Three weeks into my freshman year of college, I failed my first assignment. Like ever. My paper had four marks on it. Four. Three editing marks and one black box with an X in the middle of it. I dropped it on the desk and looked up at my professor. He wore an ivory pin-striped suit and a woven-weave Panama hat with a thick, black stripe around it. He wore saddle shoes. He was an intimidating cross between Tony Soprano and Vampire Bill Compton.
“Professor Ziegler?” I asked. He turned toward me, his face icy and disdainful.
“Yes, Miss Grey?”
His tone caused me to raise mine several octaves. “I am wondering what these marks meant? I don’t see a grade on my paper.”
He arched one eyebrow, spun around, and strode purposefully toward the whiteboard. On it, he dashed out the symbol he’d written on my paper. All of us, together, watched him, breathing short, shallow breaths as we waited for him to bestow knowledge upon us.
“This is the French symbol for death. If you have this mark on your paper, you have failed.”
The sharp intake of collective breath in the room told me I wasn’t alone.
I stayed after class and approached his desk. The other students hurriedly packed their bags, and as they filed out I nearly ran after them. In the end it was just the two of us in this quiet, stuffy, third-floor classroom.
“Professor Zeigler?” I asked, the terror transforming my normally alto voice to that of a high soprano. He raised his head and looked at me. I swear he rolled his eyes. Just a little. Maybe I imagined that part. “I’m not familiar with these editing marks and I’m not quite sure how to fix my paper.”
“Miss Grey, my system is rather clear. You have three dots on your paper. These three dots correspond to the three grammatical errors contained in the lines near which the dots have been made. As a university student, you should be able to identify the errors and correct them.”
I looked down at my paper, squinting to find three miniscule drops of ink scattered over the first page of my essay. “So I just need to fix those and resubmit?”
He leaned against the back of his wooden swivel chair and smiled a half-smile, one that didn’t reach his eyes. A fake smile. A dangerous smirk that should have told me I was on thin ice. “Yes, please make the appropriate corrections and resubmit.”
I nodded, tucking the paper into my notebook. “Thank you, Professor Zeigler.” I made for the door. “I’ll make those corrections tonight and get it to you first thing in the morning.” I turned to go.
“Oh, and Miss Grey?”
“I only read student essays twice, and only to the third error at that. Any new errors that are discovered in your resubmission will result in your official failure.”
People who know me might be surprised at the ignominious origin story of my career as a writer, English teacher, and self-proclaimed grammar geek. I love grammar, I spy mistakes reflexively, I hawkishly troll the Internet for ironic examples of misspellings, errors, and inappropriate usage. I think “Respect are country! Speak English!” is my personal favorite. But “Get a brain, morans” is a close runner-up.
Let’s be clear, I am wholly understanding of errors made by people who don’t speak English as a first language. I mean, talk about privilege. I promise you, my Russian grammar is far worse than yours in English. But if you grew up here, and do not have a learning disability, I take swift and severe issue with your willful ignorance of that which I know your lovely English teachers passed along to you.
I invite you to celebrate National Grammar Day with me. Which new uses of English force your eyes to roll more quickly than dice in Vegas? What are those transgressions that make your blood boil? Conversely, which correct uses make your heart sing?
I hereby give a shout-out to Safeway for their proper quick-check signs: 15 Items or FEWER. I might just kiss the person who ordered those.
Tweet, text, post, send me a smoke signal.