When I went recently with friends to a bespoke restaurant in Spokane, I hadn’t decided what I wanted to eat when the waitperson came to take our orders because, well, I was sputtering mad.
Most of the choices appealed to me, and I’m so sick of chowing down on Cheez-Its and diet root beer that going out for dinner, even at Subway, is a treat. As one who perches triumphantly atop the food chain, I have zero food restrictions. I’m pro-gluten and eat meat as long as I can cherish the illusion that it comes on a plate and not from an animal. The only foods I don’t care for are avocados and bacon (go ahead, call me perverse), and kale, which I find the most self-righteous of vegetables. But I won’t be rude and pick out things not to my taste if they show up in a dish.
At this restaurant, the problem wasn’t the food. It wasn’t the ambiance, which was elegant, if a little loud. It wasn’t the waitperson, who was efficient and not cloyingly friendly; he didn’t squat to chat with us, go on about his crummy adolescence or call any of us “honey” or “sweetie.”
No. My issues were with the menu. I muttered, “I can’t believe this.” I asked, “How can they think this is OK?”
My friends realized what had upset me when I asked for a pen.
The listings of house-made sauces and locally sourced provisions contained numerous linguistic errors. There were misspellings, typos, Germanic capitalizations and necessary hyphens that had gone MIA.
Yes, this bothers me more than it should.
So, I started thinking about why.
I want to believe that this restaurant would not send out a wine glass besmirched with lipstick traces that had withstood the dishwater. The chef would never intentionally produce a dish crunchy with eggshells or use chervil when the recipe called for chives. It’s of course possible that those unfortunate events might occur; we all make mistakes.
This was not the first nice dining establishment whose menu I’ve defaced with a copy editor’s pen. At authentically “ethnic” restaurants, for example, it can be a hoot to point out howlers; we don’t expect non-native speakers to get everything right. But chefs and front office managers should learn which way the accent on chèvre leans, or that pavé looks naked without one. They should memorize how to spell cappuccino and broccoli, accommodate and Caesar.
When we’re out of our areas of expertise, we should recognize that, and at least check with our little friend, Google. Microsoft and Apple can make nonsense of our prose with their bossy spell-checker, their hilarious autocorrect substitutions and their bullying insistence on capitalizing the first word after a line break. These mistakes can be easy to miss. For me, at restaurants, the errors matter less than the fact that no one cares enough to make sure the menu is as good as the food.
Here are some keys to writing correctly and well: Care enough about the language to make sure you get it right. Look up the spelling of any word you’re uncertain about. And have someone else check your damn work.
As a professor, I’ve learned no longer to be shocked when students come to graduate school to study creative writing and make childish mistakes in grammar. If you say you love to write, it’s likely I won’t want to read your stuff. Writing well is hard, hard, hard, hard, hard. It requires as close attention to detail as making a soufflé.
But, the ability to write well serves you in every profession, including, yes, being a baker or a police officer or a beekeeper. It’s also an essential part of our democracy. To participate as citizens, we must be able to make our voices heard. If you want to comment about why I’m wrong about this (or anything else), or claim that menus should be grammar-free zones, you will be more convincing if your own prose is not riddled with embarrassing blunders. And if you want to be persuasive – to change policy, dispute a bill or get a date – it’s in your interests to care about your sentences. Grammar and spelling conventions are about clarity as much as anything. Don’t make the reader try to read your mind.
If you haven’t reviewed the rules for a while, do yourself a favor and score one of the zillions of used copies of Strunk and White’s little book, “The Elements of Style.” Get the edition illustrated by Maira Kalman; it’s adorable.
And, for the record, any restaurateur who wants my editorial help can have it for the price of a comped meal. A barter economy makes loads of sense to me: We each contribute things that are easy for us to do, and are valuable to the other. I will find your linguistic infelicities if you make me linguine.
Rachel Toor is a professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University. She is the author of one novel and five books of nonfiction.
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