Grammar Confessions of a Guerrilla Grammarian |
The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation

Confessions of a Guerrilla Grammarian

I was on a mission. It was dicey. It was bold. It had cloak-and-dagger undertones, although the weather was too balmy for a cloak, and rather than a sharp weapon I was wielding a Sharpie Permanent Marker.

Let me set the scene. I live in a charming little tourist trap in Northern California. A couple of years ago the town built a state-of-the-art downtown public restroom. This smallish structure is sleek and sturdy: red brick with gray granite base molding and thick translucent glass-brick detailing.

It opened to great fanfare, but right from the start, something was amiss. And I came to realize that if I didn’t fix it, who would?

I will leave it to my fellow nitpickers to determine whether what I did was the act of a righteous crusader or a nuisance with too much time on his hands.

The two entrances to the facility each feature a white-tile sign. One says “MENS RESTROOM” and the other says “WOMENS RESTROOM.”

For months I walked by those illiterate signs, trying not to look. And as I’d pass, it seemed the signs would taunt me: “Hey, grammar boy,” they’d sneer. “Apostrophes? We don’t need no stinkin’ apostrophes!”

Finally I snapped. One sparkling summer evening I grabbed my Sharpie and fairly galloped downtown. I made my way through a swarm of out-of-towners and painstakingly affixed the requisite punctuation mark to each sign.

I felt I was striking a blow for all long-suffering sticklers who have to stand by helplessly as innocent apostrophes are routinely abused and neglected. Believe me, the sight of MEN’S and WOMEN’S has never been so sweet.

My deed went unnoticed by the early-evening crowd, most of them woozy from exorbitant gourmet burgers and extortionate Hawaiian ice cream. But had I been arrested for defacing public property, I’d have said: “Officer, this is not vandalism. The vandals are the ones who put up those brain-dead signs. What sort of terrible example is this town setting for young people, or visitors from other countries who are trying to learn English?”

I hope you don’t see me as one of those so-called taggers—no-talent grandstanders who go around sabotaging public property with their garish, illegible, or vulgar graffiti. On the contrary, what I did was more like removing a road hazard. That is just good citizenship.

Try telling it to the town’s maintenance department. Every time I walk by the building now, I notice my apostrophes getting fainter—someone is rubbing them out. In what bizarre universe does that constitute civic improvement?

I have a feeling that those signs haven’t seen the last of me and my Sharpie.

Tom Stern


Pop Quiz

The following were taken from actual public signs. Can you fix what ails them? The answers are below.

1. “No dog’s allowed except guide dog’s”

2. “Employee’s must wash there hands before returning to work”

3. “Amazing value everyday”

4. “Violators will be towed and find $50”

5. “Use as part of a prudent diet together with regular excercise”


Pop Quiz Answers

1. “No dogs allowed except guide dogs

2. “Employees must wash their hands before returning to work”

3. “Amazing value every day

4. “Violators will be towed and fined $50”

5. “Use as part of a prudent diet together with regular exercise


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20 responses to “Confessions of a Guerrilla Grammarian”

  1. B. Christopher says:

    Your post regarding the power of a Sharpie pen used to elevate the designations on your local public restrooms made me grin. I applaud your well-intentioned civil rebelliousness and suggest you keep said Sharpie close at hand.

  2. Amy says:

    Don’t insert the apostrophe. Simply use your Sharpie to draw a line over each S and BATHROOM.
    Make sure you include the squiggly circle after you draw the line!
    Not only do I read your blog each week! I save each one too!

  3. John P. says:

    Tom, that’s a great one. Plus: “I notice my apostrophes getting fainter—someone is rubbing them out.” means you have acquired something I’ve searched for all my life—an archnemesis! You can’t be a superhero without one.

  4. Sarah D. says:

    I’m the same way! I work at a school and that’s the way they are too! Of all places! Anyway, I was trying to give them the benefit of the doubt thinking ‘yeah the sign would have to be 2″ taller just to accommodate the apostrophe.’ But it bugged me every time I passed by.

  5. Katherine F. says:

    LOVE this!!!

  6. Olwyn B. says:

    Worried about those fading apostrophes?
    The answer is . . . OIL-BASED PAINT!

  7. Alisande C. says:

    Good for you, Tom Stern. If this were my town, I’d help keep the apostrophes fresh on those restrooms!

  8. S. W. says:

    I had a similar situation in our church: the ladies were given their own little area to lounge in. But the sign said, “Ladies lounge.” I finally fixed the sign as you did, so at least it’s not a sweeping observation. :)

  9. Eileen E. says:

    I love your story and the way you wrote it!
    Reminds me of something in Eats, Shoots and Leaves.

    Thanks for your good deed, you fellow “get-a-life” punctuation freak! (Uh, I hope I punctuated that well enough!)

  10. Sheela J. says:

    This person would have had a nervous breakdown if s/he’d seen signs written in English (or whatever you may call it’s mutated colonial remnants here) in India.
    I enjoy your mails. Thanks.

  11. Caroline H. says:

    Dear Tom, Kudos to you!!! I love your little story; keep that Sharpie ever-ready!

  12. Christine L. says:

    I could be wrong, but is there an error in the last sentence of the first paragraph? It seems to me that there should be a comma after the word weapon. As in, “rather than a sharp weapon, (comma) I was wielding a Sharpie Permanent Marker.” The writer doesn’t put a comma. He says, “rather than a sharp weapon I was wielding a Sharpie Permanent Marker.” (no comma after weapon).

    • It would certainly not be wrong to use a comma, but Tom responds: “We are living in an age of open punctuation, and I didn’t want a pause there.”

  13. Ann M. says:

    Tom, Your guerrilla tactics made me laugh out loud several times this morning.

    Many years ago, my mother took a picture of a hand-written sign hanging by gas pumps at an off-the-beaten-path gas station in Kansas or Colorado: “WARNING! PAY FOR YOUR GAS OR BE PERSECUTED!” She was so tickled, as were we all. She carried it in her purse for years, whipping it out every so often to share with like-minded friends who would appreciate it. My mother, born in 1913, was raised in Pine Bluff, AR….not far from Little Rock. This small paper mill town surely was not known for the academic credentials of its teachers, especially during that era. Nonetheless, Mama was as sharp about grammar as anyone I’ve ever met. She often would expound about “different from” and “different than,” conjugated every verb properly in daily conversation, and railed about the misuse of reflexive pronouns…..had she lived beyond 2007, she would be apoplectic about how “myself” has replaced “me” (and even “I”!) way too much of the time. Now I need to climb down off my soapbox, and get myself back to work! ;-)

    I just love your newsletter! Thanks for brightening my day, day after day.

  14. Charlinda H. says:

    Something tells me the Pop Quiz signs were all found in Texas. Sheesh!

  15. Lawrence M. says:

    Funny reminder from this recent newsletter:

    When I was 16, 1967, I worked at the A&P Supermarket in the dairy section.
    The boss was Frank, a skinny but tough Polish gent. His sign behind the dairy counter read “No garbage behind this counter at no time.” Thinking I was advancing the cause of civilization, I corrected it and wrote “any” next to my crossed-out “no”. Wow did I catch hell.

    Hey, when will we US Americans get with logic and place the quotes after the quoted verbiage and not after the period?

    • We agree that the way the Brits do it is more logical. (“U.S. Americans” indeed. We see that you, like us, are a fan of Miss Teen South Carolina 2007.)

  16. Rose W. says:

    Funny story, captivating delivery. I read your blogs to smarten up. Truly. I learnt English intuitively which now causes me to second-guess myself all the time. I come here to learn and to put a smile on my face. Beautiful piece of work.

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