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When I am Copyeditor General ...: Word nerds will always get what they want


Word nerds will always get what they want

As I was coming out of the subway station the other day, I heard a street musician playing the Stones' "You Can't Always Get What You Want."

Actually, playing isn't really the right word. Moidalizing (said in Bronx goon voice) is more like it.

I'm not the biggest Stones fan, but still, this guy's ineptitude really bugged me. How can anyone claim to be a musician and not know the words to the chorus, fer pete's sake? It's not that hard; the song turns up on every oldies station at least hourly. You don't even have to pay attention; you can absorb it, osmosis-style.

I wasn't annoyed that he was ruining my favorite song; I was annoyed because he just. Didn't. Care.

And then I realized I was experiencing the same emotion I feel when I see a poorly constructed sentence, or a heinous typo. And that led to the following revelatory analogy, which may offer insight into my reasons for ranting, and which I encourage you to share with those who claim that good grammar is unimportant:

Think about your favorite song by your favorite band.

Got it? Good.

You've listened to it a thousand times. You'll listen to it a thousand more. It hits you in just the right way. It's perfect.

Now imagine that everywhere you go, you hear cover versions of your favorite song. In stores. In cafes. In the subway.

But every version is just ... slightly ... wrong.

Sometimes the verses are in the wrong order. Sometimes the singer makes up the words--or forgets them altogether. Sometimes the chord changes are out of synch, or go in the wrong direction. Sometimes there's a completely pointless drum solo right in the middle of the most important passage.

You hear it in every supermarket. In every elevator. In every taxi.

Wouldn't that make you a little sad, a little angry? Frustrated that this beautiful, meaningful song was held in such low regard that people couldn't even get the chorus right? That they couldn't take the time to track down the lyrics, listen to the CD, buy sheet music, learn the damn song before they plugged in their guitars?

That's how I feel about misuses of grammar: every time someone writes "perspective" when they mean "prospective," or "cliché" instead of "clichéd," or makes up words (such as "empt" when they mean "apt"--true story), or admits, with a giggle, that they "never really got the hang of punctuation"--also a true story--I feel sad.

Because there are countless methods for learning the tune, endless opportunities to hear it played correctly, a wealth of resources for keeping the beat and hitting the right note.

And yet so many people are content to thrash though a song they can't be bothered to rehearse.

Copyeditor General's ruling: This one goes out to the Davis Square T guitarist: If you can't always get what you want, how is it possible that if you try sometimes you just might find you can't get what you need?

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