When Grammar Went to Die

I got three favorite cars that get most of my job done...Conjunction Junction.

It happened out of the blue, two men that had begun eating lunch together saw the same thing at the same time. A relatively small, busy-looking man was walking by a sign and quickly pulled out a permanent marker. His stride did not change nor did he stop to admire his handiwork, but out of nowhere, the sign's message changed.

"Did you see that?"

"I think so.."

"I am neither Strunk or White but that sign DID NOT have a semi-colon thirty seconds ago."

They both looked up at the yellow sign with black letters. It was one of many random, grammatical messes which was made for purely cosmetic reasons. Big, bold letters organized with one reason: potential eye porn. The visual considerations were easily the primary motivation with no concern for quality, clarity and content as the impact of yellow on black magnified the visual volume. The sign made some bold declaration with large, sexy words that proclaims vague thoughts while signifying nothing. However, the semi-colon provided the appropriate pause to allow you to at least make the sentence valid. Only five minutes ago, the sign read "Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow (hard return) The Future Begins." However, now it read "Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow; The Future Begins."

"I agree with semi-colon."

"So do I. It makes my brain feel better."

"We should also thank him for that relief but I have a feeling he has done this before."

"I was impressed, he must have targeted the sign earlier, chose the correct color markers, elegantly practiced his moves several times and finally, jumped into action to visually save the our collective literate souls."

"No argument from me, but I wonder what is his motivation...other than making things accurate. Or he just saw it, pulled out a marker and fixed it. Either way, I am cool with the whole thing." 

"That is one honorable motivation but he also gets a special kudo for taking out that last comma next the "and.'"

"The guy must have had two markers: the elimination of the last comma is more of a discretionary call. I have to accept the use of the last comma but I don't like it too much."

"I agreed. If one uses it consistently, it is not wrong but I still find it a bit annoying."

"That issue is more personal. Some people were taught to add that last trailing comma but I find it far more elegant to not use it. It clutters up the sentence but if one is consistent, I can't officially complain but as an old school grammarian, it chafes me a bit more than I would like to admit."

"I can dig it but my personal issue deals with people who confuse effect for affect and affect for effect. We can talk about that some other time."

Lunch was over and no one else came by so the lunch buddies said goodbye and went back to work. The corrected sign was untouched and finally proclaimed as accurate for both product and service. Nothing had to be done but they both knew someone loomed behind the scenes to right the next grammatical wrong. The thought of someone looking out for their best interests comforted and saddened the duo; there was no doubt his efforts were appreciated but the sheer scope and potential volume of his good works bordered on the exponential. There was just too many signs, menus and crappy messages currently insulting the public and as such, his work would never end. Never, never, ever.  The thought that "he did look busy..." crossed both of their minds.

The experience of watching the slightly uncivil action remained with both men for the rest of the day and into the evening. The first man was an avid television watcher who had invested in a TivoŽ-like system in order to watch/consume the shows more efficiently. The ability to multi-task viewing was a double-edge visual sword; his consumption tripled but his awareness of the growing morass of foolish and poorly-constructed commercial content grew with it. The most attractive functionality of a TivoŽ-like system is the opportunity to fast-forward through the growing commercial litany and as he continued to fly through them, he realized that the show's content was becoming the exception rather than the rule. A thirty minute show was now almost twelve minutes of commercials: some understated and some were equivalent to scorched earth strategies of constant bombardment of all senses. He was watching more shows but enjoying them far less.

The other man was more of a reader but couldn't help notice that more magazines and journals were turning into printed commercial tomes with a story worked in when circumstance and surviving white space permitted. The marketing and advertisers were uniting on all fronts and content was being laid to waste by cosmetic yammerings of short arc messages and eye-popping advertising visual firebombs. Initially, he found solace in removing all the insert advertisements but more and more inserts were attaching themselves to the magazine spine and offering fragrances, CD's and working parts begging to interrupt individual reading effort. It became a literal fight just to open the magazine, find an article that appealed to him and read without incident. The norm was becoming more of a challenge; the table of contents was buried at about page thirty, with several sub tables, and hacking through the inserts added to the exhaustion. He doubted ANYONE ever pulled out a magazine insert, filled it out and mailed it; maybe the first time in 1965, but not since the Merv Griffin show was pulled off the air.

They both were coming to the conclusion that there was almost no place to hide anymore and both men wanted to talk about it. Instead of preparing for the affect/effect discussion, they both realized it a far bigger effort was needed instead of engaging in some tactical grammar skirmish; a hero would be needed to fight back. This idea would be shared and they both knew whom that hero could be....if they could only catch him.

The next week, the lunch couple met for their usual time together. The lunch meetings were never formal but more often that not, they both arrived at the same time and the conversation continued where it left off the time before. It was obvious that they had both been thinking about the mystery man. Exclusive of all reasoning and hope, they quickly anointed him the savior of grammar as well as the new sheriff against all that was vapid and pretentious. The guy was likely not aware of his new role nor was he aware of the responsibility given to him by the men.

"This kind of responsibility can be a terrible thing. I wonder if we are doing him any favors by making him the only sane man in an insane world?"

"I will treat that as a rhetorical question."

"It reminds me of a friend of mine growing up. He had won a few literary awards early in his life and was being heralded as the voice of his generation. Everyone was surprised about this new role, especially himself. The literary world must have been aching for a new poet because his first three volumes of poems were vigorously embraced with both arms and within six months, he was the man. I had known him since childhood and when I saw him, I congratulated him. He smiled and told me that he was just 'trying to get a few words to rhyme together' and apologized to me for being a fraud."

"Was he just being modest?"

"No, he really meant it."

"So, what happened then?"

"Well, his family stepped in and made him go to college. They all knew what he was thinking inside and realized before he did that you can easily fool your audience but you can never fool your relatives."

"How is he doing now?"

"Great. His work took a well-needed turn towards his real skills: he was never going to be the voice of his generation but he was was going to contribute a few important thoughts, published a few impressive pieces but it never was like the first wave of his discovered genius. That journey no doubt saved him from being eaten up by a public which loves to manufacture new heroes just to tear them apart later one news cycle down the road. He took a faculty gig at a smaller college with no pressure and spends about half his time creatively and the other half is focused on supporting the next generation of creatives without trying to solve the conundrum."

"Is he happy?"

Well, he not unhappy. His life is just more within his control and by managing the expectations around him, he can at least clear his mind. In retrospect, it appears he was just in the right time and the right place with the right thing to say. However, once one gets a reputation, one has to keep feeding the reputation and that momentum can daunting. It also can really suck when your heart isn't in it or whether or not if your heart was ever in it."

"I wish I could accuse you of being cynical but I don't have the energy."

"I understand what you are saying but other than acknowledging the act, I really can't riff on this thought much longer."

The pair concluded their lunch and remarked they still wondered when the mysterious grammarian was ever going to strike again. There were no signs nearby in need of third-party resolutions but there was many things in their sight line which could, at least, use a comma. As they walked back to the office, a large panel truck drove by proclaiming, "Seeking refuge with your coffee? Don't worry because The affect is here!"

"I have a feeling the truck might get a visit."

I hope hopefully not a moment too soon."

The next few days, the lunches were back to normal. The two entertained themselves with a litany of internal peeves; going back and forth with specific grammar-based annoyances.

"I think I hate people who spell poorly versus people who abuse grammar."

"How so?"

"Spelling words has gotten significantly easier since the advent of computers. One has automatic spell checking, on line dictionaries, on line thesauruses and numerous active tools to keep one from looking like a fool. Grammar, while just as grating as spelling errors, usually signifies ignorance while poor spelling indicates laziness."

"Or both."

Either way. I am not happy about these grammar collisions but poor spellers are both lazy and stupid. A bad combination."

"However, our hero can only deal with only a portion of what is seen. He might spend a majority of his day correcting papers but what we need is him to clear the clutter or at least make the clutter a bit more reasonable.

"The content is out of bounds. I can choose to engage if I so desire but the very least I can accept is correct punctuation, correct grammar and of course, correct spelling.

"Have you seen the affect/effect truck recently?"

"No. I have mixed feeling about it but generally happy I haven't had to deal with it. While it is the best bait for our friend, I need to take some solace in the fantasy that the truck did not actually exist. I hate the whole effect-affect thing."

"Hate is a big word; you should not let it effect you."

"Well, since affect is a verb and effect is a noun. When you affect something, you produce an effect on it."

"Thank you for the enlightenment. I didn't realize I could be saved from that vortex of ignorance."

"Well, you don't have to be sarcastic about it."

"I was kidding a bit. If everyone could memorize that sentence, life would be a better place."

"Once that one it wrestled to the literary ground, we could go after the folks who have never understood 'its' and 'it's.'"

The banter was speeding up. The lunch partners were solely concentrating on their conversation and becoming fairly oblivious to everything around them. The discussion touched on many specific issues of grammar and the subsequent violations which consistently and predictably assaulted their brains. The first man was tired of waiting to talk and began to plot his way deeper into this conversation and the effect/affect truck entered his sightline. He stopped in mid-initial sentence and pointed at the truck as it passed their lunch spot.

Instead of it proclaiming, "Seeking refuge with your coffee? Don't worry because The affect is here!," it now said.....

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