GUNNISON, Colo. – To most of the people who know her, Jessie Flynn is a normal young woman. When she’s not working, she enjoys skiing, playing video games, and going out with her tightly knit group of friends in this idyllic mountain town. What they didn’t know until recently was that Flynn spends many hours each night helping strangers appear less stupid.
“I knew she liked reading,” said Frankie Bliss, a friend from high school. “She always came across as pretty smart, and from what I remember, she got good grades. But still, I’d have never thought she was capable of this. Wow.”
Flynn, a 24-year-old waitress, has been using her precious free time to do what few others can: doling out precious composition corrections — for free.
While most young people are watching “Breaking Bad” or sending tweets, Flynn sits at her computer for upwards of three hours every night, scanning the comments sections of dozens of websites, from CNN to her local newspaper. When she notices someone has made a mistake — whether it’s using “myself” instead of “me,” or misplacing the apostrophe in “the women’s organization” — she copies the mistake, highlights it, and posts the sentence anew, free of the offending error. And she doesn’t even insult the dimwit who wrote the post.
Then she’s gone, back into the night of cyberspace.
Flynn took care to mask her identity, going so far as to call herself the “Strunk Junkie” — a reference to William Strunk Jr., one of two authors of “The Elements of Style,” a canonical guide to proper English usage. Flynn also created a phony Facebook page stating she was a 45-year-old man who taught high-school English in Denver.
To many airheads whose pauperized phrasing was charitably corrected by Flynn, she was a mysterious internet angel, a saint who gave and gave, but never asked for anything in return.
One such grateful recipient is a ski instructor named Derek. He said his posts on the Gunnison Country Times website were like magnets to the Strunk Junkie, who seemed to have a sixth sense.
“There might be an article about someone who got Lyme disease from a tick, and I’m really into the outdoors, so I might write ‘this could of been avoided…’ and bam, there was the Strunk Junkie, telling me ‘could of’ should be ‘could have.’”
Even for those whose writing is nearly flawless, the existence of someone like Flynn is a cause for celebration: proof that correctness and precision can, and will, triumph over the savage anarchy of language run amok.
“I can’t even begin to tell you how annoying it is seeing people make really basic mistakes,” the blogger and grammar activist Monica Bruch wrote in an email. “And it’s not only me. A lot of people get pissed off when they see someone write ‘your being a douche’ instead of ‘you’re being a douche.’ Just because a lot of written communication is online and anonymous doesn’t mean it should sloppy.”
“It’s such a relief to know that some brave hero is out in the trenches, the artillery fire of dangling participles zipping above, and there she is, schooling the unschooled,” Bruch wrote. “To you, my liege, I offer my most humble admiration.”
Within grammar activism circles, a few radical elements are calling for severe measures to deal with what they say is not mere sloppiness, but a sign of an increasingly disheveled society that is incapable of expressing itself without sounding like a drunk two-year-old. Petitions, such as one currently being circulated by the Society of Syntactic Rectitude, demand that citizens be given a grammar test before they are allowed to vote. Other groups are calling for grammar internment camps for anyone who is too stupid to avoid misplacing modifiers.
Studies do show that errors in writing — whether grammatical or orthographic — can carry grave consequences. For the writer of impoverished prose, peers may consider him daft, gormless or a host of other British barbs. For the reader, facing a surfeit of errors can cause hypertension, mania, headaches and an overwhelming sense the future is bleak.
The Strunk Junkie was unmasked last week after she accidentally posted a message — which was meant for her real Facebook page — in the comments section underneath an article about Colorado cuisine. The post said: “Hey guys, my birthday is this Friday. Party! Theme: flappers and gangsters. The address is [xxx].” It didn’t take others long to do a reverse search, which led to Flynn being outed as the Strunk Junkie.
“I was always getting help with ‘who’ versus ‘whom,’” said Derek, the ski instructor. “I could count on the Strunk Junkie to come to my aid. I swear, sometimes I thought he had an alert system to tell him whenever I posted something. He was like, always there.”
When asked for his thoughts about the Strunk Junkie turning out to not only be female, but an acquaintance of his from Colorado’s western slope, Derek smiled. “That just goes to show you. There are more heros in the world than we know,” he said.
Flynn didn’t respond to requests for an interview, but her friends say that in light of her generous acts, they wouldn’t be surprised if she continued her crusade.
“Maybe we’ll join her,” Bliss said. “We should all do something to help destroy the blight of error-laden prose. As the saying goes, ‘You don’t live in a world all alone. Your brothers are here, too.’”