Every once in a while I like to press my spectacles up the bridge of my nose, point my index finger to the ceiling, and pontificate on matters grammatical. I don’t think of it as grammar Nazism. I prefer calling myself a snoot, a term from David Foster Wallace’s essay “Authority and American Usage,” from Consider the Lobster. The snoot is a more playful breed, a beagle to the Grammar Nazi’s German shepherd.
Because this type of liberal elitism is more forgivable in persons raised in it than it is in persons who adopt it for some social pretense, I will share that when I was a child, my father started a hobby for us—that is, for my brother and me. A kind of game. A paper sport. We kept a list of homonyms.
It was not a contest, it was learning disguised as a challenge—to see how many my brother and I could come up with. We wrote them down and kept the pages in a manila folder in the dining room cabinet, where the family photo album were kept.
So: an attention to literal precision is part of my lineage and I can’t be blamed for the impulse that had me noticing this sentence in a Reuters story yesterday about Plan-B, the morning after pill:
“If taken up to 120 hours after unprotected sex, it is designed to prevent pregnancy.”
That’s an unmistakable dependent clause, and an erroneous one at that. A pill’s design cannot be dependent on its applicaton or administration. Even the janitors at the FDA can tell you that. I suspect that the writer, in a bout of overthinking or perhaps ruefully recalling personal evidence to the contrary, decided to skirt claims of efficacy altogether. Caveat emptor (buyer beware) in regards to the 1.5 mg levonorgestrel tablet, but also now caveat lector (reader beware), in regards to Reuters.com.
It reminds me of a sign I see every time I fly. “In consideration of your fellow passengers, we encourage you to wipe the countertop with a paper towel.” Every time I’m in that aerial john, I want to cut that sign with a tin snips (it’s embossed metal), and rearrange it to read: “We encourage you to be considerate of your fellow passengers and clean up after yourself.” After all, while the airline crew’s passively encouraging us to be tidy is considerate, the truly considerate thing is to actually be tidy. In all things, actions trump words. But when actions fail, snoots of the Strunk & White school prize directness of speech. “Don’t be a slob,” would be even better.
Even though the president okays it for 15-year-olds, not many mothers will be encouraging their daughters to take Plan-B, though some will. It is perhaps the most morally implicating product in any pharmacy right now. I wonder if its existence and its availability would be less politically contentious if the Reuters sentence were true: when sold, it does nothing. Only when taken (within 120 hours after unprotected sex), does it do the thing that some cannot condone.