Why Grammar Nazis Need to STFU

There’s nothing cute about desperately clinging to the finer nits of adverb use and misuse, and there’s nothing noble about publicly shaming people for grammatical gaffes and typos.
Publish date:
March 11, 2013
etiquette, shut up, annoying, grammar

We all have that one friend. You know the one –- she rants and raves about the great tragedy that is the widespread abuse of the English language. She posts vague, vitriolic Facebook status updates complaining about “some people” who say lay when they mean lie. Her OKCupid profile says something like, “People who don’t know the difference between they’re, their and there need not apply.”

These self-proclaimed Grammar Nazis nobly carry the mantle of single-handedly combatting comma errors for the greater good. It can be a little endearing, that honorable adherence to the rules and regulations of everyday language.

But it can also be absolutely, totally infuriating. There’s nothing cute about desperately clinging to the finer nits of adverb use and misuse, and there’s nothing noble about publicly shaming people for grammatical gaffes and typos. And social media has only amplified the militaristic, self-congratulatory voices of the Grammar Nazis of our generation.

As a reformed Grammar Nazi myself, I feel justified in saying this to the bombastic pedants among our peers: STFU. No, really. Do you see mathematicians walking around harping on other people's inability to perform complex algorithmic analyses? Or artists rudely critiquing office workers' memo pad doodles? No. No you don’t.

Why is that? Maybe it’s because English skillz are so very accessible to a Certain Kind of Person. The kind of person who got a fancy liberal arts education. Perhaps, even, someone who studied something like comparative literature, English or journalism. And then found themselves in the sort of situation that one might expect after receiving such an oversaturated and undervalued degree –- un- or underemployed, or working at a job where their apostrophe aplomb will never net them a promotion.

Operational English may be table stakes for many jobs, but unless you’re a career copy editor, hyphens and serial commas won’t get you far in the world. For this reason, I suspect most Grammar Nazis are just using their bitter complaints about split infinitives and misplaced participles as a way to turn their mostly useless skills into that most coveted of social media boons: The Humblebrag.

In a desperate attempt to justify their choices (a career in print journalism! a pathological need to define themselves as “Writers” with a capital W! a desire to live in expensive yet dirty cities!), they climb atop the pedestal upon which they’ve placed their spelling and grammar skills, and snidely look down on those toiling sellouts and plebes who, occasionally, after a long day, will take a load off and lay -– not lie -– down on the couch.

Woe betide the innocent Facebook friend of the Grammar Nazi when this occurs: “Surely you meant lie on the couch, right?” Or, perhaps, a monosyllabic correction. Or maybe something sarcastic and mean-spirited. The worst, though, is when a Grammar Nazi™ chooses to subject her entire Internet audience to a vague, angry status update:

“Anybody else annoyed that so many people seem to use the word "foilage" when they mean "foliage"?”

Is the Grammar Nazi™ truly curious how many of his or her Facebook friends are also annoyed? No. They want the world to know that they and only they know that there is a difference, and their intellectual standards are so ethically superior that the mere transposition of letters is a moral affront to the purity that only they can bestow upon the language.

The oh-so-scientific Urban Dictionary definition of Grammar Nazi may be the most accurate:

One who uses proper grammar and spelling to subtly mock or deride those who do not; an exhibitor of grammatical superiority.

I used to do this, because I am kind of an asshole sometimes. I blithely drifted through life, casually correcting people’s grammar during casual conversation and remaining blissfully and arrogantly clueless as to why people thought it was annoying. I was trying to help, after all. Right?

Nope. I had a freshly-minted degree in journalism and to hell if I wasn’t going to lord my superior word-nerd skills over every poor sap I came into contact with. If I couldn’t use my education to secure a living wage, I’d be damned if I wasn’t going to use it to win points and frenemies on the cocktail party circuit.

While proper spelling and grammar is all well and good, pointing out linguistic shortcomings in others to gain a twisted sense of superiority is the grown-up equivalent of the elementary-school playground put-down. If there’s no immediate impediment to understanding or threat to professionalism, there’s no point.

Most situations don’t call for precision beyond what’s needed for basic mutual understanding, and no one likes unsolicited advice -- whether it’s directed at an individual or the ether that is the Internet.

So, Grammar Nazis of the world: Resist the urge to correct. You may be RIGHT, but that doesn’t make you right.