The Compulsive Copyeditor

November 11, 2009

Am I a “Grammar Nazi”? [UPDATED]

Filed under: grammar — amba12 @ 10:12 pm

That’s probably what Mike Masnick at techdirt would call me.  According to Masnick, most people who presume to correct your grammar are motivated by a desire to lord it over you and rub their class and educational superiority in your face.  Masnick at least implies that grammatical correctness, especially when pursued with zeal, is elitist and antidemocratic, and that as long as understanding is adequately transferred (ah!  there’s the rub!), language has done its job:

There are times […] when I feel that the strict “rules” that are put forth by grammar go too far. If the text makes the point in a way that people can understand, what is the problem? […] So I’m glad to see an English professor taking on the grammar nazis.

Salon is running a review of a new book by English professor Jack Lynch, called The Lexicographer’s Dilemma, which argues that grammar nazis should chill out. Grammar rules are mostly to make people feel elite, not to make them any clearer, according to the book. Again, I have no problem with basic grammar rules for the sake of clarity, but focusing too much on the rules over the clarity is a mistake, and it’s nice to see at least some “experts” agreeing.

(To my relief, plenty of people defend grammar in the comments.)

In Salon, Laura Miller, reviewing Lynch, hits even harder on the theme of class warfare:  grammarians artificially Latinized English in the 18th century, because only the upper class learned Latin; later, linguistic Emily Posts served immigrants and arrivistes for whom a veneer of class was the price of admission.  And Miller is with Lynch in affirming the utilitarian standard of comprehensibility, as if once the minimum comprehension mark is hit, any further refinement can only be for the sake of snobbery:

Many of the most roundly deplored “debasements” of English are nevertheless perfectly comprehensible […]  The only truly unbreakable rules of grammar and usage are the ones that, when broken, result in a genuine failure to communicate. The rest is a form of covert class warfare, and today’s usage reproofs constitute a status-protecting thump on the head delivered by the upper middle class to uppity members of the lower middle.

Thinking of the grammar wars in this light helps explain why they provoke such rage. Much as some people might detest seeing the noun “impact” used as a verb, if a lot of people say it and almost everybody understands it when it’s said, then a coup has been effected. The “verbing” of nouns (or the creation of “nerbs”) has been a flashpoint for the past four or five decades with the growth of business management lingo. Complaints about this point to a particularly American social fissure: between the cultured sensibility of the liberally educated and the can-do utilitarianism of striving MBAs.

In other words, practical people — the “silent majority,” the millionaire next door — use language as a tool and care only that it gets the job done.  Effete elites may also use it as a tool, but it’s a heavy-duty carbon steel Smith & Hawken tool with a European ash wood handle “certified by the Forest Stewardship Council” as “sustainably harvested” (S & H just went out of business, by the way).  Good grammar today is a fetish of taste, a flaunted price tag (on one’s Ivy education), an accoutrement out of Bobos in Paradise, like lining your shower with slate.

The trouble is, utility versus quality is a false distinction.  Any tool does its job better if it is well-designed and durable, no matter if it comes from Smith & Hawken or Wal-Mart.  People will tolerate bad grammar and the resultant blurred and blunted comprehension — and even take pride in its proving them the salt of the earth — who wouldn’t use a crappy hammer on a second nail; who have long since insisted on getting Blu-Ray and HDTV for their precision and clarity.  Language, too, is a technology that transmits images, along with ideas, emotions, information, and stories.  Why would you tolerate its being out of focus?  (For example, take Masnick’s “Grammar rules are mostly to make people feel elite, not to make them any clearer.”  He’s only writing a blog post, and we know what he means, so why carp?  BECAUSE I’M A FUCKING GRAMMAR NAZI, THAT’S WHY!  “Not to make them any clearer” is just not very clear.  It requires a bit of extra labor from the reader to be sure that “them” refers to people, not grammar rules, and that it is not really the people, but their expression of their thoughts, that is not being made clearer.  No, indeed it is not.)

It’s telling that Miller’s and Lynch’s examples of snooty grammar rules — don’t split an infinitive, don’t end a sentence with a preposition — have long since been abandoned and even scorned by the professional style manuals.  Chicago Manual of Style:

The traditional caveat of yesteryear against ending sentences with prepositions is, for most writers, an unnecessary and pedantic restriction. As Winston Churchill famously said, “That is the type of arrant pedantry up with which I shall not put.” A sentence that ends in a preposition may sound more natural than a sentence carefully constructed to avoid a final preposition. Compare Those are the guidelines an author should adhere to with Those are the guidelines to which an author should adhere. The “rule” prohibiting terminal prepositions was an ill-founded superstition.

