I've been enjoying Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing, the just-published first book by Mignon Fogarty. Like Fogarty's Grammar Girl podcasts, the book is breezy and reassuring, yet authoritative. Fogarty uses just enough popular-culture references to guarantee her readers' attention without sounding like she's trying too hard. And she charms us by sharing some of her own usage faux pas.
For example, on page 35 she confesses:
When I was in second grade, I lost a spelling bee because I misspelled the word its. I put an apostrophe in where I shouldn't have, and it was a very traumatic moment in my young life. I think this lesson is burned into my mind precisely because of my past misdeeds, and although I can't change my past, I believe the next best thing would be to save you all from similar apostrophe-induced horrors.
Well and good, except on page 177 she writes:
When you're tempted to use communicate, ask yourself if you really mean tell. Communicate has it's place...
An example follows, but I couldn't concentrate. I was too distracted by that apostrophe-induced horror.
It's bad enough when an error like this one slips into the daily newspaper or an annual report. But in a book purporting to tell us Right from Wrong, usage-wise ... oh, dear.
Linguists have a semi-jokey name for this particular nightmare: Hartman's Law of Prescriptivist Retaliation. It specifies that "any article or statement about correct grammar, punctuation, or spelling is bound to contain at least one error." (For example, in that particular phrase in the article I just linked to, by Jed Hartman himself, "error" is misspelled "eror.") This rule is also known as McKean's Law, in honor of "dictionary evangelist" Erin McKean.
Here's my advice to Mignon Fogarty, who is currently on book tour: own up to the error and treat it with your characteristic good humor. Use it as an opportunity to talk about Hartman's Law, McKean's Law, famous mistakes-in-print, and Our National Proofreading Crisis.
And make sure it's corrected in the second edition.
It you were expecting this post to be about ice cream, I apologize. Read more about It's-It ice cream treats here.