Grammar Nazis

by maxmosher

I’m sure there’s mistakes in this post. Grammar Nazis may discover a run-on sentence, a comma-splice, a missed-placed dash. A typo might rear its ugly head. “Ah ha!” the Grammar Nazi exclaims, as he or she claps with schadenfreude glee. “Gotcha!” Smug over my apparent ignorance, the Grammar Nazi flips the page leaving the article unfinished because he or she has determined, through my misuse of a semi-colon, that my ideas are not worthwhile. But I don’t care.

Languages are fluid and always changing. They are determined not by one pure source, which is threatened by our mistakes and needs protecting, but rather defined by everyone who speaks. The Oxford dictionary follows our lead, not the other way round. Most of us only care what’s in the dictionary when we’re playing Scrabble and want to win. Those who want to halt language’s development are not only doing something as unnatural and futile as holding back the tide, but are limiting the creative expression of those who don’t view language as something kept in a museum, under glass.

Even the poster child for Grammar Nazis, the British writer Lynne Truss, admits that language sticklers fight a losing battle. “While we look in horror at a badly punctuated sign, the world carries on around us, blind to our plight,” she writes in Eats, Shoots and Leaves. Truss’s sensitivity causes daily emotional havoc. The film poster for Two Weeks Notice with no apostrophe leaves her dead in her tracks. “It does matter,” she reminds her readers and herself. “It is appalling ignorance.” But Truss realizes how those like her are viewed; “In short, we are unattractive know-all obsessives who get things out of proportion and are in continual peril of being disowned by our exasperated families.” Although Truss’s exaggerated victimhood is what makes her book enjoyable, enough readers agreed to make her a transatlantic bestseller. 

Despite having already rejected the Evil Empire of Grammar Nazis in favour of the Rebel Alliance, I approached Eats, Shoots and Leaves with an open mind, hoping to find it funny while perhaps learning some proper grammar. The Ontario school boards banished grammar from English classes in favour of Modernist poetry, so my generation has difficulty even discussing these matters as we lack the proper vocabulary. Two chapters in, I had had enough. I couldn’t bring myself to read one more page mocking people for confusing “its” and “it’s” (a reasonable mistake, as most nouns take an apostrophe when possessive, but “it” for some inexplicable reason doesn’t). In fact, Truss doesn’t feel the need to explain the history and logic of grammar, just that we should follow it, which she herself doesn’t. Louis Menand dedicates the first three paragraphs of his review in the The New Yorker to Truss’s grammatical errors in Eats, Shoots and Leaves, from the misplaced apostrophe in the dedication onward. Listening to a soapbox rant is tolerable. Listening to a prophet who doesn’t practice what she preaches is insufferable.

Languages change. They always have and always will. Geoffrey Chaucer wrote “Me thynketh it  acordaunt to resound/To telle yow al the condicioun” and high school students are still taught that this is a form of English. Shakespeare made up words and expressions all the time and we are better for it. If Truss wants to freeze language at some spot, to be maintained by self-appointed sticklers like herself, how far should we go back? Does she want us grunting like Anglo-Saxon peasants? Should we eliminate all the foreign influences, starting with the marvellous Latin/French idea words which greatly improved guttural Germanic Old English?

Grammar Nazis suck the fun out of language. For just one example, watch the BET for ten minutes and witness the creative English used by African American comedians and musicians. Something didn’t just happen, it “had happened”. Someone isn’t just working, he “be working”. Being grammatically incorrect, rather than limit one’s expression, can greatly expand it. “I been bought her clothes,” means “I bought her clothes a long time ago” while “I been buying her clothes” replaces “I’ve been buying her clothes for a long time”.

“But it sounds wrong!” scream the Grammar Nazis. It won’t always. The fact that keeps them up at night, that won’t change no matter how many books about the incorrect apostrophes of fruit stand signs top the best seller list, is that if nobody follows a rule anymore it ceases to exist. If the entire English-speaking world uses “they” instead of “he or she”, fixing the annoying absence of a genderless singular pronoun which has long-plagued English, then that is ‘correct’. We can be open to bending the rules and expose ourselves to a diverse array of voices and improving the language. Or we can cling to the difference between “its” and “it’s” like mouldy out-of-date encyclopaedias. I know which side I be on.