblivious to the fate of the poor man under the train, as all that occupied my thoughts was: how do you carry a book under an am?

This is where my problem lies: I can’t see the story for the mistakes. I care more for a misplaced
comma than I do for the entire plot. You don’t need a guy who can tell you that on page 28 of American Psycho (Picador edition, 1991), 5th line from the bottom, Bret Easton Ellis wrote women when he meant to write woman; that Richard John Evans forgets the ‘s’ when spelling ‘Nietzsche’ (Entertainment, p.89. Seren, 2000) or that Eats, Shoots & Leaves could really have benefited from a full stop in the 6th sentence from the bottom in the introduction on page 13.

Ask me what the last book I read was about and I couldn’t tell you. I frequently find myself on the receiving end of avid readers on their high horses, denouncing me for not marvelling at the timeless wonder of the canon; accusing me of being one of those who think literature is dead or ‘don’t get the time to read’ or any of that other crap non-readers spout when you interrogate them on their absence of a real bookshelf. But the truth is I turn pages and crease spines with a vengeance.

I practically live in bookshops, and amass so many that my shelves have layers. I would love nothing more than to be an avid bookworm. It’s just that I don’t read books the way most people do. When I open a book, I don’t see content: I see words.

Despite all of the above, I know I could bear this burden and still live a normal life, because as much as I whine about errors in books and shop signs, correcting them can be filed more under ‘sad hobby’ than ‘life-damaging obsession’. But the problem is it doesn’t end there, for this decade has seen the arrival of two things that together have ensured I will never, ever sleep peacefully: the internet and text messaging.

I saw the best words of my generation destroyed by mobiles — misspelt, abbreviated, naked. Our language has always had its anomalies that survive solely because it just doesn’t seem worth the effort of stamping them out: that’s why ‘could care less’ and ‘couldn’t care less’ mean the same thing, and ‘flammable’ and ‘inflammable’ have the same definition, yet the word ‘unflammable’ has never been created.

These are mild annoyances and, despite their presence in the world, I can still sleep at night. When the dawn of text messaging arrived, I thought I would cope in a similar way — a few numbers replacing minor words, the odd abbreviation — but instead, something unforeseeably horrible happened: a new fad of intentionally injuring words, without leniency or remorse, which is every bit as painful to me as to those vowels you butcher. Words like ‘your’ and ‘you’re’ have become synonymous (and frequently shortened to UR), double — even triple — negatives are rife (U DONT NEVER KNO NUFFIN, M8) and if you’re lucky enough to actually see an apostrophe, rest assured it’ll be in the wrong place (generally used to denote a plural). I firmly believe that nothing can make you lose faith in humanity quite as fast as the ‘comments’ sections on YouTube.

I now talk about English in the past tense. As a language that reigned in a glorious day gone by, before abbreviation preceded linguistics; the archaic era when questions ended in question marks, 4m was spelt ‘from’ and apostrophes did more than form smiley faces. At night I find myself stumbling into the dark, screaming: ‘Please, think of the words! Won’t somebody think of the words??’

So how do people like me get by in an age where the ability to spell is generally seen as a needless and eccentric quality? Well… mostly by moaning. Moaning so loudly we’re either locked up or heard by a kindred grammar spirit. So forgive me for sounding like that cantankerous old fart you find parading loudly and unsteadily at the back of the pub, clutching a pint tightly in one hand while angrily conducting an invisible orchestra with the other (usually ranting about the state of the nation and shouting boisterous tales about ‘back in my day’), but am I the only one — in this age of BlackBerries, Bluetooth and broadband — who still convulses violently and feels physically ill whenever they read a sentence like: OMG LOL i JUST WNT 2DA SHP N DER WOZ UR GF WIV D GUY U H8 BU DW DEY DIN DO NUFFIN LOL ?

On the off chance that a like-minded stickler is reading this testament, I have to say: there is hope, but approach it carefully. For all the glorified retardation of language the internet has inflicted upon us, I knew some outposts of sanity must still remain.

