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Grammar Nazis

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My name is Maggie and I am a recovering grammar nazi.  We all know someone who is a grammar nazi.  Some of you no doubtedly are yourselves.  Now, my Nazism wasn’t limited to grammar.  It also went to mechanics and spelling.  Comma splices, split infinitives, incorrect use of semicolons all drove me crazy.  One of my friends has this caption on a facebook photo: i know there good david… their mine.  I would roll my eyes and dismiss that person’s intelligence.  After all, who doesn’t know the difference between they’re, their and there?  For all of you grammar Nazis out there, are the three “there”s homophones or homonyms?  Dialect dependant or independent?  The correct answer is the “there”s are homophones that are dialect independent.  I know most of you realize that I gave part of the answer away because only homophones can be dialect dependant or independent.  Everyone knows that!

What’s interesting about my former compulsion to correct someone’s grammar, punctuation or mechanics, is that in order to correct it, I necessarily had to understand what they meant.  Take the example “i know there good david… their mine.”  I am not completely perplexed by this sentence.  I know exactly what this person was trying to say which is how I knew they used the wrong spelling.  There might be mistakes that do leave you completely at a loss.  But then you wouldn’t correct anything, you would simply say you didn’t understand or ask for clarification.  These types of mistakes seem to happen more often with phone auto-correcting technology.  The site Damn You Auto Correct is dedicated to such mistakes.

For example, one unlucky texter sent this message: …”The tickets are $18 but you get a hot dog and a gay.”  One would understandably be genuinely perplexed as to what one is getting for just $18.   Using context clues, it seems that maybe one could also be getting a soda or chips.  Looking at a typical keyboard, you could look at the letters close to those in gay and try to figure it out.  However, I would say that for most people it’s not intuitively obvious what the mistake was and suggest a correction.  Honestly, how many of you knew that the texter meant hat?

The key to this anecdote was that a simple mistake of spelling can lead to complete misunderstandings, but this isn’t the case when grammar Nazis at work.  Grammar Nazis only correct things that they understand to be clear mistakes in rules.

A few years ago I began teaching grammar, spelling and mechanics, among other things.  As seems to happen so often in life, the children’s skepticism left me at a loss.  Me, a self-professed grammar nazi!  Since I had received my degree in English, I felt I had a compelling grasp of the rules needed to teach youngsters, and I did.  But I found myself often stumped by their simple, poetic curiosity.

You can’t end a sentence in a proposition.  Why?

You can’t split an infinitive.  Why?

I comes before e.  Why?

Why? Why? Why?

My answer often was: that’s just the rule.  AS the years wore on, I actually began saying things like “Honestly, the rules don’t even make sense.”  Or “I don’t know why it’s a rule.” Or occasionally, “I don’t think that should be a rule.”  Try teaching a child the rule I comes before E except after C.  Now teach them that E often comes before I even without C (deity, neighbor).  Tell them why I comes before E even after C (society, vacancies).  Now tell me, why is this a spelling rule?  Is there any good reason for why we teach kids this rule?  Why can’t I just always come before E.  Is recieve just too crazy?

Whenever the kids asked me why to any one of the rules I was teaching them, I really can’t think of any time when I said, Well, it would confuse people if you didn’t follow this rule.  I mean really, we all break the rules all the time.  As you might have noticed, I have been breaking the rules throughout this entire post.  How many errors did you spot right away?  Do you know why they are errors?  Did these errors prevent you understanding the sentences?

I would love to have feedback on this.  I challenge you to find a rule that is necessary for our understanding most of the time (as a rule should be).

One of the reasons why this is an important topic is because we base ACT and SAT scores partly on these rules.  Students wanting to do well on these parts of the tests will need to know rules about:

who v. whom

which v. that


dependant and independent clauses

all verb tenses (perfect, subjunctive, etc.)

Seriously, who out there right now can write a sentence in past perfect tense?  How about subjunctive (I’m looking at you Beyonce)?

