Dear Grammar Nazis everywhere

First of all, if you are going to be a grammar Nazi, and I don’t recommend it, you must first know grammar. Holding up meetings to freak out over comma placement when you’re wrong does not make you a detail-oriented maverick protecting the language from sloppy usage, it makes you a twit. An obnoxious twit. I’d go so far as to say that you’re a twit for freaking out over it in the first place, but I can conceive of scenarios where it’s not quite true, so I won’t.

Secondly, and please understand that I mean oodles and oodles of disrespect when I say this, when you take your copy-editing to grammar Nazi levels, all you really accomplish is inserting your head progressively farther up your rectum. The formal rules about written grammar are important in order to facilitate clear communication. I’m a linguist by training so I am not going to pat you on the back for being a prescriptivist about grammar. Prescriptivism has its uses, particularly since it helps standardize language so that larger populations that might otherwise diverge into mutual incomprehensibility don’t, or so that I know how to indicate precisely what I mean when there’s potential for ambiguity, but there’s nothing sacred about your mighty rules. Language changes, deal with it and grow up. Furthermore, several of the prescriptivist rules are based on such arbitrary things as, “You can’t do X in Latin. Latin is the language all savvy educated people speak. Let’s apply Latin’s syntactic restrictions to English so we’ll sound savvy and education when speaking in our vernacular,” which become particularly silly when English has usurped Latin as the lingua franca. Conforming to such rules at the expense of brevity or clarity is bad when doing something that requires both.

Thirdly, and this one’s really important, you are destined to lose. It’s a fact of life. Netspeak is here to stay. I don’t use it myself for the same reason I didn’t take up cussing until college (at which point I developed quite the fondness for it); i.e. I think the people using that variety of language are idiots trying way too hard to be cool/trendy/grownup/cutting edge and I don’t want to be associated with them. I can read it, and if it catches on with people I don’t consider airheads, I’ll probably adopt some form of it. Bam, you lose.

You cannot educate teenagers into putting the vowels back into their text message repertoire. You can teach them about the difference between writing for casual conversation and your high school research paper, and I think you should. That’s where clarity is important, and grammar is helpful for ensuring clarity. However, the generation that grew up on voweless texting will have different standards for what’s necessary in order to obtain that clarity, and your precious rules will take a beating. This is not a bad thing; it’s life. If you want to find somebody who’ll commiserate with you over the damage wrought by the onward march of time, take it up with an Amazonian rain forest frog. Little things changing and disappearing forever is actually life and death for them.

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3 thoughts on “Dear Grammar Nazis everywhere

  1. I’m going to jump in here and defend Latin. Grammar’s a lot easier to pick up when you do have a solid framework to start with, which is really easy to get out of a language where the grammar is encoded in the words themselves. Besides, what else are we really left with as English speakers? Sentence diagramming?? Trial and error? That’s a bleak way to educate someone.
    Furthermore, the grammatical rules of Latin lend it something that spoken languages often lack: elegance. Of course I know it only sticks to it’s rules by being dead, and really only surviving in written form, but this is the sort of elegance that appears also in mathematics and music, other similar codified forms of communication. Hell, even programming. I’m not saying that perfect English is what everyone should be using, but I don’t approve of its persecution. Does that make me a nazi?

    • Nowhere in there did I attack Latin. I don’t have issues with or feel hostile to Latin, and I agree that its grammar is pretty darn cool. I also said, quite clearly I think, that I don’t have a problem with there being formalized rules for written English when they serve a function, and I would think that teaching English is a function.

  2. I don’t use it myself for the same reason I didn’t take up cussing until college (at which point I developed quite the fondness for it);
    Really? Ditto. I saw someone my senior year that I hadn’t seen in three years and he asked me when I started cursing. I hadn’t even realized it.

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