The official blog of University of Missouri Skeptics, Atheists, Secular Humanists, & Agnostics
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).
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.