Today I want to share a terrific (and somewhat educational) short story, written by my friend and editor, Tom Safford. While this story clocks in at over 3000 words, I promise that it will be worth your time.
The Grammar Nazi
Bradleigh Chester-Nottinghamshire stands six feet tall on his tip-toes. But since he would never degrade himself thusly – exactly the way he would phrase his emphatic opposition to such a preposterous act – he stands plainly upright at five feet, five inches. It is from this relatively lofty vantage point that he glares at his third-grade students, waiting for one of them to flinch.
“I ask again – nay, I mandate – that someone volunteers to write a proper sentence on the blackboard (‘which is green, of course,’ his mind mutters to itself in one-way dialogue), concerning one event in which you took part this past weekend. If nobody will volunteer in the next -- 37 -- seconds, I shall have no choice but to arbitrarily choose one of you to complete the task.”
Proper and improper are two of Bradleigh’s favorite words.
He can be sanctimonious. To eight-year-olds, half of whom cannot correctly spell the, he is the male form of the Ice Maiden. He looks the part of the old male English school marm, with a big hawkish schnoz (northern Wisconsin vernacular for nose, a word he’d never lower himself to use, incidentally…), on the end of which is perched a pair of semicircular lenses wrapped in cheap, but expensive-looking, leopard-mottled plastic frames. He refers to them as his spectacles. Bradleigh does not own a pair of glasses. Nor does he end his sentences with prepositions.
He has been teaching English to first-, second-, third- and fourth-graders for 27 years. He grew up in Minocqua, graduating from this very grade school – Minocqua-Hazelhurst-Lake Tomahawk, or MHLT – and then Lakeland Union High School. From these two fine institutions he took his neuroses to Yale University, from which he earned a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature degree. Next he worked as a copy editor for the Milwaukee Journal for a few years. Then he attended graduate school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (just Wisconsin to any college football fan), where he met his sweet, proper Betty. His graduate work was in, of course, English Literature. He and Betty married after his graduate studies. After the nuptials and their two-week exploration of rain-swamped England, Bradleigh and Betty bought their home in Boulder Junction (a northern neighbor of Minocqua), and Bradleigh began his career at MHLT in late August of that year. He has been teaching proper English to six-, seven-, eight- and nine-year-olds ever since.
Whenever possible (IE, when he does not run the risk of confusing some illiterate person who reads at a tenth-grade level or worse), Bradleigh speaks and writes the Queen’s English.
At any rate:
These 37 interminable seconds pass without as much as a peep from the hyperafraid (or at least anxious) youngsters.
“Very well. Miss Anderton, come hither to receive your chalk, at which point you shall move to said blackboard (which is green) and convey, in writing, one sentence describing something that you accomplished this past weekend. Events from Friday evening are also acceptable.”
Georgette Anderton comes from middle-class ilk, has middle-class common sense (Bradleigh maintains that there is no such thing: everything requires analysis) and middle-class book sense. In common sense she trumps Mr. Chester-Nottinghamshire (he will not allow himself the weakness of assumption); in book sense, he has her by a country mile – an English country mile.
Georgette requires three minutes to produce:
I eight lobstar and pucked.
Giggles, of course, erupt from the third-grade academic brown-nosed bourgeoisie attendant in this classroom (four strong, of 21 total students). The other 16 students are busy reading, and attempting to process, the sentence.
“Silence!” Bradleigh shrieks.
Turning to poor, red-faced Georgette, he attempts to use her poorly wrought sentence as an opportunity to teach:
“’Eight,’ dear (pointing at words as he addresses them), is a number. A-t-e, ate, is the past-tense form of the infinitive “to eat.” Exchange the “a” for an “e” to properly spell “lobster.” Finally, one does not puck unless that is some childish new slang to describe playing at ice hockey. ‘Puke,’ Miss Anderton, is spelled… someone, how is puke spelled?”
Nobody has ever seen puke spelled, so nobody – not even the third grade brown-nosed bourgeoisie – raises a hand.
“Mister Fleming, how is puke spelled? Please come up here and show us.”
Bradleigh hands James Fleming the chalk.
James produces the following:
“Mister Fleming, there is no such thing as peock, be it a noun, pronoun, verb, adverb, article, adjective, or preposition.”
Fleming is agog, his ovular, elfin face a sheet of white with large blue-white pools for eyes… the pupils of which are now as swollen as puffed rice.
“Ladies and gentlemen – you may return to your seat, Georgette; in retrospect, perhaps your relative spelling acumen should be praised, when compared to that of Mr. Fleming – puke is properly spelled p-u-k-e. For future reference, and in terms of the proper formal writing and/or verbal conveyance of our glorious language, I suggest that you opt for vomit in lieu of puke.”
The bell rings, and 21 students are saved from further potential embarrassment.
“Bollocks,” mutters Bradleigh.
