Willful Ignorance

There’s a wonderful little village that my wife, kids and I visit often.

It has an old wooden windmill at the end of Main Street, right by the water, just above a little beach area.  There’s a perfectly dilapidated but eminently functional Municipal Building in the heart of town that enforces a strict zoning code that has kept McDonald’s and every other modern chain out of the historic district.

You can almost feel the ghost of Herman Melville walking its streets, debating whether or not to cast the Pequod off from the town’s Bay Street dock or keep closer to the facts of the real tragedy of Nantucket’s whale ship Essex.  While he chose to retell the account of the Essex’s First Mate Owen Chase, Melville shouted out with references to our town five times in Moby Dick.

Even the old grocery store that served as inspiration for John Steinbeck’s The Winter of Our Discontent churns out ham salad sandwiches at lunchtime and still flicks its lights five minutes before closing to shoo away idling customers.  You don’t have to go home…but you can’t stay here…

The literary tradition of the town has even perhaps eclipsed its place in history as an early nineteenth century whaling hub par excellence.  How many towns invest almost a million dollars to renovate and expand the local library these days?  The locals and weekenders alike can’t wait for the unveiling.

So it was with no a small amount of shock when the fam and I spotted this text on a sign posted just South of Otter Pond alongside the preferred path of a family of fowl.


If you are familiar with the book Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynn Truss, you have undoubtedly just let loose an audible gasp and are still clutching your right hand to your upper chest.

While certainly not as disturbing as the often seen “SLOW CHILDREN AT PLAY” sign—there seem to be quite a number of children with diminished capacities playing with one another—the phrase GO SLOW is, of course, grammatically incorrect.

I don’t feel bad about saying that either. Rather I feel badly when my fingers are cold. BA DUM BUM, grammarian humor…

I’m pleased to report, though, that we haven’t been the only sticks in the mud sighing past the post. Over the summer, we noticed that someone had finally had enough.  He’d taken matters into his own hands and this was the result:

For weeks we smiled past the sign—which coincidentally is just before the graveyard where we whistle—happy that all had been righted in our literary community.

And then, suddenly this:

Had someone in our town, the town of letters, gone mad? If you look closely, you’ll see that the “-ly” has been whited out.

Upon reflection, it seems rather that the old human Resistance to changing our behavior, no matter the evidence that a change is required, trumps even our reliance on the rules of language. One peek on the Internet would confirm that to modify a verb, an adverb is required, which usually simply means adding an –ly.

So to suggest that one move at a diminished pace requires that you ask that one go slowly.

It is no easy thing to change even the smallest thing contrary to what we hold to be true. To the caretaker/maker of the sign, it was far more important to keep things as they always were than to accept that he’d made an error and to allow that error to stand corrected.

A sign posted in the public interest (be careful or you’ll kill a duck) should be clear and grammatically correct. If it isn’t, then the sign is no longer in the public interest. It’s only for one person. It’s a reflection of the worldview of its creator, someone who believes that the rules of grammar don’t apply to them.

We all make mistakes.  I screw up grammar and spelling all of the time. I especially have a problem with its and it’s.  And when someone corrects me, it often pisses me off.  But we need the rules of language to be able to communicate as clearly with one another as possible.  Even with the rules, we have a terrible time of it.

Creating something just for you under the guise of creating something for everyone is disingenuous.  A sign created to inform the public about a duck crossing that does not use grammatically correct language is neither in the public’s interest nor the ducks’ interest for that matter.  It is only about the artist who created the sign.  It says “look at me and my concern for wildlife” not “here is some information to help you make an informed choice.”

Now when I pass the sign, I try and think of at least one thing I do myself that willfully ignores truths I’d rather not accept.  Things I know I should change about myself that I choose not to.

Wouldn’t you know it? I have yet to come up with a single one!

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  1. Joel D Canfield on January 2, 2015 at 6:19 am

    If the sign is understandable, it’s doing its job (and and no, I didn’t use it’s and its just to taunt you, Shawn.)

    Artists take liberties with the rules all the time. Friends do, too. How often have two friends looked at each other, uttered something completely meaningless to those around them, and erupted in laughter? Are they allowed to tell a joke that isn’t universally understood? (I think yes.)

    “Truth” is a slippery word, let alone the thing itself. Is it truth in the ultimate sense that a sign must use proper grammar? If so, why are we not discussing the complete lack of punctuation? And all uppercase? Much harder to read, and not strictly correct for a sentence, eh?

    Here’s a “truth” it took me 40 years to accept: language and everything about it is fluid, changing, living. I say if a poet or songwriter could get away with “go slow ducks crossing” we give the smalltown signmaker a pass, too.

    And now, here I am hoping I haven’t missed the joke, and become one myself . . .

    • Shawn Coyne on January 2, 2015 at 7:58 am

      I suspect my attempts at playing the grammarian Jonathan Swift have proven unsuccessful. Oh well. Your points are well taken as always.

