Capital Punishment

God knows, l don’t like to judge.  I just want to help.

Which is why I called the receptionist’s attention to the inept notice posted on the front door of my gym about “people who’s cars get towed.”

“Don’t worry,” she said.  “As long as you don’t leave the shopping area, your car won’t get towed.”

I tried to reassure her the towing threat wasn’t a big deal.  I wasn’t going anywhere but the gym.  But I was concerned about the illiteracy of “who’s” instead of “whose.”  She made me explain myself two or three times over, then jotted something down, shaking her head like I was a useless nitpicker or something.  Then she tried to blame it all on the person who wrote the note whose (notice correct usage) native language is Russian.

Oh, sure.  Blame the foreigners for the desecration of the English language.  “Lots of native-born English speakers make the same mistake,” I said.  “I see it all the time.”

I would have gone on at greater length, but she didn’t seem terribly interested for some reason.  Then, when I saw my friend Hope in yoga class and reported the infraction, I learned the whole sign was her fault, to begin with, since her stepson’s car had gotten towed and it had cost a hundred and ninety-three dollars to get it out of hock.

“A hundred and 93 dollars,” Hope said.  “I called them up and let them have it!”

I tried to tell her about the grave misspelling on the sign, but she didn’t seem interested, either.  I struggle with this kind of apathy all the time.  The only people who get as exercised about this deterioration in civilization and language as I do are other former journalists and English teachers.

That’s why I was shocked (shocked!) when I was emailing back and forth with a friend who was an editor at a newspaper I used to work for.  He capitalized realtor.  I’ve seen that kind of capital-letter abuse before.  I usually give people the benefit of the doubt, thinking they’re either whimsical or German (I don’t think you can be both).  But this was a former editor!

I wrote him back, asking since when he capitalized realtor and he got really snippy and said it was AP style.  I said I didn’t think any occupation but God was capitalized, so he got all authoritative and heavyhanded and sent me this quote from the AP style manual:

RE: Realtor (initial-capped) Why is this profession initial-capped and attorney, banker, and even president of the United States are not when used as stand-alone nouns? Are we duty-bound to initial-cap it just because it’s trademarked? Do we really need to do this to distinguish a member of the National Association of Realtors when we don’t distinguish members of other professional associations? Thanks for your consideration of this question. Kim Anderson Slot Editor (Biloxi) Sun Herald – from Gulfport, Miss. on Mon, Jul 02, 2007

Realtor (capitalized) is AP style for this legally protected service mark. You can avoid it by using the generic term, real estate agent.

Good grief.  I had no idea.  You leave the profession of journalism for a couple of decades and this is the kind of insidious change they make in the language?  Judge and president and professor and lawyer aren’t capitalized when they stand alone.  Neither are queen or empress or goddess.  But Realtor?

I wanted to Faint.  I refuse!  realtor, realtor, realtor.  I’m not Judging, I’m just Helping.  It looks better That Way.

(Copyright 2009 by Ruth Pennebaker)

13 comments… add one
  • I don’t know what’s more painful – seeing in capitalized or hearing it pronounced realator.

    You made me laugh out loud.  Thanks!

  • I meant seeing “it” capitalized.  Fumble fingers.

  • Well said and well written!   I laughed at the last paragraph and empathize completely!  I, too, see signs everywhere with such assaults on the language. But, we can’t save the world! 

    What’s even sadder is that many blogs I come across make the same kind of errors…”there” for “their,” and the like.   I cringe every time I come across one.  Not to be a nitpicker or anything, but honestly!  Does it take that long to proofread?

    Anyway, great post!  I enjoyed it.

  • Robin Link

    Tough call, Cynthia.  I’m continually astounded at how many highly educated people say “realator” or “realitor” including “Realtors!”  It’s my biggest pet peeve.  It’s two syllables!

  • ruthpennebaker Link

    Zeitgeist — now there’s a noun I’ll happily capitalize.  I sense a swell of lower-case rebellion against this AP outrage.  I don’t care how they try to rationalize it, it still makes no sense.

  • Robin Link

    A rally at the Capitol might be in order.  (am also annoyed by TX spelling of Capital)…

  • Probably unwisely sticking my head above the parapet, it seems to me that your “like I was a useless nitpicker” doesn’t bear close scrutiny, though it might well be good colloquial English.  I think this phrase would be more correctly (pedantically) written “as if I were a useless nitpicker”, since “like”  takes an object and “as” takes a clause. 

    The “if” gives you the opportunity (some would say requirement)  to throw in the conditional mood (in cases of uncertainty), or (which you might prefer) the contrary to fact subjunctive .  Either way you would write, or say, “were” instead of “was”.  (As if Iwere a useless nitpicker)   Of course no one thinks you are — and even if they do your grammar must not admit the possibility!

    The subjunctive, by the way, is nearly dead in England, though it does still exist in my native US, along with other (possibly) archaic forms.

    As for capital letters, I favour Winnie the Poohish, rather than Germanic, conventions.  There’s a lot more scope if you are a Bear of Little Brain than if you are merely teutonic (or as Winnie might say, Teutonic).

    Meanwhile, since apostrophes were almost topical (Topical) in this post, I can confirm that I am running my own guerilla campaign against such incorrect possesive forms as James’ and Thomas’ (alas I happend to have two sons by those names so am regularly exposed to this Egregious Error).  “James’s” and “Thomas’s” are the correct possesive forms.  Unless you are Jesus, Welsh, sport three syllables, or are a figure of classical antiquity, you don’t get to drop the “s”. 

    But though I might risk commenting, I probably won’t blog* on this subject, except in the Humblest of ways.  Because the Duchess’s own House is definitely made of Glass.

    *new verb for new noun.  What a splendidly flexible language English is!  Throw your worst at it — it can take it.

  • ruthpennebaker Link

    From my own glass house: You’re right about the like-as if controversy, Duchess.  But, ever since I heard Rosanne Barr say, “Like the uterus is a tracking device,” I’ve preferred the way the former sounds.  It’s simply funnier to me and I’ll usually opt for funny over strict grammatical correctness.  We all draw our own lines in these controversies and I like “like.”

  • Oh, I don’t disagree.  Like I said, yours was good colloquial English…  And I, for one, find capital letters funny.

  • Steve Link

    Your inner lawyer should have appreciated that the whatever association was clever enough to trademark “Realtor,” thus making the common exclusive.  Having done so, the association then began the torturous task of preventing the trademark from becoming generic (although in the case of (r)ealtor, it was likely generic before it became trademarked).  Unlike English teachers, journalists, and other assorted grammarians, at least lawyers know how to make money off of these issues.  Now I have find a (k)leenex to wipe up the (c)oke that dribbled from my Dr. Pepper can…..

  • ruthpennebaker Link

    I have no inner lawyer, Steve!  That’s why I quit the profession before it became obvious.

  • C.L. Ward Link

    Sadly, even copy editors these days need help!

    Smelling Crack
    — Entry-level copy editor on duty at the Associated Press: “Cop Makes Arrest in Bathroom After Smelling Crack”

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