"But You're RUINING The Language!"; Grammar Nazis Are Kind of Jerkfaces, Plus A Few Tips

If grammar never changed, English speakers would still be kicking it Shakespeare style. FORSOOTH, that would probs suck. Plus, a coupla tips from me to you.

Dec 6, 2012 at 1:00pm | Leave a comment

By now it should be obvious that I'm pretty unashamedly a nerd. I love literary theory and jury duty and Star Trek. I love octopuses and jewelry made of computer parts.

And, as a professional ruiner (sarcasm), I love grammar.

When I first started professionally writing and editing, I kind of took this for granted as a thing that probably most writers and editors were into. I mean, when you work with words, constructing them so that they clearly communicate meaning is a big deal.

But, oh, this was not the case, my friends. Our very own Emily, in fact, declares herself to be "post-grammar." [THERE IS NO GRAMMAR IN THE FUTURE. PREPARE YOURSELF, OLDS xoEmily]

I don't actually know what that means. Except maybe that I am not post-grammar. I'm in the weeds of it on a daily basis, in fact. And I'm happy here, rolling around in clauses and pronouns and the UK/US differences in treating double punctuation when a sentence ends with a quotation mark.

I just kind of turned myself on thinking about this, y’all. Unf, words and the ways they relate to each.

But this also isn’t about to turn into a rant about “those people” who screw grammar up. Because it’s really common to rail against people for “ruining the language” but, uh, if you didn’t know? English is about as pure as your average Magical Family. That is to say: It ain’t.

It’s not that I don’t understand the frustration some people feel when it comes to folks who don’t ride the standard grammar train (heh, ride). For people who care passionately about language and meaning, it can be hair-tear-outingly painful to read some of the more creative efforts that grace the intarwebs (or, you know, student papers).

But what sort of ruiner would I be if I didn’t yank that sense of superiority-based glee away from folks who know their grammar rules?

Here’s the deal: back in “the day” -- by which I mean the late 15th century -- people started trying to codify the rules of English. Most of those rules were heavily borrowed from Latin.

This led to my single favorite sentence on Wikipedia: “The yoke of Latin grammar writing bore down oppressively on much of the early history of English grammars.”

You might notice there that “grammars” is plural. That’s because English, being a varied and inconstant lover, I mean, language, has been described by a number of different rule systems and this goes back to when we were first sitting around going, “So, listen, let’s talk about declensions.”

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You could do it the other way round but how are you going to keep Chewie contained in the meantime?

For the curious: declensions are the inflections given to nouns, pronouns, adjectives, and articles to indicate number, case and gender. Don’t worry, there won’t be a quiz.

Obviously, we were speaking (some form of) English before we had a formal and documented grammar -- usage is what often determines the “rules” when it comes to language. The thing is that writing rules down does not force usage into a kind of stasis. That is to say: the grammar that we use today is not the grammar of the fifteenth century because the English we use today is not the English of the fifteenth century.

Language is a living beast; we change it and adapt it to suit our purposes. We borrow words at will from other languages, turn proper nouns into general purpose verbs, and otherwise bend English to fit whatever task we need it to perform.

Because I AM a professional communicator, I do think it matters that we all generally operate within the same system of rules for conveying meaning. But I also recognize that not everyone has to be as well versed in the dominant rule system for language as me -- and that not every situation necessitates strict conformance to those rules anyway.

What do I even mean by that? I mean that while grammar was a cornerstone of my rural/suburban Georgia public school system education, these basic rules are not so rigorously taught in all places. And even where they ARE rigorously taught, any given student might not be the kind of giant nerd who decides that diagramming sentences is awesome fun for a Friday night. (Don’t you judge me -- my Friday nights are phenomenal.) And, in fact, those rules are more applicable in an academic or business setting than in a text message one.

It’s worth noting that we are generally speaking pretty comprehensible English (if that’s our first language) well before we ever begin a formal study of its grammar in school. Our usage is what comes first. We learn language structure as an embedded thing -- we learn how sentences are formed by listening to those around us, by absorbing the natural patterns of language in actual use.

This is really pretty awesome when you stop to think about it. Language acquisition is amazing.

My language acquisition was hugely influenced by books, both because my parents read to me and because I learned to read at a really young age. But it was also influenced by my regional surroundings. This is why, when I am drunk, a switch is flipped and my very Southern accent comes out. This is also why you can pry words like “y’all” and “ain’t” from my cold, dead hands. It is also also why, especially in casual speech with my family or other people who speak with the same rhythms, I wind up falling into sentence constructions that get made fun of during “you might be a redneck” routines.

These things are not, strictly speaking, operating outside of grammar like linguistic rebels (rolled shirtsleeves and cigarettes, narrow trousers and pompadours). Nope, these things are usually part of internally consistent, alternate grammar structures. It’s a thing! It’s pretty wicked cool!

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Strictly speaking, Leia did become a Jedi in the Star Wars novels.

