Confessions of a Grammar Nazi

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As a proofreader and editor, I get paid to care about how language looks on a page. I care about concise grammar, correct spelling, the connotations of lexical choice. I obliterate nearly every semi-colon that I encounter, because the majority of people do not know how to use them and they are best avoided.

I was making money from the fact that I have good grammar. I’m a linguist and a writer, two vocations that require a sound understanding of grammar. Language is the essential tool of my trade, so I put my pedantry to good use on the work of other people as well as my own.

Like all tools, language can also be wielded as a weapon. It can be used to exercise control or manifest power, and becomes a means to do harm. We know this from such cautionary tales as Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-four, or the very way that Donald Trump speaks about, well, anything.

This is especially true of “Grammar Nazism”, which can be defined as: the relentless maintnance on correct form, which is seen as a greater good than the content; the insistence that there is indeed a correct way to use language, and deviations from this are considered an abasement of the purity of English.

The problems of Grammar Nazism are manifold. For starters, what we consider to be “correct” language use often originates with an individual’s stylistic suggestions that are then taken up and applied across the board.

Another issue is that early English grammars were written on the basis of that linguistic gold standard, Latin. You may have come across the supposed rule of English that prepositions are not words to end sentences with. While it may be aesthetically more formal to avoid ending a sentence with a preposition (“with which to end...”), it is by all means stylistic, rather than grammatical, and comes from the rules of Latin, whereby a sentence cannot conclude with a preposition.

Many maintain that it is ungrammatical to split an infinitive, as in the opening sequence of Star Trek (“to boldly go”). There are those who would fight to the death against such a construction, despite the fact that this is also a Latin rule dragged into the English language.

This seems to be a wholly arbitrary affair. We would no more judge English by the standards of Germanic languages, even though English stems from Proto-Germanic and not from Latin.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my academic career, it’s that language is a slippery beast. To speak generally, there are two forces at play which, once you know about them, underlie many contemporary debates about language in society:

  1. Descriptivism is the approach which describes language as it is, with the aim being to understand how people use language.

  2. Prescriptivism takes as its subject the idea of what language should be. That is, it prescribes a set of ideals about proper language use on the assumption that there is a correct way for language to be expressed.

Grammar Nazism leans toward prescriptivism, toward the myth of linguistic purity. It ignores the ways that speakers actually create meaning and insists that medium is more important than message.

Ultimately, language performs a communicative function. As long as meaning is communicated, then the goal of an utterance has been achieved (insofar as anything can be communicated at all). The yardstick for language should be this function, not the exact precision with which one constructs a relative clause.

Even though I have long prided myself on knowing that “affect” can be used as a noun and “effect” as a verb (against what is generally taught about these word usages), I am wary of the way that the concern for grammatical correctness blurs into language as control.

I care about language as much as the next person, and know more about it than most people. The pursuit of “good” language, however, cannot come at the expense of disenfranchising those who speak or write outside of prescriptive norms.

I’m the first to notice a misplaced apostrophe, but does it need to be pointed out in every circumstance, or is it the case that I just want to demonstrate that I have a superior grasp of English? Is my act of dispensing grammatical wisdom simply an exercise in power, an attempt to make others feel small because of my language abilities?

Is my demonstration of language fluency at the expense of someone else, a foreigner who does not flawlessly speak English, an individual with a disability, people who were not able to access the same quality of education that I had?

These are the questions we have to ask before jumping to correct someone else’s grammar. Language use, like all interactions, inevitably takes place in a context of power, and we must be wary that we do not exploit these dynamics.

David N Rose