The lesson here is twofold.  1) Precriptivist grammar/spelling/mechanic rules are really hard, largely unknown and completely unnecessary.

2) Kids may have horrible grammar, but they are great skeptics.


10 comments on “Grammar Nazis

  1. sean hogge
    July 11, 2011

    Preposition (proposition). This is a typo, though, not a grammatical error.

    Letters not intended to be words should be in quotes: “I” before “e.” Otherwise “I” can be justifiably confused as a first person pronoun, in which you are using a humorous dialect to rank yourself before a letter or MDMA.

    Oxford has rescinded their ruling on split infinitives. I still am guilty of doing so, and still correct myself and others.

    Past perfect is just the past participle with a past tense helping verb, right? She had written a past perfect sentence.

    Were I able to use the subjunctive, I would be remiss to ignore it. Wakka wakka.

    Anyway, enough chicanery: on to your actual points.

    Telling someone that “i” comes before “e” except after “c” isn’t a rule, it’s a trend. That’s why we also say “except sounding like ‘ay’ as in ‘neighbor’ and ‘weigh.'” So I’m not sure why any textbook or instructor would call it a rule. If you’re in doubt, and you remember that phrase, you have a good chance of guessing correctly, that’s all.

    As a grammar Nazi who has no intention of recovering, the breaking of grammatical rules in a manner that doesn’t reduce meaning is a tricky issue. However, the idea that rules should only be followed when they “matter” is a much trickier issue. Furthermore, if one goes to the trouble of learning the rules when they do matter, then refusing to use them when they don’t makes no sense at all. That just makes things more complicated.

  2. Lynn
    July 11, 2011

    Your article reminded me of this email circulated a long time ago:

    “Aoccdrnig to rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.”

    As cool as it seemed to be, unfortunately it was a hoax as there was no such Cambridge research and the paragraph itself was carefully crafted to promote the effect (about half of the words, particularly functional worlds that keep the sentence structure intact, are correct; and the letters changed are only those adjacent to each other). But the fact that some error is alright (provided that the grammar structure is kept and the context still evident) still brings us back to your original question: does it really matter to be entirely correct if some types of mistakes don’t matter?

    A mistake in grammar risks conveying the wrong logical connections, and a mistake in wording risks missing a concept or two, but I think the range of errors one can accept is contingent on the presupposed context of the audience. If the context of the reader does not provide him or her with the tools to correct the mistake, then it is inacceptable for the mistake to occur. This context-dependency implies that there are no single and absolute rules that can tell us the range of acceptable errors for everyone.

    The academia context I’m in now has trained its participants to take words and sentences at face-value. Words and logical connectors are used carefully and precisely because every change might indicate something meaningful. It’s even worse if I’m writing in a context where non-English words (translated into alphabetically form) are commonly used, as a misspelling might be some non-English word.

    There’s a reason why Chinese-speaking students often ask me to proof their papers. Native speakers of English have a hard time figuring out the meaning because of the mistakes, but because my context allows me to recognize mistakes from meaning, I can easily correct their mistakes to restore the meaning.

    And actually, the example you used–“i know there good david… their mine” –makes absolutely no sense to me, can’t even guess. Is that because I’m an international student or because I’m just really bad at guessing? “Good david”…is this supposed to be Biblical?

    This reminds me of text messages. A lot of the abbreviations used in text messages and a lot of the “of” “on” “at”, etc., that are eliminated can be safely ignored only because it is assumed that the readers are familiar enough with the language or content to fill in the blanks. I personally had a really hard time trying to read these messages, and had an equally hard time trying to talk to high schoolers in California. I understood the professors best, then the grad students, then average adults on-the-street, and everyone else didn’t make too much sense to me.

  3. Maggiesaurus May
    July 11, 2011

    Thanks for commenting Sean. I noticed you found a few obvious errors. Good for you. See if you can find the error in this sentence: As a grammar Nazi who has no intention of recovering, the breaking of grammatical rules in a manner that doesn’t reduce meaning is a tricky issue.

