Ambling around the Upper West Side on New Year’s Day, two of our Arbiters of Style happened upon an unusual road sign. Unfortunately, we neglected to snap a photo, but perhaps some of our readers have seen it as well. Orange and mounted close to street level, it reads, “DRIVER’S IDLING FOR MORE THAN 30 MIN. PROHIBITED.” It also contains, above the apostrophe in the first word, an indignantly scrawled graffito: “PLURAL NOT POSSESSIVE.”
Now, as editors in a city full of misspelled, mispunctuated, and otherwise misguided signs and advertisements, we certainly understand the impulse to draw one’s pen and unleash furious proofreading marks all over the offending words. But there’s a difference between impulse and action: once you actually whip out that pen, you’re walking a fine line between respect for the language and pedantic boobery. If you want to avoid crossing that line, you’d better at least make sure your “correction” is correct.
Needless to say, our vandal’s wasn’t. He or she assumed that the only valid reading of the abridged sentence was: “DRIVERS [WHO ARE] IDLING FOR MORE THAN 30 MIN. [ARE] PROHIBITED.” In fact, an equally valid, if slightly more awkward, reading would be: “[A] DRIVER’S IDLING FOR MORE THAN 30 MIN. [IS] PROHIBITED.” Since the second reading conveys the intended meaning as well as the first, the apostrophe is entirely justifed—and smug, anonymous criticisms are not.
A sobering lesson in the dangers of vigilante editing—and perhaps, since we spotted the graffito near a stretch of popular bars (Jake’s Dilemma, etc.) on New Year’s Day, in the dangers of drunken editing as well. We’re guessing someone in his cups began fancying himself God’s chosen avenger against grammatical sins, only to discover in the cold light of morning that he was no more an editor than the gin-soaked sorority sister riding a mechanical bull is a cowgirl.