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Bad grammar makes me mad. I can’t help it.

Some of the most brilliantly funny men have the saddest personal lives. John Belushi, Chris Farley, and Sam Kinison were all preceded by Jerome Lester Horwitz, otherwise known as Curly of the Three Stooges: n’yuk-n’yuk-n’yuk. Why, soitenly the tragic life of a comedic legend deserves a great biography, and while Curly’s niece (Moe’s daughter) did her best to amass a wealth of Curly memorabilia – a mixture of written material and rare photographs of Curly’s family, films, and personal life – the book was poorly written and edited, and it contained multiple spelling and grammar errors. According to the author, “I wrote this in less than 90 days,” and it definitely shows.

If it makes your blood boil when you read prose punctuated incorrectly and containing bad grammar, you are not alone. A study from researchers at the University of Birmingham found that, when certain people come across grammar errors, their bodies respond physically. Departures from linguistic normality (i.e., errors in grammar, syntax, and punctuation) trigger a clear cardiovascular reaction – decreased heart rate variability, which may signal several potential health issues – and the cardiovascular response becomes stronger as the writing violations become more frequent.

The researchers also discovered that the physiological responses were less severe when the study subjects had to deal with grammatical mistakes spoken by someone with a foreign accent (in this case, Polish). Listening to a foreign speaker didn’t itself affect the subjects’ heart rate. That suggests participants, who were British, expected a non-native speaker to make more grammatical mistakes and were more forgiving of those mistakes.

The study was conducted so that 41 healthy, British English-speaking adults listened to 40 English speech samples, half of which contained grammatical errors. The texts were read in a native British and a Polish accent by both a male and a female voice. Participants were instructed to listen to the four different speakers in both error-free and error-ridden conditions. Listening to speech containing errors reduced heart rate variability, and the reduction tended to be proportional to the number of violations.

The authors concluded: “The observation brings into focus a new dimension of the intricate relationship between physiology and cognition, suggesting that cognitive effort reverberates through the physiological system in more ways than previously thought.” In other words, becoming upset at someone who uses bad grammar is reflexive. It’s in our DNA. It can feel like an assault on our system.

No wonder misplaced apostrophes make me angry. I live in Charlotte, home to Bojangles, a restaurant chain founded in 1977 and known for its “chicken ‘n biscuits,” now served at over 800 locations in 15 states. Fans from all over know Bojangles for their catchy tagline – “It’s Bo Time!” However, the company has been too chicken to even say where the apostrophe in its name is supposed to go. Is it Bojangle’s, Bojangles’ or Bojangles? Over time, the final apostrophe has migrated several times.

Actually, at one time, the official Bojangles logo included an apostrophe flat above the S – not before or after. “The only plausible explanation,” according to The Grammarian, otherwise known as Jeffrey Barg, “is that the restaurant chain couldn’t decide whether the apostrophe was supposed to go before or after the S, so it split the difference like splitting a perfectly flaky biscuit.”

The restaurant was initially spelled “Bojangle’s,” like McDonald’s. In its most recent incarnation, there is no apostrophe. The punctuation-free logo is clearly at odds with rules for the use of possessive apostrophes  (don’t get me started on the ‘n). To make matters worse, the “j” in Bojangles is dotted by a five-point star rather than a tittle, which is the name of the small distinguishing mark (the dot) that should appear over a lowercase i (and a lowercase j).

At least there is no confusing the restaurant with the song, “Mr. Bojangles,” written by Jerry Jeff Walker, a 1970 hit for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and a favorite of Sammy Davis Jr.’s. But hold the gravy ‘n biscuits. The restaurant’s founders did name the establishment after the song. It came to them as they were driving along the highway and heard it, according to Jackie Woodward, formerly the chief marketing officer at Bojangles. Furthermore, in an interview with The Washington Post, Woodward confessed, “What makes my job so much fun is that people do care about whether Bojangles has an apostrophe or not. It shows the passion that our customers have for our food.”

I don’t pretend to be a culinary expert or an expert in linguistics, but obvious grammar mistakes rile me. They are visible to everyone, and egregious errors indicate a lack of fundamental knowledge and/or proofreading. That’s why I am so grateful for professional editors – they’ve saved my hide countless times. One that I have worked closely with jokingly told me that she spends her time “placing missing commas” – and she wasn’t referring to Bojangles. Another editor told me she could reduce my word count by “taking out slivers [of words], like a fine surgeon’s scalpel,” and I wouldn’t notice anything was missing!

Despite his mispronunciations, Curly had an uncanny ability to instantly spell big words, such as “chrysanthemum,” if asked. The gag was that he never did it when something important was at stake. But your writing is important. Don’t become a victim of soikemstance by not asking for editorial help. Indubitably!

Arthur Lazarus is a former Doximity Fellow, a member of the editorial board of the American Association for Physician Leadership, and an adjunct professor of psychiatry at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University in Philadelphia, PA. He is the author of Every Story Counts: Exploring Contemporary Practice Through Narrative Medicine.


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