I wrote a post about a week ago and made a big typo. I wrote “complement” instead of “compliment”, over and over again. I do know the difference. I was tired and rushed, and I just spelled it wrong. In context, any reasonable reader would have known what I meant. Still, it was kind of embarrassing. I’ve fixed it, but it got me stewing helplessly about a mindset that I find fantastically, roll-my-eyes-and-make-gag-me-fingers irritating: the smug, I’m-smarter-than-you, finger-wagging grammar nazi. I can’t get it out of my head, so I must lance this boil. Please forgive me as I vent.
I’m not talking about people who kindly correct others, like my friend Steph who pointed out my mistake. (thank you, Steph.) I’m talking about the smug assholes who circulate smug memes about “grammar” and make smug generalized fun of folks who can’t get it right. George Takei went through a phaser of doing this, for instance, and I stopped being as interested in his ever-so-popular Facebook posts. There, I’ve said it.
I’m a recovering grammar nazi myself. As a lawyer I was a ruthless editor, especially of my own work. I felt (still do) that if your audience has power over you AND may include grammar nazis, then you ought to write to their rules so they don’t get distracted from what you’re trying to convey by something silly like a misplaced comma. But at some point it dawned on me that people who get distracted by that sort of thing are looking for excuses to be distracted, because frankly, most common grammar errors don’t really cause readers or listeners to become confused.
Here are some of the reasons I think it’s incredibly lame to be a grammar nazi:
1. A lot of the jive talk I see from so-called grammarians is actually about spelling. Saying you’re a grammar smartypants because you know the difference between their and there is like saying you’re an astrophysicist because you know the order of the planets in our solar system. Grammar is commonly defined as having to do with how words are put together in sentences. That’s a matter of syntax, structure, and linguistics, not the collection of letters one writes down to help a reader identify a word. If you focus heavily on the morphology angle, one could argue that spelling is part of the study of grammar, but they’re called spelling bees, not grammar bees. I personally wouldn’t conflate spelling and the linguistic structure of a language. Yes, I tried to use fancy words and sound extra smart in this paragraph. Right now, do you share my feeling that I sound like a smug, trying-to-sound-smarter-than-I-am wanker who’s actually full of shit?
2. If indeed your grammar nazi’ing is about spelling, odds are pretty good you’re just making fun of a dyslexic. I’m married to one, and I gave birth to at least one (jury’s still out on Nick). The dyslexic has trouble hearing the separate sounds in a word, so the phonetics of a written word make little sense without hard, ongoing training. The reading disability is also frequently accompanied by word retrieval issues and, understandably, anxiety. A dyslexic who trains her brain to sound things out feels REALLY GOOD about being able to spell a word phonetically, even if it’s spelled wrong. Then she has to wrap her head around the idea that the same-sounding word might be spelled two different ways, like too and two or it’s and its or their and there or then and than, which creates significant word retrieval problems. And also if she’s on social media she knows there’s a healthy cohort of peeps taking pleasure in putting her down. Well goody for you, grammar nazi. I hope you feel good about making fun of someone with a hard-wired reading disability.
3. Even if you’re picking on actual grammar, odds are still good you’re making fun of someone who has a legitimate reason for not being grammatically correct all the time. Maybe an immigrant, for instance. There’s interesting research on how difficult it is to “get” the linguistic structure of a language after the youthful years. As an adult you can memorize a kabillion words in a foreign language, but it’s almost impossible to gain true grammatical fluency. So if you want to pick a grammar fight, maybe you’d be well-served by trying to, say, go to China and speak Mandarin for a while, and see how it feels to have a Chinese grammar nazi call you down for being an idiot, when the actual problem is you’re from somewhere else. The grammar nazi and the xenophobe, joined as one.
Or maybe you’re making fun of someone who hasn’t grown up in circumstances where he was exposed to standard, uppity, proper English. Poverty is a powerful force, especially when it lands you in crappy schools. Making fun of people for having poor grammar, when they haven’t had an adequate opportunity to learn good grammar, is an asshole move.
Worse yet, the grammar nazi might just be making fun of someone who has an intellectual deficit, what we used to call IQ deficit or mental retardation. Not. Nice.
4. Everyone makes mistakes. Hence, hard core grammar nazis might as well lie down on their backs and spit. I have a neighbor who’s a self-professed grammar nazi. She regularly bad-mouths other people’s grammar errors. Last year she posted something on Facebook making fun of a published author for writing in bad English. In that very post, she constructed a sentence so convoluted that she had to put a comma exactly between the subject and verb for it to make sense. There was no irony or humor. It made her look like a self-righteous, hypocritical, smug boob. To me, at least.
5. If I can figure out what the person is saying to me, then in most settings I should be satisfied, because the purpose of language is to convey a message of some kind. Sure, I prefer standard English, but could Faulkner have written The Sound and the Fury in proper English without losing something?
6. It was not uncommon in my experience for some lawyers to poke fun at opposing counsel’s English in written submissions to courts. Usually, it meant the poker didn’t have enough substantive arguments to make. And most judges readily overlooked writing errors and focused instead on substance and merit. They were substance nazis. I too find that I’m more impressed by badly stated substance than well-written fluff.
I could go on, but my boil has been lanced. That’s a relief.
Listen, if you ever catch me grammar nazi’ing, you know what to do: mock me, head slap me, give me a laxative, tell me to f** off. Whatever it takes.