Speaking up: “For tomorrow, you shall each write or type a one-page summary of an activity in which you took part this past weekend, including events occurring on Friday evening. Now you are dismissed. Erm, Mr. Blakeley, do tuck in your shirt.”
As this was the final class period of the day – it was now exactly 3:03pm and 12 seconds on Bradleigh’s time piece – the teacher arranged the top of his desk so that it was not quite so messy, but not to the point of scrubbing it with Old English or throwing away every unnecessary piece of paper. Bradleigh is a language freak; an obsession with keeping an orderly work space is not in his Basket of Idiosyncrasies. Having cursorily cleaned his desk top, he gathered up his satchel and headed for his horseless carriage. Just kidding – he does refer to them as automobiles… even as cars, occasionally, when he’s feeling frisky.
Minocqua, Wisconsin is spread out among an area that includes over a hundred freshwater lakes and approximately a million – or maybe even a thousand million – trees, many of which are conifers. Minocqua is a “town” of approximately four thousand year-round denizens, with only about eight square blocks of concrete. It is a tourist town, luring and then feasting on the affinity of denizens from Chicago, Milwaukee and the Twin Cities for fishing, water-skiing, swimming, peace-and-quiet-with-no-car-horns-nor-sirens, and mosquito-squashing possibilities. One can become adept at killing mosquitoes after only a few days in the Lakeland Area (of which Minocqua is the de facto capital).
Commuting to and from work in such a spread-out area (and town) is not too different from doing so in a metropolitan area. Folks up in the wide-open spaces of the Lakeland Area live 15, 20, even 30 minutes from where they work. In that vein, Bradleigh’s work place (MHLT, in Minocqua) is about a thirty-minute drive from his home, way up in Boulder Junction. Boulder Junction is in the far-north region of the Lakeland Area, which is fondly referred to as “Tundra.” The distance from home to classroom is approximately 20 miles. Hence, the 30-minute drive. Given such a lengthy drive, Bradleigh faces daily reminders – from road signs, billboards, names of signs on houses, etc. – how poor the average person’s English is.
The following sorts of signs trip Bradleigh’s trigger every time, sending him into a sour and preachy mood (which we have heretofore seen displayed in the classroom):
Verdict: Names are nouns, and one does not ever place an apostrophe in a non-possessive plural noun, unless that apostrophe is used to take the place of other letters (in an abbreviation). This sign means “(house of) the Brown.” “How poor and disgusting, rather.”
Gregs Lock’s and Key’s
Obviously there is the placing-of-apostrophe-in-a-plural-non-possessive-noun problem with Lock’s and Key’s, but the brunt of Bradleigh’s frustration is felt by Gregs. Assuming that the locks and keys belong to Greg, there should unequivocally be an apostrophe between the second “g” and the “s” to show ownership of said locks and keys. “I’m disappointed to know that Greg has the Rule of Apostrophes completely backward. I’d rather fix my locks myself!”
Morrison’s Steak Shop – Their isn’t anything better!
Their is the third-person plural possessive pronoun. There is used to show location. Whoever wrote this sign obviously is unaware of this RULE of ENGLISH (!!!). “How could anyone be so utterly stupid?!”
Such sub-par writing affects Bradleigh thusly on his daily trail of grammatical scorn, from work to home (the return trip).
Upon arriving at home in Boulder Junction (Tundra) this evening, he turns on the “telly” (he so wishes he were British or, more specifically, English and in England) and begins his daily period of telly-watching: Discovery Channel, History Channel, Food Network (one of the shows about gadgets has especially poor grammar, especially in applying verbs to inanimate objects incorrectly. For instance, ice cream does not scoop onto a tray; rather, it is scooped, since ice cream cannot scoop itself.). He also occasionally enjoys Jeopardy, since the contestants are generally smart enough to spell their final answers correctly, although sometimes their penmanship could use some improvement; and Wheel of Fortune, since they never spell words incorrectly.
His wife Betty – probably the one woman on Earth who could possibly stand bearing the banner of wifedom in the Chester-Nottinghamshire castle – asks about Bradleigh’s day as they seat themselves for dinner, which is (brilliant!) bangers and mash.
“Awful and, well, somewhat amusing. I am off-put by their terrible spelling and grammar. Even so, I am fond of them generally and will continue to persevere in giving them proper training in their native tongue. I only wish they received better guidance at home; I feel as if whatever they learn in my classroom is negated by their parents’ poor command of the language.”
“Oh, Bradleigh, who lit your fuse today?”
“Do not use clichés, Betty. It is unbecoming of one so dear as thee.”
“Oh, Bradleigh, you should talk so more often -- you really can be a kind man, rather…”
He cuts her off just as she starts getting romantic:
“Well all right. First a child spelled ‘puke’ as ‘puck.’ Adding to this mini-crisis, her chosen corrector’s effort was even worse: ‘peock.’ How on earth could anyone envisage it spelled thusly, Betty? I mean I actually nearly laughed at the poor lad!”
“Eat your mashed potatoes, Bradleigh, and I’ll warm your brandy.”
