The Grammar Police

In 2006, Lynne Truss wrote a book about grammar called Eats, Shoots and Leaves. The title refers to the joke about a panda who dines at a restaurant, points a gun at the server, and then takes off. When the astonished owner looks up”panda” in the dictionary, the strange behavior becomes clear: “an animal that eats, shoots, and leaves.” The addition of those two commas changes the meaning entirely.

Truss’s point is that we should be scrupulous about grammar. I admit I find a silent thrill in spotting a sign at the produce section marked “blueberry’s $2.99.” It makes me feel superior in my knowledge of punctuation. But when it comes to the check out line, I’m not sure I could say with certainty whether it should be  “10 items or less” or “10 items or fewer.” Suddenly, my feeling of superiority evaporates.

Two education experts share their tips for editing in a post on InsideHigherEd.com. They make a useful distinction between mistakes (careless slipups) and errors (rules we don’t know). In editing, it helps to focus on the mistakes first. When it comes to errors, we will have to rely on other sources. As the panda example shows, correcting these glitches is not trivial. If it hinders clarity, then a grammatical mistake or error can confuse a reader, weakening our argument.

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