Yes, grammar cops can be obnoxious.  (They’ve even terrorized people into new errors, like the “meophobia” that has led inexorably to “He gave it to Joe and I,” which is to say, “He gave it to I.”)  But it may take some of the sting out to look at us as grammar technicians, perfectionist Mercedes-Benz mechanics keeping the language inspected and tuned up, ensuring that the constant change it undergoes does not degrade, and even enhances, its performance and style.  It’s our shop talk to debate which mistakes matter, which don’t, and which, like the possessive “it’s” — or using “like” for “such as” — will eventually be embraced as improvements.

UPDATE: And maybe “who’s” in place of “whose,” too, as in this comment on Althouse:  “In today’s victim society, politics is all about who’s self-interest gets served.”  It sounds illiterate now, but it is in fact logical.  Apostrophe s signifies the possessive.  It’s even almost an ideograph of the possessive, with the apostrophe standing for the link between owner and owned, like a little hook to hang your pot on.

What will never be smart is sticking apostrophe’s promiscuously wherever you see a final “s”, including on plural’s.

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8 Comments »

  1. I raise a right arm to you tonight Amba: Grüß Gottlieb!

    Bad taste puns aside, the whole “language Nazi” idea is just part of the PC movement to debase the culture. Didn’t Orwell warn of the insidious dangers of sloppy language, especially regarding political consequences? I can’t expound on this better than you did above-I think the whole notion laughable.

    Let’s not confuse simplicity of grammar, and the attendant loss of nuance, with making life simpler or more fair.

    Yours (as always),

    Chickenlittle

    Comment by El Pollo Real — November 12, 2009 @ 4:42 am | Reply

  2. Hail, El Pollo!

    Funny that you should say it’s PC, because in Laura Miller’s hands it seems to be a kind of Ayn Rand, Sarah Palin PC. Interesting to think there is such a thing — a kind of reverse PC “valorizing” (to use a pretentious academic word) the can-do entrepreneur with his (or her) lack of pretension, and praising her (or his) awkward self-expression as a sign of authenticity.

    Comment by amba12 — November 12, 2009 @ 10:01 am | Reply

  3. Speaking as a repeat offender of grammatical rules, I believe we should freely forgive each other’s grammatical trespasses (and I am grateful to those who forgive mine) without ditching higher ideals.

    To do otherwise will eventually just lead to babble.

    Comment by El Pollo Real — November 12, 2009 @ 3:44 pm | Reply

  4. It is logical! According to my OED of Etymology, “whose” is the genitive case of who (whom is the dative). I’m pretty sure that nouns ending in consonants used to have “es” ending which got elided to ‘s; I don’t know what the rules were for nouns ending in vowels. I’ll bet Theo Boehm would know.

    It’s interesting that case declensions largely disappeared in English (being replaced by word order) but we kept the genitive case ending; German seems to be losing the genitive usage rather than accusative or dative endings.

    Comment by El Pollo Real — November 13, 2009 @ 11:03 pm | Reply

  5. I don’t know nothin’ ’bout proper grammar.

    However, I’ve never thought of “it’s v. its” as a grammar problem so much as a typo. The same goes for “who’s v. whose”. (Now, I’m never sure whether that period should go inside the quotes or not, but it seems clearer outside, as the quote is not the entire sentence.)

    It’s sentences I read where the writer clearly has no idea what he’s saying that drive me nuts. The most prevalent example is “intensive purposes” for “intents and purposes”. That’s not a typo and I suppose it’s not exactly bad grammar, but it makes me question anything that person writes.

    Y’all keep writin’ ’bout this stuff and I might learn somethin’ though.

    Comment by Donna B. — November 15, 2009 @ 7:09 pm | Reply

  6. There are a lot of mishearings like that, some of which are so universally used they’ve almost entered the language. I’m trying to remember the one that drives me so buggy …

    Comment by amba12 — November 15, 2009 @ 7:19 pm | Reply

  7. But how can someone make that mistake simply by mishearing? It ultimately means they have not idea of the meaning of any of the words involved?

    Grammar perhaps technically means using the proper word form in its correct place… but if one has no idea the meaning of a word or phrase (cliche) then what are they trying to say?

    Another one that drives me nuts is “make due” for “make do”. Is there no understanding of the meaning of “due”? What about “tow the line” and “toe the line”. I can understand where “tow the line” could be confused for “carrying water” but… doesn’t that lose the meaning of “toe” the line?

    Proper usage of cliches should be a required college course.

    Comment by Donna B. — November 15, 2009 @ 10:53 pm | Reply

  8. Proper usage of cliches should be a required college course.

    LOL! I was going to bring up “tow the line” but I’d have been repeating myself. I’m still trying to remember the one that bugs me.

    Comment by amba12 — November 15, 2009 @ 11:30 pm | Reply


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