    As to the i before e rule, I can assure you that teachers and textbooks alike call it a rule. It’s a rule of spelling. I never remember being taught a trend, do you? Maybe you think all spelling rules are trends. That’s fine. Why should we enforce a trend? A trend by definition is descriptive. You’re saying that i before e just describes how we spell. This means that I can help change the i before e trend by never adhering to it. I’m interested to hear why you think a trend actually prescribes people to do certain things.

    Also, I’m not sure why you got the impression that I was advocating for rules to be followed only when they matter. Actually, I’m trying to say that we shouldn’t have prescriptive rules. I would actually prefer it if we had only descriptive trends.

    The most important part of writing is communicating the message clearly. I’m willing to bet that you got a pretty good grasp of my message from this post. With prescriptive grammar, spelling and mechanics, we actually take the focus off of conveying the message. So I read essays from students that are filled with adverbs and adjectives and flowery language that are completely unnecessary and actually detract from the message, even though it’s all perfectly grammatically correct. Our time would be better spent teaching kids how to write effectively not “correctly.”

  4. Maggiesaurus May
    July 11, 2011

    Lynn, I’m not sure if this was meant to agree or disagree with my position. From my perspective, we agree on quite a lot. I believe that the struggles you described are one of the many problems with prescriptivist grammar. If you were taught in a descriptive manner, you would have been able to effectively communicate with and understand the majority of Americans, rather than primarily professors. For you, this may have been best. For immigrants who are not going straight into college, I imagine learning our prescriptivist rules would not be very helpful.

  5. Maggiesaurus May
    July 11, 2011

    Oh, and perhaps I should have given more detail about the caption “i know there good david… their mine.”
    The caption of of a picture of man tagged David holding up CDs and smiling.
    The meaning is: I know they’re good, David. They’re mine.

  6. sean hogge
    July 11, 2011

    “So I’m not sure why any textbook or instructor would call it a rule.” I never disputed that texts or teachers teach it as a rule. I dispute there being a good reason for it. I don’t think a trend prescribes action, and I’m not sure why you think I do. I think a trend allows you to make an informed guess in situations that certainty cannot be obtained.

    I never attributed the idea of following rules only when they matter directly to you. You were merely asking questions in your post.

    Without prescriptive rules of some sort, every individual develops their own language. They’ll probably overlap and share meanings and constructs with others through exposure, but there will be a non-zero occurrence of syntactical incompatibility. In this case, the best solution is a universal method. It might only be useful in certain situations, but if a seatbelt saves one’s life in a 40 mph impact, it makes little sense not to wear it when travelling at 37 mph.

    Part of effective communication is using words in the same way everyone else does. Why isn’t the structure of a sentence equally important? I don’t think anyone claims mechanics will automatically make all writing perfectly understandable and efficient, but clarity and efficiency can’t really be achieved unless we all agree on what words mean, and how they should go together.

    That being said, some grammatical rules are nonsense now – they were most likely born of necessity if one goes back far enough. Perhaps revision would do us well, but prescriptive rules are a requirement.

  7. Maggiesaurus May
    July 11, 2011

    “They’ll probably overlap and share meanings and constructs with others through exposure, but there will be a non-zero occurrence of syntactical incompatibility”
    I have no idea what this means Mr. Irony. Seth explained it to me and I agree. There will be some incompatibility. The entire point of my grammatically incorrect post was to point out that we communicate quite well without perfect compatibility. I can point out at least three grammatical errors you have made thus far, but the one sentence I couldn’t understand had no errors in it. So, I’m skeptical that the rules are the cause whether or not we can understand each other. You assert that there will be incompatibility without the rules, therefore we must have rules. But we have incompatibility with the rules too. So why must we have rules? Why couldn’t we instead teach kids about the “trends” in our language.
    I disagree that we have to agree on what words mean to achieve clarity and efficiency. “I can’t remember all of the pacific details, but basically he was having some stomach pains and went to the hospital.” Do you agree with this person that the definition of the word pacific is particular or specific? Can you understand what this person was saying?

