What a Grammar Nazi does not see

The goal of this blog is not to be a Grammar Nazi.

Plenty of folks out there already think of themselves as self-appointed Grammar Nazis. I have some issues with this policing of language:

  • It promotes public shaming.
  • It focuses on grammar as aesthetics and pedantic enforcement of rules (rather than meaning).
  • It obscures common grammar mistakes that are held to be correct.

My goal, then, is to create an opportunity to discuss language – its usage, its limitations, and its beauty—through an array of shorter and longer essays.

On the issue of public shaming

Most of us have witnessed public shaming. On social media, for example, someone’s grammar has been taken to task in an almost abusive fashion. I am not a fan of public shaming. Public shaming does more to stroke the ego of the one doing the shaming than to edify the one who has been “corrected.” I think public shaming is nothing more than an attempt to quiet marginalized voices. It is cruel and, often, unmerited. If someone is sharing his/her thoughts on a subject, and the idea is clear, does using the wrong its really matter all that much—especially enough to discount an otherwise well founded argument?

(If it makes you feel better, good for you; you know the difference between it’s and its, but the incorrect usage rarely affects the overall meaning.)

On the issue of aesthetics

What many Grammar Nazis fail to see is that grammar is an aesthetic (often bourgeois) as much as a set of rules. We all have pre-conceived ideals and judgments. Grammar is often used as a litmus test to determine education, class, and intelligence of the person we are speaking to.

Many common mistakes, however, are simply accepted by the masses, while less common mistakes allow one to be judged as inferior (i.e. less educated, poor, simple). For example, most people wouldn’t bat an eyelash when someone says “between you and I” but cringe when someone says, “We was.” Both are incorrect. The latter, however, is viewed as a mortal grammar sin and the former as venial.

This classist view is often used to silence or discredit already marginalized voices. Someone from a less privileged background can be intelligent with complex, creative ideas. In fact, isn’t being a “classless” society supposed to be one of America’s virtues?

Grammar is a means to help convey thoughts clearly and systematically. If a thought is conveyed by someone with “poor” grammar, but the thought remains clear, then correcting becomes pedantic. The merit of the idea should be judged, “correct” grammar notwithstanding.

Having good grammar is wonderful. Discounting the thoughts of someone who does not is a character flaw.

On the issue of common grammar mistakes

They say, “What goes around comes around.” If you set yourself up as a Grammar Nazi, you also set yourself up for scrutiny. No one likes public shaming, and everyone makes mistakes.

I have seen many grammatical errors in the writings/posts of those who have referred to themselves as Grammar Nazis. This is a wonderful caveat for those public shamers out there: you could be victim to a public shaming.

Conclusion: Why grammar still matters

English is a fluid language, which is what makes it fun.

We can turn nouns into verbs. “I’m going to Mean Girl her.”

We can change the meanings of words. “Ken got hosed in the divorce.”

We easily adopt useful words from other languages. “My Weltschmerz overwhelms me with Schadenfreude.”

Fluidity also allows for poetic license and “rule breaking” within creative writing. Great literary works get away with fragments and run-ons, and, if written by Faulkner, incoherent, time-bending sentences.

As stated above, grammar functions to help convey ideas clearly and systematically. This is a necessary role in any language. Standardized spelling and structure help us understand one another and, in fact, attempt to express more complex ideas.

The role of grammar needs to remain a tool to help us understand each other, not to silence those who fail to follow a few rules.

Note: Adrian is a reformed Grammar Nazi who hopes to help others in their recovery from this social malady.

9 Comments Add yours

  1. Sandra Schroeder says:

    I’m so glad to hear that you are a reformed Grammar Nazi. LOVE YOU!

  2. rthdrthd says:

    The thing about letting incorrect grammar slide is that it’s a slippery slope. Unless it’s corrected constantly, grammar has no point. It’s a law for using language properly. Laws work only if constantly upheld and corrected. If we didn’t constantly fix people’s mistakes, we may get to a point where the same thing could mean two different things to different people. Grammar was codified to standardize the meaning of language. If we give up on that, there’s no reason to have grammar in the first place. Compare it to criminal law, for example. If we were to stop punishing criminals and instead gave them a scolding and justified it by saying, “it gets the point across,” laws wouldn’t work, would they? It wouldn’t deter criminals from unlawful behavior and would simply perpetuate the notion that it’s okay to perform criminal acts. At the root of it, this is the same reasoning behind why “grammar nazis” feel the need to correct improper grammar. If we let it slide, it causes other people to think it’s okay to use grammar improperly. That, in turn, validates people’s beliefs that language is what you make of it – which it is not. If person A says something to person B, person A could be saying X but person B would interpret that as Y. This is a problem because it results in miscommunication and in situations where clear communication is necessary, this could lead to catastrophe. Of course, in our daily lives we can often correct this type of miscommunication, but why introduce unnecessarily convolutions into language we already know has the facilities to convey what you’re trying to say? It devalues the very tool we are using to communicate. And not to mention, causes endless tension on internet forums.

