Curbing the Grammar Nazi

I admit it: I am a sociodescriptive prescriptivist.

For the better part of several decades, I have been a self-described Grammar Nazi, a fanatical grammar snob. While I never reached the heights (or depths) of those similarly obsessed who wield black Sharpie pens and bottles of White-Out to vandalize bus-stop advertisements and wall-mounted eatery menus with their copy edits, I have long half-admired their antics and the required ballsiness to perform them that I lack.

It’s not entirely my fault; I am a product of my upbringing. As an infant, I attended school with my mother at university as she studied to be an English school teacher; it is certainly possible that it was there that I absorbed the proper use of the oft-abused apostrophe, the serial comma, the lonely semicolon. In my early teens, while perusing a menu at whatever neighborhood Asian restaurant or pizza parlor we happened to dine, my Dad and I would race to locate such classic dishes as “rorsted chicken” or “side of rice and scorn”, a practice I continue today with my own son. But before even that began in earnest, I was forever ruined by my first-grade teacher.

I am a product of two continents — while I was born in the United States, I spent my formative years in England. As bad luck would have it, I was teased in England for my youthful American accent, and mercilessly teased upon return thanks to my pronounced British accent. I couldn’t win. Accent aside, I learnt to write in British public schools, not American ones. My first-grade teacher in the United States consistently gave me poor marks for spelling. One rueful day, fed up, I confronted her in the middle of class. Angrily, I pointed at each of the red-checked words, “What’s wrong with them?” Each, she huffily explained, was misspelled. No, they weren’t, I insisted. I grabbed the dictionary from her shelf and proceeded to show her every “misspelled” word. “If they’re in the dictionary, they aren’t spellt wrong, are they?” I asked with as much haughtiness as I could muster. The word amongst is the one that I still vividly remember to this day. While archaic even back in the ’70s, at least I had used the American spelling. Unfortunately, even though she was clearly wrong, my teacher refused to back down. A grammarian was born.

A few years ago, I hit rock bottom. Omitted (or extraneous) apostrophes or incorrect capitalization distracted me so much that I was frequently compelled to physically shield my eyes from the wall-projected offenses during business meetings in order to rely on aural input and deflect my focus back to the import of what was being meant, not what was incorrectly written. The errors became truly offensive, beacons of putrescence, literally screaming at me in rabid, frothing glorification of their unjust but undeniable existence. Just as an alcoholic must first admit they have an addiction before they can truly begin to loosen the shackles, the admission that I, too, was an addict — a grammar addict — was the first step. I am still in recovery.

I used to highlight so many errors on resumes that crossed my desk that they had more yellow pockmarks than a fair-skinned, green-eyed redhead has freckles on a sunny Irish afternoon. With admission of the addiction came slowly a slight softening of strict standards, beginning with the realization that it is less important which standard is used, as long as any standard is consistently and appropriately used. Today, unless I’m hiring a professional writer, my standards are much more relaxed. I am much more likely to forgive an engineer for incorrectly listing “JAVA” in his list of programming language skills, as long as he is consistent in the mis-capitalization. A development manager who refers back to his work experience “in the 90’s” might still proceed to the interview stage as long as he is consistent in his mis-use of the apostrophe. That said, a marketeer who spits out 140-character tweets with “u” or “2” in place of “you” or “to/too/two” may not display such inappropriate grammatical disregard when posting a status on Facebook, whether corporate or personal.

My cousin Meg recently reposted on Facebook a link to an article that catapulted me significantly across the chasm of recovery. The author, Mary Rolf, also a self-proclaimed grammar snob, recounted her own moments of epiphany that “changed [her] whole outlook, not just on grammar but also on the social impact of language.“, and solidified my own loosening standards in concrete terms.

There are two schools of thought when it comes to how we should use language. One is “prescriptive” and it’s backed by grammar snobs and the kind of people who froth at the mouth over the decline of “the King’s English”. The other is “descriptive” and it’s more about accepting that how people use language is how language works. A prescriptivist believes in the idea of standard English and sees mistakes everywhere. A descriptivist sees many englishes [sic], and none of them are standard.

Descriptive linguistics is the objective analysis and description of how language is (or was) spoken by a group of people in a community, without the bias of preconceived ideas about how it ought to be. On the other hand, linguistic prescription, predominant in education and publishing, seeks to define standard language forms and provide subjective guidelines on the appropriate use of language. While prescription and description are complementary, descriptivism is the belief that description is more significant or important to teach, study, and practice than prescription. A grammarian must understand and conceptually embrace the two linguistic schools before attaining the optimum compromise of “sociolinguistic prescriptivism” — prescriptivism based on the application of socially relevant descriptive linguistics.

What that mouthful means in plain English is to apply the rules of grammar and vocabulary using standards dictated by the social setting. How people use language is how language works, especially socially. Twitter imposes an artificial constraint that impacts adherence to formal language standards, establishing its own unique norm. The Pavlovian leg-jerk responses generated by mobile messaging typically belie formality. Socialeconomic, educational, anthropological, and cultural factors also impact use of language. Teens unconsciously recognize this intuitively; emails or messages they send to their parents or teachers are generally less informal than those sent to their BFFs.

Description is sinking in, although it has a Titanic’s chance of being unsinkable as it does entirely replacing prescriptivism. It’s now OK that my boss makes spelling mistakes while we’re informally collaborating on the overhead. It’s OK that the five-year mission was to boldly split infinitives in the name of entertainment. It’s OK that my Ukrainian-born daughter with less than four years’ exposure to English informally texted me that she was waiting for me and “siting on the bench outside”. It’s OK that I used “less than” in the previous sentence instead of the more traditionally correct “fewer than” because it is contextually and socially appropriate. It’s OK that in the name of artistic licence, I sometimes spelled spelled as spelt and othertimes spelt spelt as spelled since spelled may be spelled spelt or sometimes spelt spelled, depending on which English is being writ at the tyme.

Yet the average grammar snob is wholly prescriptive, afflicted with the inability to make or accept these social distinctions — myself not unrecently included. Lurking behind that mask of affliction is the knowledge that the English language is being socially changed by the ever-increasing population of people that don’t know any better, don’t give a dåmn, or it’s not their job to care. Grammar Nazis see themselves as the last bastion of proper English, crusaders in a losing battle to educate the uneducated, to carve out some perfection in an imperfect, chaotic, changing world in which the current form of English is being flavoured by the homogenous melting pot of an increasingly universal language. The author of a formal publication should be literally boiled in oil for the slightest of grammatical errors, any comments appended with an unsolicited “You’re welcome!” as if the literary offenders must also be educated on the necessity of gratitude, like it or not.

However, grammarians must avoid the parallelling stigma of the KKK or the Nazis, and accept sociolinguistic prescriptivism such that usage of formal English is much like the usage of formal clothing. Just as one should not expect their cardiologist to show up in surgery unshaven and wearing a dirty, holey T-shirt, one also should not expect their gardener to mow the lawn wearing a Caraceni suit. Conversely, on his days off, the surgeon can don his bathrobe and slippers on his front lawn for all I care. In the words of Robert Randolph and the Family Band, “Ain’t nothin’ wrong with that.”

I will leave you with this final philosophical thought experiment: If a grammar snob comments on an article, have they contributed anything meaningful to the conversation?”