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.”
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.