      • Joel D Canfield on January 7, 2015 at 9:24 am

        Ah, Shawn, I suspect you know how much I respect your thought processes. Anyone who makes me stop and think wins, whether they get me to think as they wanted me to, or just to think.

        And looking through the other comments, I’d say you’ve done an excellent job at one of my favorite verbal tricks: chuck a rock into the shrubbery just to see what flies out.

    • Alex Cespedes on January 2, 2015 at 8:36 am

      I think this is a great conversation piece, and both sides have their points.

      In my opinion, I don’t mind the grammatical errors since the goal of the sign is to alert you as quickly as possible. If it makes you stop and debate the spelling, then it did its job.

    • Nik on January 6, 2015 at 1:49 pm

      Joel says pretty much everything I was going to say after reading the article.

      I would also add that, as writers, we can use the fluidity of language to our advantage, particularly in dialog and a character’s inner thoughts. The obvious example is doing your research for a period piece and writing the dialog the way it would have been spoken in that time period. Clearly that increases immersion.

      But you can also go the other way and, like a science fiction writer, predict how language might change. One writer whose work I’m extremely fond of wrote a far-future story in which a “soul” was the subdermal chip that stored all your citizenship, financial and biographical data. Movies were “disneys.” Data was “squirted.”

      Another writer who specializes in hard SF has a unique and appropriately morbid take on cryopreservation: Cryo-chambers are “reefersleep caskets”; data displays on those “caskets” are “cartouches.” It all reinforces the truth that cryopreservation is, in many ways, a state of death.

      As for the finer grammatical points, what’s flat-out wrong or distasteful today may be the norm a few years from now, to the point where the “mistake” becomes widespread enough to warrant a change in dictionaries.

      Although, Shawn, I sympathize with you and others who are bothered by grammatical errors on signage or official documents. It drives me crazy to see “over” instead of “more than,” or when I read elevator signs that advise passengers to “try and remain calm” should the elevator malfunction. But then I wonder if I’m being stubborn or if, like so many things, dictionaries will fold in those variants as acceptable usages. Either way, as Joel notes, as long as the sign is understood, it’s doing its job.

  2. Erika Viktor on January 2, 2015 at 6:46 am

    “While certainly not as disturbing as the often seen “SLOW CHILDREN AT PLAY” sign—there seem to be quite a number of children with diminished capacities playing with one another”

    This is a joke betwixt me and mine chums. We always suggest the children get a little sugar and or proper education so they can go faster and run from the cars.

    Also, I almost died when I visited the Louvre and beheld a McDonalds in the center of it. True story.

  3. Mary Doyle on January 2, 2015 at 7:13 am

    This was a timely post for me. Just yesterday my sister forwarded an email containing a lengthy list of church bulletin errors someone collected. Reading it reminded me of how much I used to enjoy Jay Leno’s “headlines.” I don’t applaud the person who corrected the “duck” sign any more than I fault the person who “uncorrected” it. Would it make a difference if you knew that the sign writer understood the grammatical rule he/she was breaking but chose to take a liberty? I don’t know – I can forgive this writer, but when I’m grading student papers I can get ferocious with my red pen.

    Thanks for a great post, and welcome back – I missed “What It Takes” over the holidays!

    P.S. Here’s my favorite church bulletin error: “Please place your donation in the envelope along with the deceased person you want remembered.”

    • Shawn Coyne on January 2, 2015 at 7:59 am

      Love that one Mary!

  4. Fredrica Parlett on January 2, 2015 at 7:43 am

    Here in my neighborhood in Berkeley, CA, home of academic excellence (and revolution) there are signs saying “Drive like your kids live here.” OK, you can’t put “Drive as though your kids lived here.” Too long and the subjunctive is disappearing. I am in favor of: “Imagine this: your kids live here.” It’s two letters longer. Any other suggestions?
    My favorite Berkeley sign, removed long ago, at a little postoffice parking lot for employees: “No trespassing except on business.”
    There is one more I see every day: No right turn on red light 4-7 pm except Saturdays, Sundays, and bicycles.

    • Drew McArton on January 2, 2015 at 9:27 am

      “Don’t drive here like my kids drive.”

  5. Jeannine on January 2, 2015 at 7:51 am

    Come on now, while the sign is grammatically incorrect, the meaning is obvious. Think about the kind spirit who cared enough about duck safety to make this sign. That’s a little inspiring dash of compassion in action, a tiny kindness that can elevate the human spirit and make us all more mindfully aware of the beauty of life in all her forms. Try talking a walk through town on foot instead of galloping along on your high horse. And gasp, I typed this with one finger on my phone and it might be filled with misspelled words and auto correct horrors. If so, please feel free to judge me harshly and overlook the point that I was trying to make.

  6. Christine on January 2, 2015 at 9:20 am

    I note a couple of errors in your posting 🙂
    See if you can find them:

    “…correct language is neither in the public’s interest or the ducks interest for that matter…”

    Best wishes!