  3. Kit says:

    First of all, rthdrthd, your response evinces that grammar and meaning are not necessarily the same—and should not be conflated—as you and I both read the essay with different understandings. Of course, this is axiomatic among linguists and literary theorists: language is rarely reliable insofar as a single text can be read as many ways as there are readers (cf. Barthes, Derrida, Wittgenstein, etc.). Your analogy, moreover, struck me at first as base and meaningless. After having reconsidered it, however, I now feel it is apt. After all, many Grammar Nazis identify with the metaphorical eponym; in other words, the moniker is not imposed. You argue that some extant purity of language must be enforced, and you further liken it not only to a criminal but also a penal system—much like actual Nazis were in pursuit of some sort of purity. To follow your analogy, I would argue that language, like law, should be (and indeed is) fluid and flexible, changing considerably over time and space. Lastly, I didn’t get the sense that the essay attempted to dismiss grammar, just petty and unnecessarily strict imposition of grammar as a means to silence and/or embarrass those who might not have learned it. After all, grammar is only but one tool in effective writing and communication. Yet, it is not a natural or neutral given. Instead, it can often act as a shibboleth—and a powerful one that works to exclude. Coherence of argument is the most important factor in communication, and proper grammar does not necessarily ensure that.

  4. Alicia Carla Simpson. says:

    If modern linguists, like Noam Chomsky or Steven Pinker, are right, when speaking our primary language, we really can’t mess up our grammar, it is innate not learned. So grammar nazis, as well as being nasty, are also usually wrong.

  5. mfiresmith says:

    Whilst I agree with your thoughts that public shaming is a hobby for some people who ought to be called “Edit Nazis” if anything you have to admit that there is a woeful lack of content on the net which is well written. Great writing does not overcome bad grammar, poor spelling, or just plain sloppy work. I’m the world’s worst editor and I can tell you many a truly well thought out piece of work has gone down in the flames because the mistakes made were a distraction.

  6. Mark says:

    “I should of . . .” instead of “I should have . . .” “I spoke my peace . . .” in place of “piece”, are two of the most recent errors I can recollect. These are errors. They are correctable errors. It is in the best interests of everyone to write with clarity. When I call this to a persons attention, it is to inform, not demean (well, most of the time. There are some posts so egregiously bad that one is tempted to ask “Where did you receive what you hope passes as an education?”) If this causes people to marshal their thoughts and make a better effort to communicate, then that improves the discourse. Spelling does count. English is a fluid language. But that doesn’t mean that you should be splashing it incorrectly in the eyes of your hoped for audience.

    1. Denise Oelschlager says:

      Interesting everyone! oops! I’m sure that must be wrong. HAHAHAHA oops probably another mistake. Frankly I don’t care. I know what I want to say and those that care enough to over look oops! think I make another mistake…a misspelled word or two or a “,” here and there are my kind of person. I am a imperfect person living in a imperfect house with two imperfect dogs and a loving imperfect husband and most importantly a IMPERFECT! world (I am sure I screwed that up to) Oh hummm let me think what to is it “to” “too” hum thinking still. This is not a college class and we are not writing for a “A” or “C” or “F” on are grammar it’s Facebook. OOPS!!! did it again I’m sure. I know someone who I can barely understand what he writes. But because I know he was living in a house who’s mother hated him because she hated his father it didn’t matter that he could barely write or read and lived in beautiful “choke” Florida with a school system that didn’t care either. I forgive him and make an effort to understand what he is saying. HE KNOWS!!! all to well this is a problem but has the courage to write on Facebook anyway and I give him all the credit and dignity he deserves. I’m sure you are all wondering. What “color” “high school ” bingo!!! ya man that is my schooling . I am 64 yrs old never could spell for …… have worked my whole life, have 3 children and 6 grandkids. Very happy with myself and life. Don’t worry about “grammar” for sure. Life is short get over it everyone. There are far more important things to focus on besides peoples grammar. Enjoy your day everyone. I will be enjoying a peaceful day with my husband and dogs.

  7. I’m glad to see my original post is spurring discussion. So that everyone knows where I stand, I will attempt to restate my main points succinctly.

    First, I believe that “Grammar Nazis” often use correcting grammar as a means to attack a point they disagree with. It’s easier to attack grammar than to argue a valid point. And, often, Grammar Nazis do little more than look at spelling and basic punctuation anyway.

    My second issue is publicly correcting someone’s grammar is gauche. If you really want to edify, offer a bit of advice in a private message. You can help someone without the world knowing and without shaming the person.

    Further, I draw a distinction between grammar and meaning. To be sure, grammar can clarify meaning. But that is not always the case. For instance, if I write: “hi” or “Hi.”, one still knows I am saying hello. Conversely, two grammatically correct sentences could follow one another, but if the second repeats the meaning of the first, the second sentence is still redundant. Writing is so much more than grammar.

    Finally, I am not chucking grammar out the window. I dislike when someone writes everything like a text message. I generally write all Facebook posts and emails with capitalization and punctuation—because it clarifies meaning and eases reading. I wish everyone did that. I, however, am not willing to disregard the views of someone who does not. I feel it would be a personal flaw. Not everyone has my education or background. That doesn’t mean s/he cannot have valid points, insights, and world experiences that I can learn from.

  8. Rene' Shaw says:

    All grammar corrections are not so punitive as the author attempts to convey!!! I do not equate attempts to correct grammar as “discounting the thoughts” of the writer… if the thoughts are unworthy of consideration, I would think one would simply leave them be, and not pursue further. It is when the thoughts are indeed felt to be worthy, but not in proper grammatical form, that one might feel the need to correct. This may make the thoughts more worthy of other folks’ consideration, that might otherwise discount them for the aforementioned grammatical inaccuracies… no “ill will”, no attempts to “silence”… it’s sometimes done BECAUSE of the worthiness of the thought!!

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