Comma Crusader Brings Good Grammar to Traffic Court and Wins

ISTOCK
ISTOCK

Grammar nerds are a committed league who often fight the good fight in the hope of seeing their victories spelled out on the page. But every once in a while, the consequences of proper punctuation leap from 2-D print into 3-D courtroom drama. (Insert Law & Order sound effects.)

In 2014, Andrea Cammelleri was ticketed for a pretty run-of-the-mill offense: leaving her pickup truck parked on a street for too long. Specifically, the village ordinance in West Jefferson, Ohio said it was against the law to park “any motor vehicle camper, trailer, farm implement and/or non-motorized vehicle” longer than 24 hours.

That language is pretty cut and dry, but upon closer reading, you might notice something fishy. Cammelleri did. At her trial, the defendant argued “the ordinance did not apply because the language prohibits a motor vehicle camper from being parked on the street for an extended period of time.”

Cammelleri doesn’t have a “motor vehicle camper” because, well, what the heck is a motor vehicle camper? The ordinance should have read “motor vehicle, camper…”

The court argued that anyone reading the ordinance would know that it was a typo and simply missing a comma. Cammelleri was convicted, but she wasn’t done with her punctuation crusade. She filed an appeal.

This time, the scales of justice went the way the grammar gods would want. In his ruling, 12th District Court of Appeals Judge Robert A. Hendrickson wrote, “By utilizing rules of grammar and employing the common meaning of terms, 'motor vehicle camper' has a clear definition that does not produce an absurd result. If the village desires a different reading, it should amend the ordinance and insert a comma between the phrase ‘motor vehicle’ and the word ‘camper.’”

Whether it was a clever trick to get out of a pesky parking citation, or an earnest quest to right this world’s comma crimes, Cammelleri illustrated why proper punctuation shouldn’t be just a matter of style—it should be the law of the land.

How and Why Did Silent Letters Emerge in English?

iStock/Bychykhin_Olexandr
iStock/Bychykhin_Olexandr

Kory Stamper:

The easy answer is “"because English can’t leave well enough alone."

When we first started speaking English around 600 AD, it was totally phonetic: every letter had a sound, and we sounded every letter in a word. But English—and England itself—were influenced quite a bit by the French, who conquered the island in 1066 and held it for a long time. And then later by Dutch and Flemish printers, who were basically the main publishers in England for a solid two centuries, and then by further trading contact with just about every continent on the planet. And while we’re shaking hands and stealing language from every single people-group we meet, different parts of the language started changing at uneven rates.

By the 1400s, English started to lose its phonetic-ness: the way we articulated vowels in words like “loud” changed slowly but dramatically, and that had an effect on the rest of the word. (This is called “The Great Vowel Shift,” and it took place over a few hundred years.) Somewhere in the middle of the GVS, though, English spelling became fixed primarily because of the printing press and the easy distribution/availability of printed materials. In short: we have silent letters because the spelling of words stopped changing to match their pronunciations.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

Daniel Radcliffe Played Fact-Checker at The New Yorker to Prepare for New Role

Remy Steiner/Getty Images for Tommy Hilfiger
Remy Steiner/Getty Images for Tommy Hilfiger

Method acting has taken performers to some strange places, including behind the wheel of a cab and psychiatric wards. As research for his role in the new Broadway play The Lifespan of a Fact, Daniel Radcliffe volunteered his time at the fact-checking department of The New Yorker—and he said the work he did there was more nerve-wracking than going on stage.

The play, which opened in New York in September, is based on a real-life magazine fact-checking ordeal that took place in 2005. As an intern at the literary magazine The Believer, Jim Fingal was asked to fact-check an essay by writer John D’Agata about a young man's suicide in Las Vegas. D’Agata tended to prioritize style over accuracy—tweaking the figure of 31 strip clubs in Las Vegas to 34 because he liked the "rhythm" better, for example—and this led to conflict between writer and fact-checker. Their back-and-forth was eventually published as a book in 2012.

The Harry Potter star, who plays Fingal in the show, recently got to experience what real fact-checkers go through on a day-to-day basis. As The New Yorker's guest fact-checker, Radcliffe wasn't tasked with reviewing a feature-length essay on a heavy subject—rather, he was asked to look at the facts in a review of a Mexican restaurant in Brooklyn.

After he called the restaurant's chef to confirm the ingredients in the dip and ask if the spot did indeed have a "Venice Beach aesthetic," the article was officially fact-checked. As for how the gig compared to his job as an actor, he told The New Yorker, “Nothing I do today will be harder than that.”

[h/t The New Yorker]

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