Barry Saunders

Beware the cyber-cop of grammar

Several years ago, while in line at a downtown Raleigh sandwich shop, I watched as my sandwich architect sought to short me on the amount of meat he put on my order.

Say homes, you reckon you could put some more meat on that bad boy? I asked in my friendliest, most deferential voice.

“Shut up,” he snapped. “I know what I am doing.”

All conversation in the shop ceased, and people watched to see how I’d respond.

Since the sandwich maker was holding a large knife with which to slice meat and possibly customers he deemed obnoxious, I did the only sensible thing – I shut up, but not before vowing three things:

▪ To starve before setting foot in that sammitch shop again;

▪  To never argue with a man holding a big old carving knife;

▪  To never tell another human being to shut up.

I will, though, tell a computer to shut up, and I did recently. Shut up. I know what I am doing.

The grammar cop inside my computer – if you didn’t know there was such a thing, welcome to the club – kept correcting a sentence I’d composed.

The sentence that offended my computer cop’s sensibilities was “At the time, there was already a handful of women in the department.”

Mac, the name of and for my computer, continuously changed that to say “At the time, there were already a handful of women in the department.”

The number of things with which I’m unknowledgeable is infinite, too, but grammar and how to conjugate a verb are two things I know pretty well.

Last year, North Carolina poet laureate Shelby Stephenson said to me in an interview, “I learned English intuitively. A teacher asked me ‘What is an adverb?’ It could’ve been the white part of a chicken, for all I knew.”

I learned the same way, although not entirely intuitively: Everything I’ve learned about the English language and how to use it was learned in Mrs. Blackwell’s second-grade class at Leak Street School in Rockingham.

Fighting the battle against incorrect grammar is such a futile proposition that I had hung up my six-shooter, but when a computer keeps telling you you’re wrong when you know you’re right, you’re compelled to pin on your badge once more and have a showdown.

If a columnist can be said to have fans, then English teachers are mine. On behalf of English teachers, I felt compelled to stand up to the quarrelsome computer.

The Wall Street Journal this month printed an opinion piece on the death of Robert Hartwell Fiske, describing him as “an unknown soldier in that most glorious and hopeless of wars, that against the ignorant and abusive use of language.” Fiske’s books include “The Dimwit’s Dictionary” and the “Dictionary of Unendurable English.”

His cause of death was listed as melanoma, but battling bad grammar – which is so common as to be accepted in too many places – could have been a contributing cause.

Not content to trust just what I learned in second grade and myself, I sought affirmation from Dr. Jennifer Ho, Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies for the Department of English and Comparative Literature at UNC- Chapel Hill. I read to her the disputed sentence and asked which of us was correct – Mac or me.

“The computer is wrong,” Dr. Ho said. She said something about modifiers and objects and other terms I wouldn’t know from the white part of a chicken, but concluded “For some reason, it’s reading the object of the line as ‘women’ rather than ‘handful’... I don’t trust the computer. This could be my own arrogance, but I taught composition in grad school for five years, so I trust myself.”

So do I, Mac. So shut up. I know what I am doing.

I can only hope that a computer and not a supposedly educated human being, wrote this monstrosity that appeared on CNN Sunday: “Leading the way in homicides was Chicago, with 141, by far the most than any of the other cities surveyed.”

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