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Just say what you mean, and say it right





Winston Churchill, move over. I have a new British hero: the Grammar Vigilante, who goes out under cover of night in Bristol to correct grammatical errors on signs around the city.

Granted, he’s a bit of a zealot, but extremism in the pursuit of grammatical virtue is no vice, as Barry Goldwater might say.

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The Grammar Vigilante denies that his work, which largely consists of covering up improper apostrophes, is a crime. “It’s more of a crime to have the apostrophes wrong in the first place,” he insists, to which one can only say, “hear, hear.” In fact, in the same spirit, let’s cast a similarly helpful gaze on the American linguistic landscape.

First up: a frequent mistake by those ardent acolytes of King Donald the First. Given the passion of their self-styled patriotism, I know it’s unrealistic to expect them to put grammar first. Still, in the interests of insult efficacy, a remedial reminder may be in order.

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Many of the e-mails they send me start this way: “Your an idiot.” Or: “Your a moron.” Those are withering put-downs indeed. Still, the otherwise sharp and piercing point of an e-mail arrowhead is dulled a little if its author has been confounded by the ever-so-vexing your/you’re distinction.


So: “Your’’ is a possessive adjective, a word that modifies a noun and usually indicates some sort of ownership: Your thoughts. Your e-mails. Your shaky grammar. “You’re,’’ its slippery half-sibling, is a contraction of “you are.’’ Usage example: You’re in danger of having your insult boomerang if you write “your an idiot” rather than “you’re an idiot.”

Now let’s leap from grammar to usage — and from the Trumpkins to the legions of well-intentioned young waitresses and waiters. Can it really be that every dinner choice I make is “perfect” or “excellent”? Most times, I haven’t put any real thought into choosing the turkey burger or the chicken pot pie. In fact, deep down, I know it’s not a particularly inspired choice. It’s just something I’ve had before without getting food poisoning. So I’m fine with a simple “OK” or even just a nod of the head.

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While we’re at it, I don’t think “no problem” is the apt reply when someone asks for a glass of water with his meal. Don’t get me wrong; it’s an eminently useful phrase. If, say, my car is stuck in a snowdrift and you attach a tow chain and pull me out with your pickup, whereupon I offer a heartfelt “thank you so much,” then “no problem” works exceedingly well. It’s a gracious way of acknowledging gratitude for a real act of kindness or generosity.

But when a customer requests a little grated cheese for his pasta, “no problem” somehow misses the mark. Why? Because the same largeness of effort or spirit isn’t required. Not unless securing the cheese requires you to travel to a distant land or do battle with the parmesan cartel, that is.

On to Big Pharma. Now, no one appreciates the rat-a-tat-tat recitation of side effects that could befall the user of a new prescription drug more than I do. If there’s even a slight chance that taking your product will render me more susceptible to an attack by army ants, I want to know.

Increasingly, however, I hear warnings like this: “Don’t take Doomuponu if you are allergic to Doomuponu.” How in Sam Hill would anyone know if he’s allergic to Doomuponu until he has tried Doomuponu?

Just sayin’. No, actually, I’m not. Just sayin’, that is. I’m just introducing my next peeve. Can we all stop just sayin’? It’s had its (way-too-long) run.

OK, I’m done. Critics, compose your e-mails. Trumpkins, in case you’re still confused, here’s a handy cut-and-paste starter kit: “You’re an idiot.”

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.


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