Dear Grammar Nazis, your doing it wrong



I am perplexed by grammar Nazis. Mostly because I used to be one. You know all those terrible and stupid things you did when you were an idiot kid, and now looking back you can’t believe how much of a dick you used to be? That’s how I feel about my former grammar hang-ups. I mean, used to spend so much time judging and correcting people, I actually thought that I was defending language. I thought that the people who misused language were the abusers, mutilating language with their selfish stupidity. I’ve since come to believe that I was the abuser, the selfish, judgmental, controlling, abuser. I used my knowledge and supposed love of language as a weapon to put people down and make myself feel better in the process. And now, well, what can I say, I’m embarrassed and ashamed. And I’ve learned to love language in a much healthier way.

The problem with your average grammar Nazi, is their basic misunderstanding of language itself. It’s the delusion of every fundamentalist to believe in the pure state of the thing they want to protect.  But language has no pure state. There has never been nor will there ever be one English. In its earliest stages what became English existed as a number of different dialects spoken amongst the Germanic tribes living in what is now England and Scotland. Standardization of the language only started as power across the different kingdoms began to consolidate into one England. Unsurprisingly the version of the language which became the standard was the dialect of the people who ended up with the power. The standardization process is a mixture of arbitrary decision making and circumstantial factors. It is not that one type of English is superior to the other, it is that one has the appearance of superiority and legitimacy by virtue of its proximity to the powerful, and this is the one that gets taught as the standard.

In truth, our view of what correct language looks and sounds like has much more to do with politics and wealth than it has to do with the virtues of the language itself. A few hundred years down the line in England, the Norman invasion had its infamous effect on us adding the massive French influence which makes our language the confusing mess it is today. It had this effect because it was the language of prestige, the language of government and the courts. The country only shifted back towards English after years of rebellion and unrest forced the Monarchy to legitimize its own “Englishness” there by legitimizing its right to rule. But even this change wasn’t totally a victory for the common people it was the result of the presence and pressure of an English speaking upper class.

It was when I began to study how languages evolve and the politics behind this evolution that my linguistic hang-ups first became repugnant to me. I don’t think I’m overstating things when I say that control of language is a weapon of oppression. Think about it this way; if the language of the courts, the language of the job market, and the language of education, is also the language of the powerful; then control of the language is part and parcel with control of access to jobs, education, and justice. In light of this, consider how the linguistic features which are most hated and judged are often those from across class lines.

And language’s change. They do. It’s only natural. There’s no stopping it. They change because we use them and because we change. The fact that languages evolve with us is not something to complain about, I personally think it’s cool. And yes, the changes seem ugly to us now. But, you know, Picasso was called ugly, so was Constable.

There’s a certain lack of vision and persnickety fuddy-duddyness about the slang haters. I don’t like text-speak either, but I am fascinated by it. For instance, some text shortcuts are no longer simply acronyms they have become full-fledged morphemes in their own right (e.g. lol) and this has been achieved in such a short amount of time. That’s so cool! I don’t get what it is people are afraid of actually, of course text-speak will effect language but it’s not going to override it entirely. That fear just doesn’t make any sense, written language doesn’t have that kind of clout against spoke language. Anyway, young words are like young worlds growing up in front of our eyes. If you’re not amazed by them, then I just don’t think we can be friends anymore.

So those are the academic reasons behind my change of heart, but there’s also the decency factor.

It’s just a disgustingly flip name, Grammar Nazi, particularly since there are those who willfully identify by it. Genocide and the defense of the oxford comma should not be comparable. In part, I believe, that this name is deemed acceptable to most people due to the absurd overuse and misapplication of the term ‘Nazi’ which has lead to its devaluation as a word. It now means something closer to ‘dogmatic’. In this particular case I also think that there is a correlation, perhaps subconsciously, being draw from a common pathological pursuit of purity.

The Grammar Nazis ostensibly believe in linguistic purity or sanctity, but what we should really call it is linguistic chastity. What they want to protect is the pristine, untouched language of their elementary school text books. They don’t want language to be sullied by the uneducated making mistakes, or worse still making it up into something ugly and new.

You’re ability to instantly know that I typed a conjunction meaning ‘you are’ rather than the possessive ‘your’, as I should have, makes you a lucky person who has had access to education and if you’d like to lord that over me go right ahead. But I for one don’t know what you feel like your accomplishing other than calling attention to you’re knowledge and my lack of knowledge. Not to seem anti-intellectual here, not at all. But if we have education, we must realize that that is a powerful thing and we must learn to use that power for good, not evil.

(See this video of the masterful Stephen Fry explaining everything I’m about to write about, but far more eloquently than I could ever hope to type it).

There is this distraction from the beauty of language and education perpetuated by these pedants who claim to love their language. It is that same misunderstanding of love that I wrote about when I was discussing anti-fandoms. Love builds, it does not suffocate.

Language should not be a virginal inapproachable goddess, it should be possessing of all the passions and wild untempered emotions we use it to express. It’s not necessarily that there’s anything wrong with knowing it’s ‘it’s’ not ‘its’. It’s that, if that is the extent of your relationship with language you are missing out on so so much. Education gives us the ground work, it’s like the scaffolding, but we should not be a satisfied with the skeletons of knowledge and experience. We should build, expand, express, and explore. If a few participles are dangled and a few apostrophes misplaced in the process, is that really the worst that can happen?

There is a reason why we have this idea of ‘magic words’. We have known since we first evolved it that the ability to use language is powerful. With language we are given the gift of conceiving beyond ourselves, of understanding one another deeply and richly. We are able to decorate our lives with stories and songs. We are also able to destroy each other with our words. Don’t fall into the trap of pride which makes you eager to tear people down and unwilling to love freely.

Language is our tool, it’s ours we made it, we own it. Let’s use it more creatively, not less. We, the language lovers, should want to inspire people to love language in the way that we do. We should be so overflowing with appreciate for this precious gift that our linguaphilia spreads to everyone we meet. I think we’ll find that goal a little easier to accomplish just as soon as we put away the red pen.

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