The Joys of English Grammar

Up front, I’ll confess I’m a bit of a stickler for grammar.  While I fall short of correcting stranger’s obvious mistakes, people really do sound uneducated — or downright stupid — when they can’t be bothered to learn their own language properly.  I’ve certainly just thrown away resumes from job candidates who didn’t manage to get the basics correct in a document that represents them, and business communications where rules of grammar are violated make me cringe.

When I was a typesetter (back when it was done optically, if you can imagine) I was known for getting out an Exacto knife and physically repairing mismatched “who” and “whom” usage, or replacing well abused words such as “aggravate” and “moot.”  This led quickly to my promotion to copy editor, the knack of which has served me well through the years.

While on a shuttle bus near Midway airport, I sat behind two businessmen, traveling together.  One of them was telling a somewhat boring story that I barely listened to, but my ears naturally perked up when he used the phrase, “… we had so little time, we literally had to run to the baggage claim …”

At this point, his companion interrupted him.  “Literally?”

“Yes, literally,” his friend repeated, and attempted to explain, “we didn’t have much time at all.”

“Oh good,” his friend interrupted again.  “I was afraid you were using ‘run to the baggage claim’ in the metaphorical sense.”


“Well, you know, when you’re sitting at a large dinner party, and you say ‘I’ve got to run to the baggage claim’ by way of polite explanation for why you’re leaving all of a sudden.”


“Sometimes I’ll be petting the dog and say “RUN TO THE BAGGAGE CLAIM, BOY!” but of course I don’t mean it literally.  There’s no actual baggage claim within miles of my back yard, and it would be rather silly to expect my dog to make it through security by himself.”

“I’m not sure I …”

“Last time my wife and I got back from Mexico, we checked bags and I was going to pick them up while she waited on the benches.  She said ‘don’t run to the baggage claim!’  We laughed and laughed for hours.”


“We had plenty of time, of course.  It’s not like I literally had to run to the baggage claim.  But after that long flight and that airplane food, I sure had to figurativelyIf you know what I mean.  It’s not like I could ‘run to the baggage claim’ in front of all those people.  That’s what made it so funny.”

“I don’t think I …”

“Well, the problem is that it’s nearly lost its meaning.  Like when we play tennis and the ball lands on your side, I can’t just say “the ball’s in your court” without adding the word “literally” or you might think I’m speaking metaphorically.  Like yours is the next move or something.”

“I think you’re splitting hairs…”

“There’s another one!  I walk around with a sharp knife, carefully slicing the ends of these hairs, and yet when I tell somebody I’m ‘splitting hairs’ they think I’m making some sort of meaningless distinction!  All the time I’m splitting hairs in a literal sense!  That’s quite a distinction, you’ll have to agree.”

“I didn’t mean literally that way…”

“Oh, right, you must have meant ‘literally’ in the metaphorical sense.  Where it serves as a sort of vague intensifier and a way of needling people who take ‘literally,’ literally.  Well, to heck with those people, I say.  If you want to ensure that the person you’re talking to knows that you really, really, ran for the baggage claim, feel free to jam in any word you want.  I recommend ‘irregardlessly.'”

Best.  Bus ride.  Ever.


The Haunted Olive Garden

Years ago, my wife and I noticed a new Olive Garden in an area we passed by many times.  We’d been by many times and hadn’t seen it, so we reached the conclusion that we either hadn’t noticed it before, or it wasn’t there.  There were people outside and the doors were open, and it was dinnertime, so we parked out front.

A surprising number of staff were standing outside smoking, which seemed odd only because it was dinnertime, and there were at least a dozen people apparently on break.  They watched us with mild curiosity as we walked through the open doors.

Inside, a woman behind a counter was calling names into a microphone.  Despite this, there didn’t seem to be anybody actually waiting, so we walked up and asked her if it would be possible to get a table.

“You mean you want to eat?” she replied, with an odd mixture of surprise and dismay.  I could see into the dining rooms, which were full of people who were, in fact, eating.

“Yeeees,” I said slowly.  I suspected it was a trick question, but wasn’t sure how else to answer.

“Just a moment,” she said, and disappeared into the back.  She came back in a moment or two and said, “yes, we can actually do that.  Follow me.”

We were seated immediately.  Every table in the dining room seemed occupied, and dinner was decent but uneventful (as one might expect at the Olive Garden) with the exception that we had three waiters and waitresses, all of whom seemed particularly nervous.

As we were finishing our desserts, some of the diners around us were already paying for their meals.  With Monopoly money.  This struck me as weird enough that I looked carefully around the dining room.  The few people who weren’t paying with Monopoly money were paying with plastic — black cards that said “credit card” in white block letters.

“I think we’re in trouble,” I said to my wife.  “I only brought real money and credit cards.  Maybe there’s a toy store nearby, I can run out and get some money to pay with.”

We watched in fascination as other people paid and left, usually leaving Monopoly tips on the table.

In a moment, a man walked up to our table and explained:  “This is a training day in preparation for our grand opening, we don’t actually open until next week.  As our first customers, your dinner is complementary, with our thanks.”  He said this last part a bit louder, and the entire place burst into applause.

They were still applauding as we left.  As we got into the car, I looked back to where the staff had been standing earlier — they had been in front of a large sign that said “CLOSED.”