It's just three missing letters on a grocery store sign. Can to canned. Noun to verb.
But the mistake is truly flustering some 11- and 12-year-olds in Ms. Hawkins' English class at Brown Middle School. From what they have learned in class, the aisle directions at some local Bi-Lo grocery stores are incorrect.
The signs should not read "can vegetables." That would mean the vegetables are made of cans, their teacher told them. "Canned vegetables" is the only appropriate descriptor.
So the students are calling for a reprint of the signs, said Katie Hawkins, who has been teaching English, language arts and reading for 20 years. Twenty one of her students hand-wrote letters and sent them to the Bi-Lo management. They haven't heard from the regional chain just yet, but they expect good news.
Henry Edwards, the manager of the Highway 58 Bi-Lo, said he got the letters from the students and hasn't decided how to react. He'll have to let the corporate office see the complaints and let them decide. It doesn't seem like it should be that big a deal, he said, but if the community is concerned, that's a problem.
"I do care," he said.
But when you add letters to a sign it will make the font size smaller. That could make it harder for elderly shoppers to find their way, he said.
Malcolm Tutton, a 12-year-old who says Ms. Hawkins has taught him "apostrophes, commas, the whole nine yards," said he's standing for "canned" for the kids coming behind him.
"If they had to write a paper at school and said 'Bill had can foods,' that would be grammatically incorrect," he said.
Why should any child be marked down for copying the sign of a grocery store? he asked. Adults should know these things.
Kaitlyn Lewis is 11. She likes to write a story each month about how her month went. And she writes stories for her brothers and sisters because they've read all the books in their house. She said she just wants more people to be grammar nerds.
"Words are here to be spelled right," she said.
Her friend, Amanda Wallace, also 11, agreed.
"Well, grammar is an important thing in society. If we didn't have grammar we wouldn't be able to spell right," she said.
Isaiah Pittman 12, is an easygoing boy who likes to play outside and watch SpongeBob SquarePants on TV, but he said he wants to give some straight talk to Bi-Lo.
"It's wrong! So just fix it," he said. "It makes me not want to buy their food and vegetables."
The signs at Bi-Lo have been a pet peeve for Hawkins for years. She's always been on a kind of grammar warpath. At school, she makes sure the students speak properly. She's had a long-standing beef with the Times Free Press over quotation marks and book titles. She's written Time magazine about its use of "loaned money" instead of "lended money."
Language changes, they responded. The point is that meaning is communicated.
"I pretty much gave up. I didn't get much results," she said.
She's just hoping getting the students involved will be a win-win, she said.
The exercise may have seemed pedantic, but it was important. They learned the art of letter-writing. They learned to dissent respectfully. They learned how to make their opinions known. They learned more about grammar, she said.
"I am hoping (Bi-Lo) will think it's cute."
Contact staff writer Joan Garrett McClane at email@example.com or 423-757-6601.