Highway 51 South held the usual mood-depressing signs on this Tuesday morning drive to work.
Bentley’s – Your gonna love it!
“You’re equals you are. Your is the second-person possessive pronoun. I’ll not deign to recognize such doggerel as gonna: if a person is too lazy to write going to, then he should not write at all.”
Angelino’s: Forward. Thinking.
Fragments: “Dear Lord, do they not know how to combine subject and predicate to form an actual sentence? How utterly barbaric! Next we’ll be reduced to grunts and hand gestures!”
Only Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” and Journey’s “Faithfully,” on local FM station WMQA, and the rare glance at the road ahead, tore his attention from the hideous grammar and/or spelling manifested on signs all over the place. This usually put him in a poor mood as he neared job and children and frustration. Maybe it would have been better if he’d put on blinders, but then, there would be the practical concern for peripheral vision, which can be important whilst one operates one’s motor-car.
As is his custom, Bradleigh arrives about half an hour before his first-period class and, as is also his custom, he spends the balance of that time reading in the staff lounge.
He is neither unfriendly nor unpleasant, per se, around his peers. Nor is he exactly socially proactive in an early-morning small-talk sense. He is an avid listener: his ears are like radar receptors for misspoken words and phrases.
To his left, Mrs. Scherberhorn brags about her brother to Mrs. Mandingo.
“My brother Harry is an O.B.G.Y.N. at Howard Young…”
Bradleigh, of course, keeps this to himself – though it would take but a quick glance to discern the anguish on his face:
“The correct slang or shortening would be either Ob-Gyn (abbreviated) or O.G. (acronym). O.B.G.Y.N. is an invalid attempt at an acronym,” he muses further, “Unless her brother is a doctor specializing in something like Old Boogers Globbed in Your Nose.” But then, that does not exactly make sense in terms of being a medical specialty, so Bradleigh takes on a bothered affect and audibly huffs (under the pretense of clearing his throat), which causes a bit of tea to spill from his cup… which causes further irritation. Pink-cheeked, he gathers his flustered self in time, however, to pick up the following:
“Everybody and their brother think that the Packers will beat the Bears this Sunday.”
Nearly spitting up some of his tea in a liquid gasp, he engages in a mental conversation with himself: “Everybody is singular. Ergo, that phrase would be correctly stated, thought or written, ‘Everybody and his brother…’ or ‘Everybody and her brother…’”
Having got his day off to a proper angst-filled start, he picks up his KYW anthology (Keats, Yeats and Wordsworth: To My Brothers, When You Are Old and I Wandered Lonely As A Cloud are three of his favorite poems), drops his cup in the waste receptacle, and heads for his first class of the day.
First period is comprised of 22 second-graders. They are every bit as bright as their third-grade counterparts, only they’ve had one fewer year of training in what is easily the most important part of the curriculum. Today he is giving a pop quiz:
Choose the best word to complete the sentence.
1) The dog ate his ___________
2) People work with _________ hands.
3) Linda _________ go to the store.
a) can not
4) I think; therefore, I _________.
So on and so forth. He was not looking forward to grading this -- what with all the stupid mistakes he was sure to find -- though once in a while it did seem as if he were getting through to them in some respects. So it is that giving a quiz is as much indicative of an expectation/hope for greatness as it is a fear of the failed application of one’s expert instruction. Some would do well, some would do C work, and the rest would utterly fail.
Some students are, of course, brighter than others, and he was looking forward to his “puck” third-grade class at the end of the day for the opportunity to read/hear about those weekend excursions – so much so that his entire lunch period passed without his once thinking about the English language and whether or not it was being spoken or had been written correctly in his immediate vicinity.
Mr. Chester-Nottinghamshire relaxes at his desk seat as one of the third-graders reads her essay at the front of the classroom:
“Mom and Mom’s special friend Sue (dear heavens, Bradleigh expounds mentally) took me to see ‘The Princes Dairys Part To.’ Sue baught me some popkorn and Coke and the move was great shes so pretty, I ate the popkorn and then went too the bath room. It smelled bad so I went real (my goodness this is poor, but she volunteered so I’ll say nothing) fast this big scarry woman was in there. Then we ate some ice kreme and Sue called the man in the window a Big Utt, what ever that is. Then I went to slepe and Mom and Sue wrestled (dear God).”
“Well done, Skyy. Would anyone else like to volunteer?”
What sort of a parent would name a daughter after a brand of vodka? Daft, rather!
Bradleigh is roused from his stupor by the movement of a hand/arm toward the back of the classroom.
“Yes, erm, Gloria, what is it?”
“May I go to the bathroom, sir?”
Some of the students cannot pronounce (or remember) Bradleigh’s complicated last name; these call him sir. At least they have manners.
“You may use the WC, Gloria, after you’ve regaled us of your exploits this past weekend.”
Gloria Freidenhoft gives Bradleigh a puzzled look – what in the world is a WC, mister? –and then shrugs it off and reads: