Confessions of a Compulsive Reader and Grammar Critic

On Tuesday, Oct. 4, at the end of a long editorial board
meeting, I chanced to spy the opening sentence of Mr. Alan L.
Johnson’s letter to the editor:

I see no humor in Cynthia Walker’s latest column, zero.

I was hooked.
On Tuesday, Oct. 4, at the end of a long editorial board meeting, I chanced to spy the opening sentence of Mr. Alan L. Johnson’s letter to the editor: “I see no humor in Cynthia Walker’s latest column, zero.” I was hooked. I was oblivious to the final minutes of the meeting; I read compulsively to find out why Mr. Johnson thought my column so humorless. (I had thought it mildly amusing.)

I did not find out, then or later, because Mr. Johnson never said. But a subsequent scrutiny showed that he had made some interesting points.

Mr. Johnson says that if the tardy sweeps are an effective deterrent to truancy, Gilroy High School should keep them. He does not believe them to be effective, though he offers no supporting evidence for his opinion. He thinks they interfere with classroom instruction time, and he offers quite good supporting evidence to back up that opinion, based on his experience as a substitute teacher at GHS.

Mr. Johnson says that students are rarely tardy at the middle schools where he also subs. That is an interesting datum; what are the consequences of being late at the middle schools?

Mr. Johnson also notes that when he subs at GHS, he records, on average, two tardies per day. GHS claims to be experiencing 2,500 tardies per year; there are 180 school days in a year. Divide; that works out to 14 tardies per day. Mr. Johnson voices skepticism: why is he solely responsible for 1/7 of the tardies issued in a day? That is a good question.

Three possibilities occur to me. Perhaps there are more than 2,500 tardies a year recorded at GHS. Perhaps some teachers don’t report tardies. And perhaps students hear from their schoolmates that there is a sub in such-and-such a class, and decide that it does not matter if they are late.

I did not notice any of Mr. Johnson’s points, supported or unsupported, during the editorial board meeting, as I was too busy shaking my head. The city editor, sitting opposite me, noticed my dismay, and asked if I disagreed with the topic under discussion. I had no idea what the topic under discussion was; I was too upset over Mr. Johnson’s four grammar and spelling errors.

When I told him this, the city editor became upset, too, because one of his responsibilities is to see that letters to the editor (and columns, news articles, and editorials) get their spelling and punctuation corrected before they see print.

Directly the meeting was over, he charged off to see the person in charge of putting Mr. Johnson’s letter onto the opinion page. I trailed along behind. I wanted to know if Mr. Johnson was responsible for the errors, or if The Dispatch was.

When I first began writing for The Dispatch, lo, these many moons ago, I typed my columns and submitted a hard copy. The typists at The Dispatch in those days frequently introduced errors into my matchless prose. (“Matchless prose” is a joke, Mr. Johnson.)

The situation improved with the advent of e-mail, except that sometimes an over-zealous copy editor would remove my Oxford commas or substitute a more mundane word for one of my more erudite expressions. Even worse, The Dispatch’s e-mail program and mine seem to have a basic disagreement about apostrophes.

I asked if I could have a copy of the letter as received by The Dispatch. To my horror, the unedited version of the letter had not four, but 14 errors so egregious that even I could see them: spelling errors, using “too” instead of “to'” using “onto” instead of “on to'” misuse of commas, using commas where a semicolon or period was mandated and lack of parallel structure resulting in ambiguity. The Dispatch had corrected most of them.

Granted, I am too persnickety about grammar. Granted, it does not matter if a grocery clerk or an automobile mechanic writes “too” where he should write “to.” But it matters for a high school teacher. I just hope Mr. Johnson is a basketball coach, not a teacher of critical reading and English composition.

Cynthia Anne Walker is a homeschooling mother of three and former engineer. She is a published independent author. Her column is published in The Dispatch every week.

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