Style Points: Public Editing

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.

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4 Comments

Filed under New York, Style Points

4 responses to “Style Points: Public Editing

  1. I have a sneaking suspicion that the entire point of this post was to use the sorority slight at the conclusion.

  2. abbeville

    We’re not above building a whole post around a single snappy line, but not this time. Writing each day, sometimes we have to be able to toss things off unpremeditated. You could argue, though, that the point of this post was to out-pedant the pedant.

  3. Daniel Labovitz

    You miss the real problem here. Presumably, the DOT is concerned with engines left running at idle for more than 30 minutes, and not whether the driver is gainfully using his or her time (which is what is literally meant by “driver’s idling”). In that case, the proper subject for the “sentence” is the automobile’s or truck’s engine, not the driver, and the sign ought to say “Engine idling for more than 30 min. prohibited.” Conveniently enough, this construct would obviate the possessive/not possessive debate, whether perpetrated by drunken urban cowgirls or not.

  4. abbeville

    You make a fair point, although in everyday language one speaks of a driver idling as naturally as one speaks of a driver revving up (even though it’s really the engine doing both). Maybe the best solution would be eliminating the subject altogether: “Idling for more than 30 minutes prohibited.” It’s shorter, less awkward, and still completely clear. In fact, we’re pretty sure this is the version the DOT usually goes with–wonder why they didn’t in this case?

    P.S.: “Obviate” is an elegant word that we wish more people would use. It often obviates clumsy circumlocutions such as “prevent the need for.” Well played.

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