After much Googling, I found one: an online community called ‘I judge you when you use poor grammar’: a club where people like me unite and take great delight in mocking the rest of the world and their inadequate grasp of punctuation. While the dwindling number of members is not enough to save our beloved language, it at least gives us a feeling of solace as we watch our idea of Armageddon draw close.

Joining without hesitation, I eagerly posted my first message: a well-typed, intelligent-sounding message detailing my lifelong plight at the state of the English language. I checked back the following day, expecting to be welcomed with open arms into the community, but instead found my post dissected by the pompous parasites that populated the message board:

No one is… is incorrect,’ posted a French girl, highlighting a sentence in my third paragraph, which I was particularly proud of. ‘No one is a derivate of not one. It is plural. The correct wording should be no one are, not no one is.’

I wanted to slap her. How dare she correct me? Didn’t she know who I was? I can find spelling mistakes in the dictionary, damn it — I think I know how to use proper English. Several other comments on the site had similar ‘corrections’ and justified them with rules I regarded as extinct (round should start with an apostrophe, as it’s an abbreviation of around). In the same way that people seem more inclined to hurt me than say ‘Thank you for correcting my grammar, now I am more enlightened,’ I could not believe the audacity of those nitpicking nerds! Didn’t they have anything better to do than correct my grammar? I wanted to shout, ‘It’s only a bloody apostrophe! what does it matter?!

I’m a hypocritical perfectionist in a land of perpetual error. I was reminded that language does adapt, it does evolve and there is nothing wrong with embracing that or even furthering it along by using a little poetic licence in your writing. In the eyes of the Archaic Elite at ‘I Judge You When You Use Poor Grammar’, I was not worthy of membership; I was the same ignorant scum that confuse ‘your’ with ‘you’re’, all because of my lack of a redundant apostrophe and my choice of words. But did that really make me as bad as them? I lose sleep over dilemmas like this.

To say the experience humbled me would be lying. But it made me realise that, compared to the Archaic Elite, I’m not that bad — so I feel less guilty about berating people now.

I retreated to the pub, intent on drinking myself into peaceful oblivion. I try my best to lead a normal life despite this affliction. But though an alcoholic can avoid bars and recovering smokers can steer clear of the smoking section, a perfectionist cannot avoid error. It was quiz night, and the questions were
passed to each table. Unsurprisingly, it was riddled with errors — but the thing that stuck in my mind was the message of encouragement the quizmaster had typed at the top of the page:

Good luck guys and girls. May the best table win, and may the rest get drunk, LOL!

Oh, LOL.

The inexcusable crutch of the inarticulate. When had you crawled out of your swamp and into written English? I did my best to bury my face in my drink. LOL is the epitome of the txt spk onslaught, and
the reason I don’t reply to your emails. Originally an acronym for ‘laughs out loud’, its meaning rapidly evolved into something closer to ‘I have nothing to say’. LOL is far more than just a word, and at the same time, far less. A verb and an adverb, rolled into a grunt. An awkward silence, a mumble, or a slight nod of the head. It’s a full stop and a goodbye, and if you use it in spoken conversation I will castrate you where you stand.

If you’re even slightly familiar with online etiquette, you’ll know the word (and I use the term lightly) is unavoidable. In its original context — used as a way of conveying humour in an appropriate situation — it’s just a word, albeit an interesting one: when you are conveying enjoyment, why would you describe your action like that?

You’ll rarely, if ever, jump into the role of a third-person narrator and insert, ‘stretches left forearm’ into an email. ‘Noticing a slight itch creeping up the lower region of his back’ would be an insane amount of personal reflection to include in an online message, yet ‘laughs out loud’ is accepted without a second thought. Does no one else find this odd? Or irritating?

I looked up and realised the quiz had started without me. I didn’t feel like playing anymore, anyway. I glared at the quizmaster. Through my inebriated haze I spied a menu further down the table, and glanced at the meat section:

HARD DAY AT WORK? GET A ROAST DINNER DOWN YOU’RE NECK

I ran out of the pub, screaming: ‘It doesn’t even make sense! Surely they mean ‘throat’, unless they want you to dribble?!’


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