Free Press copy editors learned this week there are plenty of people who also care about the location of apostrophes.
In case you missed it, this newspaper’s language police had compiled a list of language crimes that are commonly committed in Winnipeg’s public places. Their list was published in a column, "OMG! Winnipeg’s word nerds are upset" (July 13).
They cited punctuation problems such as rogue apostrophes that are improperly positioned, and exclamation marks misapplied to sentences that are not exclamations. They listed words often used incorrectly, such as "literally" and "ignorant". They grieved for words that have been misused to the point of being meaningless, such as "awesome" and "totally." They urged people to think of the relationship between adjectives and nouns before they use such phrases as "free gift" and "fairly unique".
As a professional group, copy editors rarely get positive feedback. These guardians of linguistic quality hear about it when an error slips through them into publication but generally, their passionate protection of our shared language is conducted in anonymity.
That’s why it was a surprise — an encouraging surprise — to get substantial positive reaction when Winnipeggers spoke out about misused words and phrases. Their published list garnered 154 website comments and more than a dozen emailed letters. It’s like Winnipeg’s underground word nerds emerged to support the copy editors, who are not accustomed to the company.
Here are excerpts from letters responding to the copy editors:
Tom Scott wrote that he agrees Winnipeg can be hard on the eyes and ears for people who care that language is used with precision: "When I was living in Toronto for a few years, I took a night class at George Brown College in grammar and punctuation. The problem is now I spot grammatical mistakes and hear them as well, and that irks me."
Perhaps responding to an account of how a copy editor complained about the misspelling of a vulgar word in washroom graffiti, Patrick White wrote, "I guess I’m a word nerd, too. Several times a week I pass by City Place on Graham Avenue. There is a large sign on the facade indicating the splendours to be found within the mall. These include a ‘jewellry’ store. I’m not picky if either ‘jewelry’ (American) or ‘jewellery’ (British) spellings are used, but ‘jewellry’ is neither, and opting for this spelling doesn’t mean it’s a Canadian compromise, or that it’s correct. Unfortunately, instead of making the mall enticing for sophisticated customers, the misspelling is the kind of ignorance I would more expect in a suburban strip mall."
William Paulishyn noted an incorrect term is often used when Winnipeg locations lower their flags: "They say the flag was at ‘half-mast’ when it was really at ‘half-staff.’ To fly the flag at half-mast, one should raise it to the top of the pole and lower it one flag width. If it is flying half way up the pole, it is half-staff."
Wilma MacMillan disagreed with the copy editors’ ruling that the popular phrase "I’m just saying" is meaningless and we should just stop saying it: "I mulled it over a bit and decided that, for me, it is not meaningless, but adds the idea that ‘I suspect,’ ‘I have a hunch’ or maybe even ‘I think.’ For me, although I’m also tired of hearing it, it adds something."
Brad Small disagreed with the copy editors that "irregardless" shouldn’t be used: "Most of my life, I too thought ‘irregardless’ was not a word and mildly chastised people who used it. Recently I discovered both regardless and irregardless are listed in Webster’s dictionary. Go figure. That’s the English language for you. Think flammable and inflammable."
When the copy editors noted "I could care less" is illogical, Rod Leschasin offered historical context. "‘I could care less’ is a sloppy adoption of the more commonly used term in the earlier 1900s, ‘I couldn’t care less,’ which does make sense."
Warren Loewen hates the phrase "‘to be honest’…..meaning until now, what I have heard coming out of your mouth has been lies."
Ruth Enns wrote: "I don’t consider myself a word nerd, but one phrase I think should land the users in word jail is ‘one of the only.’ What does it mean? ‘One of’ refers to more than one; ‘the only’ means there is only one. ‘One of the only’ then translates as ‘one of the one.’ I frequently hear this phrase used, even by people considered to be wordsmiths. I am always left wondering what the user meant. Please help stamp out this phrase."
And finally, lest the Free Press copy editors get swelled heads and think they are purveyors of publication perfection, a few readers pointed out errors in the Free Press.
Wendy McClellan, who describes herself as an "off-duty English teacher," wrote, "I saved your awesome piece to share with my high school English students in the fall. Had to smile as I was catching up on the Saturday, July 13 edition and read the front page article: ‘Smiles, connections and nostalgia where the major themes running through the Folk Festival on Friday night.’"
Carl DeGurse is a member of the Free Press editorial board.
Senior copy editor
Carl DeGurse’s role at the Free Press is a matter of opinion. A lot of opinions.