Saunders: In matters of spelling and grammar, I will not be deterred

bsaunders@newsobserver.comJanuary 20, 2013 

Did Orville and Wilbur Wright give up on their flying machine just because their first flight lasted a mere 18 seconds?

No.

Did the Rev. Jimmy Swaggart cease his hypocritical railings against sins of the flesh just because he got caught reveling in said sins at a no-tell motel with a stripper named Cinnamon? (OK, I’m not sure her name was Cinnamon, but that’s always been my favorite spice.)

No.

Neither, likewise, shall I cease railing against sins of the tongue just because readers caught me making one. Yep, I made a grammatical faux pas last week.

I wrote “As a former English major ... I seek out misspelled words the way those truffle-hunting dogs sniff out that buried and expensive French fungi. Yep: I used the plural form when the singular, fungus, was called for.

For shame, for shame.

The indisputable fact is that I – someone quick to point out the splinter in someone else’s eye when it comes to language while ignoring the plank in my own – goofed, making a grammatical error that was made even more egregious because it was made in a column lambasting others for their grammar missteps.

Just ‘deserts’

Sure, I could have let the error pass uncommented upon, because most people aren’t as anal about language as I. For instance, a reader named Chuck told me his experience when he found a misspelling in a best-selling book.

“I texted a friend ... who is an English teacher. She told me to contact the publisher. I called and let the woman know my reason for calling. She asked me why on Earth would I call someone to let them know they made a mistake. It wasn’t the response I had hoped for.”

Another reader wrote to say that when she attended the grand opening of a Winn Dixie grocery store in Garner, “large directional signs were prominently displayed over the aisles. The one proclaiming “Deserts” jumped out at me. I thought the Manager and District Manager ... would be mortified so I quietly pointed out the sign to them. They both looked from the sign to me and back again with puzzled looks on their faces and finally the District Manager asked, ‘What’s wrong with it?’ ”

Oy. One of the great things about writing in the N&O is that, with all of the colleges and universities in the area, we have a very literate readership – the kind of people who read books without pictures and who, if they encounter an unusual word, can discern its meaning through context or will simply go to their smartphone and look it up.

That’s also one of the bad things about writing a column in the Triangle.

Mea culpa

Make a grammatical mistake or misspell a word and POW! – people will descend upon you like a duck on a June bug.

“Before I wrote to set you straight on your own grammar, I had to look it up to make sure I knew what I was talking about. Yes. You are as dumb as I thought,” wrote one kind reader.

My very public error and this mea culpa won’t make me less inclined to call others on their mistakes, won’t make me less ill when I see – as I did last week – a national television news network graphic report that “there are 3,000 foodbourne deaths” in America each year.

Yeah, and I wonder how many cases of gastric irritation can be attributed to seeing “foodborne” spelled that way?

Speaking of gastric irritation, I’m guessing that somewhere, Mrs. Wright, the teacher whose refusal to grade her fifth-grade students’ work for spelling and grammar started my crusade against poor language usage, is smiling about my bad encounter with fungi.

bsaunders@newsobserver.com or 919-836-2811

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