  7. Drew McArton on January 2, 2015 at 9:40 am

    But WHY does the duck cross the road?

    • Joel D Canfield on January 7, 2015 at 9:22 am

      Drew, as is often the case, your comment made me short and chortle.

      I suspect the poor creature was fleeing the fact that its very name is the verb used to describe what cowards do.

  8. Beth on January 2, 2015 at 10:06 am

    I have a brain crush on you now. It’s official. YES! THIS!

    We protect the status quo with bizarre levels of zeal.

    This is why I love The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (the Ben Stiller version).

  9. Paul C on January 2, 2015 at 10:30 am

    The sign could be merely poor grammar, or the opening chapter of a small town murder mystery. After success of Silence of the Lambs, a small town local begins work on his 250,000 word masterpiece Silence of the Ducks. He blames some minor grammatical errors and quick judgments for the rejections. A fair reading would have noticed the Big Mo’ kicks in at the 200,000 word mark. He cunningly uses a grammatical error to catch the attention of the literary crowd that spurned him, then creates an imaginary fight on the sign that is symbolically near the graveyard…
    There have been some great articles this past year on math, literature, and creativity within form, similar to what Shawn has been writing on with Story Grid. Nautilus Magazine has an article on Russian mathematician Andrei Kolmogorov, “The Man Who Invented Modern Probability.” He created “statistical portraits” of the great poets, measuring creativity through stress deviation within the required rules. Maryam Mirzakhani was the first woman to win the Fields Medal and compares mathematics research to writing a novel.

  10. Gray Hat on January 2, 2015 at 6:15 pm

    “Go slow” is not incorrect and some authorities consider it preferable in this context. To quote from the usage note at dictionary.com, “As an adverb, slow has two forms: slow and slowly. . . .Today, [slow] is used chiefly in imperative constructions with short verbs of motion ( drive, run, turn, walk, etc.), and it follows the verb.”

    But thanks for the parable; your point is a good one, even if the example is faulty.

  11. Erik Dolson on January 3, 2015 at 6:16 am

    “A sign created… that does not use grammatically correct language is neither in the public’s interest or (nor?) the ducks’ interest for that matter.”

    A column created… that

    I think the indictment that the sign maker is saying “look at me” is overly strong and depends on too many assumptions.

  12. Erik Dolson on January 3, 2015 at 6:18 am

    “A sign created… that does not use grammatically correct language is neither in the public’s interest or (nor?) the ducks’ interest for that matter.”

    A column created… that

    I think the indictment that the sign maker is saying “look at me” is overly strong and depends on too many assumptions.

  13. Michael Beverly on January 3, 2015 at 7:46 am

    I think the point of this post was:

    Nobody wants to read your diary.

    Avoid masturbatory writing.

    And don’t try to emulate A Cold Six Thousand or Dolores Claiborne, unless, of course, you can.

  14. Linda Erickson on January 3, 2015 at 1:27 pm

    Very thought provoking. I did see anything wrong with the sign and wondered what you were so concerned about. I Also realized that all characters can only be as smart as the author. If I were writing a story and someone warned another by telling him to “go slow” then who is grammatically incorrect – the writer or the character? I liked this article because I obviously need the help. Do more like this, Thank you.

  15. Big D on January 4, 2015 at 7:00 am

    I can only wonder about the duck saver(s). Was the sign professionally painted, or was it a DIY project? Did the corrected grammar register as a friendly gesture or a rude criticism? Is the originator male or female? Young or old? Single or married? Wealthy or not? Employed or retired? And what is their ethnicity? Did one person – perhaps the wife – tell (or ask) another person – perhaps the husband to take duck-saving action? Did a duck have to die first to warrant the posting? Was the intention to warn, admonish, request, demand or simply inform bird watchers? I’ve painted a picture in my mind of the little house where the elderly (fill in ethnic background) couple lives. It’s enshrouded by cedars with a slow moving stream that meanders through the leaf strewn yard. She votes democrat and he watches a little too much Fox News, preferring to eat ducks than feed them. But to keep the peace he made the sign in his garage and got mad when it was corrected. Besides, that was the last piece of scrap plywood he had. Thanks for the morning detour, Shawn.

  16. JoAnn on January 8, 2015 at 7:57 pm

    Actually I’ve often heard “go slow” and spoken it myself, mostly around kids. Direct. The Freedom Fighter inside also likes the rhythm, the ring and the rhyme. Thanks for the fascinating grammar lesson and conversation!

  17. Anne Neeb on January 9, 2015 at 11:49 am

    My the signmaker didn’t have enough ink for “ly”.

  18. Jeffrey L. Taylor on January 10, 2015 at 10:25 am

    Grammar doesn’t matter. Until it does. It is hundreds of miles between West Texas and West, Texas. I ask, “Is there another (correct) interpretation?” Is it likely to be misunderstood? I don’t see another interpretation of the original sign.

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