To the grammar Nazis: be nice

June 9, 2015

As I browsed my Facebook feed this morning I came across an article that could have generated some positive discussion. Unfortunately, however, the person who posted the article made a minor grammatical error. While some of the comments expanded on the ideas in the article, most only pointed out the poster’s flaw then left. And boy, am I glad the grammarians put that guy in his place!

Professor Frink's sarcasm detector from

“This baby is off the charts!”
image credit: gifbay.com

A common question I hear when people find out I majored in English is whether I’m a “grammar Nazi.” Maybe I just don’t know very many other English majors, or all my classmates and teachers in college were extraordinarily well-behaved, but the majority of so-called grammar Nazis I’ve encountered studied other subjects–often the STEM fields, in which everything follows a set of rules, and where problems usually have clear solutions. No, pursuing a field in the humanities has actually prevented my transformation into a grammar Nazi. It has shown me the changeable, boundless, even human nature of language, and the hearts of the people who use it.

My rant today is for those who do identify as grammar Nazis. If you’re so concerned with another person’s grammar that you have to correct it, I ask you: why? Do you like showing the world how intelligent you are? Or have you taken up a personal crusade to preserve the purity of the English language?

Consider this example:

Person 1, sweating and clutching his chest: “I don’t feel so good.”

Person 2, obviously the more intelligent of the pair: “I don’t feel so well.”

Person 2 shows no concern for the welfare of his friend. He doesn’t say, “What’s going on?” or “Let’s go see a doctor.” But he does succeed in teaching his friend an important lesson on usage, so gold star.

Luckily I’ve never met anyone who would treat somebody that way during a medical emergency, but we see something similar happen all the time in conversation–especially online. How many times have you seen someone take the time to craft a meaningful thought on Facebook, only to be met by a comment that reads something like this:

*you’re

or this:

grammar/sp check.

Maybe I missed a memo somewhere, but I didn’t know that a grammatical error could deprive someone of his or her voice. That’s what we do when we shine a spotlight on a person’s grammar: we give deaf ears to whatever the person is actually saying. We don’t listen. We don’t care. I believe disregarding someone’s words is one of the most inconsiderate things you could do to a person.

If you use another person’s imperfect grammar to demonstrate your own intelligence, what are you really trying to accomplish? Do you care more about that person’s thoughts and feelings, or the admiration you’ll receive for being oh, so smart? I haven’t taken a formal poll, or anything, but I’m willing to bet most people value kindness over intelligence. As Theodore Roosevelt put it, “Nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.”

Don’t get me wrong: I appreciate clean, professional language as much as anyone does. Accurate spelling can mean the difference between a full bowl and a full bowel. And sometimes, punctuation can change the entire meaning of a sentence. But is a little kindness too much to ask?

Photo of baby seals on a dance floor with caption that reads:

image courtesy pbenenson.blogspot.com

But maybe you’re not doing it to prove how smart you are. Maybe you really do just love the English language and want to keep it pure. If that’s the case, though, you’re out of luck anyway, thanks to a little thing called the Norman Conquest: an event in which foreign invaders seized control of 11th-Century England and Frenchified everything. That’s right–your Facebook friends aren’t defiling your beloved English; the French beat them to it a thousand years ago! And do you know what our language looked like before that? Grab your Google Translate and give this a read:

Hwæt! We Gardena in geardagum, þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon, hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.

Image of Old English Beowulf manuscript

Beowulf: the reason I laugh inside whenever I hear the words “Shakespeare” and “Old English” in the same sentence
image credit: cohort.utk.edu

That’s pure English, my friends. I’d say the French did us a favor. And our language hasn’t stopped changing. In addition to the mingling of languages that comes as a natural result of global colonization, the codification of English in dictionaries and grammar readers is only a recent occurrence on the historical timetable. If you’re so bent on everyone using “proper” English, then, who is your standard? The Queen? Noah Webster? Strunk and White? Their ideas can work in certain times and places, but they’re only opinions: different ways to navigate the muddy terrain of a language in constant motion. And with the dictionary definitions of words like literally being constantly updated in this age of rapid global communication, who’s to say the grammar “facts” you profess so freely won’t change in the coming years?

It all comes down to this: putting language in a box is about as effective as nailing Jell-O to a tree. Do you want to be the fool with the hammer?

*deep breath*

Well, I think I’ve got that rant out of my system. I just want us all to play nice–to listen to and care about each other without making it a game of “I’m smarter than you.” For everything it’s been through, our language has some wonderful words that can really make a difference to someone: “I hear you”; “I understand”; “I appreciate your point of view”; “Thank you for sharing”; the list goes on. They’re certainly more worthwhile than nit-picky comments on apostrophes and word choice.

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2 Responses to “To the grammar Nazis: be nice”

  1. orangepondconnects Says:

    I like that Theodore Roosevelt quote. And I agree that some people can go overboard with correcting other people’s grammar. Great post!


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