25 September 2008

David Foster Wallace Again (But I Make No Apologies for It)

I was recently reading 'Grammar and American Usage' in David Foster Wallace's Consider the Lobster when I noticed that he mentions an imaginary 'grammar nazi' objecting to the wording in a supermarket queue: 'Express Checkout: 10 Items or Less'. It took me a full three minutes to realize what was wrong with this sentence: the fact that 'less' refers to mass as opposed to count was not immmediately obvious to me, and I digressively agonized over the other words instead. As someone who taught English grammar for fifteen years, this is a humbling experience. But then: does anyone care? Yeah, in certain ways I care: I particularly care about my vegetables being mis-apostrophized as 'Cauliflower's' or 'Carrot's', about people writing that 'Its a wonderful day, and to prove it the dog is wagging it's tail', or (a real-life example, this) about a college near me in Nottingham – which included four different peoples from different races in its logo – calling itself 'People's College' (now called Castle College, which I think is because someone just realized that it's at the back of Nottingham Castle), where I once told the vice-principal that on the basis of the logo alone this was grammatically incorrect, but she didn't even understand what I was talking about. (1) Anyway, for the record, what I was talking about was that the noun 'people' can be pluralized, so 'Peoples' College' would in this instance have been a more correct apostrophization. But what do you expect from a S.N.O.O.T. like me, or from the vice-principal of a college who obviously isn't interested in grammar?

(1) I've just noticed that the Carlton Road annexe of Castle College now seems to be calling itself 'Peoples College', which I suppose is a kind of neutral compromise. I imagine that they're retained the name because some people complained (the name goes goes back over a century but who cares about small details like that?)

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