A great Internet example of this is LOLspeak. Those damn cats have their own rules about sentence structure and spelling. We know when something doesn’t SOUND right even when we can’t put into words why. And that’s actually how, I think, most people manage English grammar, too.

We trust in the things we’ve absorbed naturally, not the rules we learned by force in school.

And that means that some people use dialect that is totally correct grammar for their context. And it means that some other people just don’t have a damn clue.

Given the world we live in, I am too stingy to give you three guesses as to who usually hangs out in these groups of people. I’ll just say: if you guessed poor and ethnic populations, you win! Because, yes, linguistic prescriptivism -- trying to force other people to conform to what you regard as the most correct way to navigate language -- is generally applied to those populations! The best part -- by which I mean the most racist and classist part -- is that linguistic prescriptivism is used to completely discount what members of these populations have to say. (You know I’m thinking of AAVE here, right?)

The common term is Grammar Nazi -- and, you know, that’s not actually a compliment. Nor is it a badge of honor for you to wear because you are, like, the last defender of the sanctity of English or something.

You might think it’s actually my job, as a professional editor and dream crusher, to bash people about the head and shoulders with the rules of semicolon use. (I love semicolons.) But it’s actually my job to make sure people’s writing conforms to a set of agreed-upon rules WITHIN A SPECIFIC CONTEXT. Those boundaries are actually really important -- in no small part because there are no agreed-upon rules outside of the most general when it comes to places online.

Despite the Internet being largely made of written communication, it’s not reflective of formal Standard English grammar. That’s one of the good things about the Internet, believe it or not; everyone gets to participate, like a real democracy. If someone says something you don’t understand or think is phrased incorrectly, that’s OK! Because it isn’t like they signed a contract to communicate in a specific grammatical fashion. And if they're using a different grammar or just plain getting it wrong, well, that's OK -- it's conversational English in written form.

Even professional writers screw up the Standard English thing!

While I recognize that linguistic prescriptivism is used to bar people from elitist circles, I don't think the solution is to abandon grammar all together. I think precision of communication can be vitally important in some cases (see: legal contracts where a misplaced comma can cost you thousands of dollars). Recognizing the validity of other grammars and the applicability of each in any given situation seems like it would go a long way toward getting us off our formal Standard English grammar high horse. 

Within a context where people are supposed to use an agreed upon grammatical system, there are still better ways than mockery to handle mistakes. Making fun of someone doesn't actually fix their misuse or teach them the solution. (And this is probably a good spot to say if you're making fun of someone who is an ESL speaker, you're just a plain old jerkface.) And, really, editors exist because even people who are good at grammar make mistakes. (It is, in fact, an inalienable outcome that rants about grammar will contain at least one grammar mistake.)

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"To go boldly," just doesn't have the same ring to it.

With all of that in mind, I still find myself wanting to offer a couple of tips that reflect confusing issues I've run across lately. Because that's the other half of this -- we have to keep agreed-upon grammar accessible to people.

1. Speak what you type. Putting thoughts into words is often really hard for people. How would you speak what it is you want to say? Say it out loud and then type that -- because early language acquisition is about what you hear, you'll often wind up with a typed up comment that makes sense even if it doesn't follow all the official rules you were taught in school.

2. Weary and wary are not the same word. These aren't quite homonyms because they are spelled differently but -- while I'm willing to bet the person typing the comment knows the right meaning -- they are often plugged in backward. Weary means tired; the "wear" part totally fakes some people out because you expect it to sound like "I wear some pants" or whatever. But the Y changes everything. Wary means cautious, suspicious, distrustful; the "war" part makes people think it's said like "worry." Spelling is jacked up. This is just one of those you have to remember.

3. Semicolons are used two different ways. The first use is to separate two complete clauses -- you'd usually use a period but the semicolon relates the thoughts more strongly to one another. The second use is as a super!comma -- cape and all. This is handy when you have really complex lists. Thing is, you can't combine the uses -- don't use a semicolon to separate an independent clause (a complete sentence) and a dependent clause (a fragment).

4. English is order dependent. Because we don't really have declensions in modern English (I'll stop the world and decline with you?), we're largely dependent on word order to tell us who is doing what and to whom (or what) in a sentence. There's a lot of playing around that can be done with sentence structure, but if in doubt, there's no shame in going back to your basic "subject followed by verb" structure. Then you know you've got a complete sentence, too.

5. Seriously, it's OK to split an infinitive. This is one of those old school things that formal writers still do frown on. But in casual situations? The best example is "to boldly go" -- there's a lot of dramatic impact in that split infinitive and there is no confusion as to the meaning. If it's good enough for the crew of the Enterprise -- well, let's just say it's the grammar of the future. I'm down with that.

What are YOUR grammar pet peeves? If you've got grammar questions, I might have some grammar answers. Maybe. And there still won't be a quiz.

Marianne is talking about her favorite punctuation marks (comma, semicolon, parentheses) on Twitter: @TheRotund.