The ads said "run easy," but they made Kate McCulley's teeth clench.
The 22-year-old grammarian stared at Reebok's Marathon-themed posters on her commute from Somerville to Fort Point this spring, on her way to her job as a research assistant at a concierge services company. "RUN EASY BOSTON," the ads announced, inviting locals to . . . do what?
The question began to haunt her.
"Should I run an easy Boston? Should I run, and is Boston a promiscuous city?" she riffed on her travel blog, katesadventures.com. Her conclusion: "Without punctuation, we have nothing."
It didn't help her mood that she was reading "Eats, Shoots & Leaves," the best-selling book about grammar that tickles readers with its gentle wit but hits hard about the sorry state of language usage. Her copy included a packet of punctuation stickers as a do-it-yourself correction kit.
The Reebok sign should have read "run easily," McCulley observed, and it should have had a comma after "easily," before "Boston."
(Grammar note: "Easy" is an adjective, which must never be used to describe a verb, such as "run"; that task calls for the adverb "easily." A sentence addressing someone directly, such as "Run easily," must separate that address from the party being addressed -- in this case, Boston -- with a comma.)
On May 29, a memorable date for its linguistic personal import, McCulley cracked. The mild-mannered blogger ducked inside (well, next to) a bus shelter on Summer Street by South Station, pulled out her handy sheet of comma stickers, and made one small correction:
"RUN EASY, BOSTON."
She had become the Grammar Vandal.
McCulley's credentials? She's an aspiring writer who majored in English in college and grew up loving to read and spell. Her reference book? "Most of what I go by is instinct," she said, though she holds the "Associated Press Stylebook" close to her heart.
In the week after McCulley's small act of rebellion, Buzzfeed.com, a blog that tracks hot Web topics, chose her as a top "grammar Nazi" blogger. People reposted the item on the popular Newsvine blog.
McCulley realized some people did care about language -- enough for her to start a new blog, www.thegrammarvandal.com.
The Reebok ad has since disappeared, but the comma remains on the bus shelter, a vestige of the beginnings of McCulley's crusade around Boston for truth, usage, and the grammatical way.
McCulley has always noticed grammar errors, she said. The only difference is that now when she sees one, "I take a picture and post it on my blog," she said.
It's a question of standards. "It's as if we've resigned ourselves" to errors, she said. "Are we giving up everything to LOL and BRB?" (That's "laugh out loud" and "be right back," for those who are completely out of it.) She does use "LOL" in text messages but takes the extra time to tap correct grammar into that tiny keypad. "Twice as long, twice as right!" she chirps.
McCulley seems completely unfazed by the responsibility she's taken upon herself. She'll debate finer points: Should Boston RealtyNet hyphenate "full service"? And she admits even she can't be perfect. Several responses to her original vandalism blog posting criticized its grammar. She considered the points "debatable."
Nothing is immune to the Grammar Vandal's keen eye, not even the blue T-shirt she wore on a recent walk to point out grammar errors along Newbury Street. McCulley couldn't possibly walk around wearing a shirt saying "Without Me Its Just Aweso." So she took a Sharpie to the shirt, adding a comma after "me" and an apostrophe to "it's."
"Of course, I'm obsessive," she said.
On her walk around Back Bay, the grammar vigilante's judgments were sure and steady. Though Newbury Street is considered among the classiest of thoroughfares in an educated city, its signs are riddled with errors.
Newbury Visions riled McCulley with its sign for "eye exams contact lenses." As with the Reebok ad, the she felt the sign cried out for separation between its elements.
Another peeve surfaced several blocks down, at the Boloco restaurant. " 'Everyday' can be one word, but only as an adjective meaning 'usual' or 'typical,' " McCulley explained, not "each day." Boloco's sign almost certainly didn't mean to say its "breakfast burritos" are ordinary, but that they are on the menu daily.
Still, why worry when people probably understand from the sign that they can get a daily fix of tasty burritos at Boloco, or recognize the phrases "eye exams" and "contact lenses?"
McCulley bristled at the question. "Getting the idea across is the very basic, the minimum," she said.
Continuing down Newbury, McCulley pointed out a discrepancy between "Alexanders" and "
McCulley judged Avante Gard Medical Spa's name plain "wrong." (Should be "Avant-Garde.") She allowed the period at the end of "Betsey Johnson." to stand, though, citing "artistic license."
A very few stores earned gold stars. BeBe Nail & Skin Salon hyphenated "walk-ins." Co | So Artists' Gallery formed the plural possessive correctly. "That is all too rare these days," McCulley said. "It's perfect!"
What really got McCulley's goat wasn't an error here or there by a single person but mistakes made by businesses. Shouldn't they have editors to check ads and signs? She paused in front of the Madura linens store at the corner of Dartmouth and Newbury streets and pointed out a shiny, printed sign advertising a sale "On marked items only, while supplies last curent prices." (Proper spelling: current; comma needed after "last.")
Store manager Victoria Whitney sighed when asked about the sign. Madura is a French company, she said, and the sign was custom-made in France. By the time it arrived here, it was too late to fix the error.
The worst offender in all of Boston, according to the Vandal: Lush , a purveyor of earthy-yet-expensive soaps and cosmetics. McCulley directed a reporter to peek through the window at a blackboard inside. It read:
'HAVE FUN THIS IS AN ADULT CANDY STORE.'
McCulley could hardly contain her disdain. "Have fun, exclamation point; this is an adult candy store, period," she said.
All along the walk, the Vandal watched for opportunities to use her trusty comma stickers (which conveniently double as apostrophes). She couldn't reach the Alexanders sign unless she hung off a stairway. The Madura sign was behind glass. McCulley knelt and drew a connecting bracket on a
Finally she zeroed in the European Watch Co. The sign was accessible. The store was closed. And the sign read "New Pre-Owned Vintage." It was her pet bugaboo: the missing comma.
McCulley climbed up on the stone ledge and quietly adjusted the phrase as oblivious shoppers walked by. She stood back and admired the sign, which now said "New, Pre-Owned, Vintage."
"There you go," she said. "That is beautiful."
That beauty might be fleeting. When alerted to the fix, manager Albert Ganjei noticed the black stickers didn't match the white text. He might order some white commas, he said.
But the life of a Grammar Vandal can be lonely. Some friends "have stopped sending me e-mails for fear I will correct them," she said. One acquaintance followed an e-mail to her calling Mitt Romney's sons "hott" with a second message explaining she was purposely adding the second "t" to emphasize the hotness of the young men. The postscript made McCulley feel "like a monster!" she said.
Hence the blog, where she hopes to find like-minded souls.
If one passer by learns how to use a comma from her edits, McCulley said, "then I think my job is" -- she paused and corrected herself -- "well, not done."