    You made a curious statement that without rules each individual would develop his or her own language. We all develop our own language with or without rules. For example, you and I probably know mostly the same grammar rules, but we don’t write or speak alike.
    Did you know that most children learn to speak years before they learn any grammar rules?
    I have a three-year-old nephew who is constantly talking about “owwee” guys who try to hurt Batman and Batman goes Pow! and the owwee guys run away crying. I rest my case.

  8. sean hogge
    July 11, 2011

    Every case you’ve made is anecdotal.

    Gorby non suppa roff burtythesces. If we don’t need to agree on what words mean, then I hope you won’t be mad that I was so mean to dinosaurs in my previous sentence.

    The major reason “pacific” can be understood is because it is a near rhyme with “specific,” the intended word. Replace pacific with something that doesn’t rhyme and see if the meaning is as obvious.

    You and I don’t speak or write alike (especially in this unedited medium), but with proper adherence to rules and agreement on definitions, we can both communicate equally effectively such that stylistic differences matter as little as possible.

    I am fully aware that few, if any, toddlers know grammar however disdainful I may be regarding their lack. In the case of your nephew, one can understand his poorly formed ramblings only through the fortunate inclusion of contextual clues along with the happy inability for him to express anything more complicated than “subject verbed object” and “subject verbs.”

  9. Maggiesaurus May
    July 11, 2011

    I agree that I’ve given you anecdotes (though I’ve also made cases using hypotheticals), but that’s all I need when the claim is something like: we need to agree on what words mean in order to have clarity. I can give you one example where we don’t need to agree to have clarity, and suddenly your claim doesn’t work anymore. Now, you have to adjust that claim to something like “We might need” or “We usually need” etc. That doesn’t mean I can read gibberish or Greek, it simply means that it’s possible to communicate without the same understanding of words (like how you understood pacific as specific).

    I might add that while you may not like my adorable examples, you don’t really have any support for your claims which are much larger. You’re claiming that we have a problem and that prescriptivism is the best solution. You’re claiming prescriptivist rules are required. Those are rather large claims. I understand why you want to believe that prescriptivism is necessary. You spent much time and effort learning the rules and adhering to them and correcting others. It only makes sense that you would not want that time and effort to have been wasted. Rather than cling to the idea that you’ve been taught, I’d suggest a little more skepticism as to why it was taught to you and why it was necessary for you to learn.

  10. Jerry Winn
    July 12, 2011

    Hah, I was just saying to someone the other day that in the future, our generation will be looked down on for our fixation with adherence to our completely unintuitive rules of grammar and spelling.

    I think you’re spot on, Maggie. The purpose of language is to communicate ideas effectively, and too often we bog down discussions with technical corrections that become quibbles, ultimately obfuscating the initial purpose of the exchange. For as long as we have an unintuitive language, we not only invite these mistakes but insist upon them. Imagine if our language were so straightforward that the rules could be mastered by grade school. What if you could know exactly how to spell a word the first time you heard it based on a simple application of phonetic rules? Wouldn’t it be nice if we could be teaching our children something more useful than the memorization of obscure rules and spellings over the next 7 years about this increasingly complex world? If we aren’t going to aid the language in evolving (not that all cases are examples of evolution), I think we should at least not hinder it by clinging to archaic lingual structures.

    There’s a folk story that the root of all the various idiosyncrasies in the English language were created centuries ago by the nobility to help distinguish between their class and the educated bourgeoisie… to intentionally make it harder for the working class to rise to the same level of education as the nobles who had the time and resources to teach and learn frivolous language rules. Whether it’s true or not, the very plausibility speaks to the absurdity of our language.

    By the way, research continually supports the notion that teaching these rules explicitly is ineffective, particularly compared to providing hands on practice with reading and writing.

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This entry was posted on July 11, 2011 by in Author: Maggie May.
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