Confessions of a grammar nazi.

4 Sep

perfectionWell, that’s what I got called once. I’m not even sure what one actually IS. But it hurt – just a bit. I mean, the comparison between wanting to be precise about grammar, and a member of a movement responsible for genocide and war? And so I left it. The market stall traders can have their “potato’s”. The Americans can choose to have “Legos” instead of “Lego bricks”, if they must (sorry, that one’s just a personal peeve). DVD’s, CD’s and more can proliferate to their hearts’ desire. Their even may be a place for misuse of “there”. Or was it the other way round? Its not every day that one of my blog posts starts messing about with it’s grammar. And I can’t even force myself to create an example of the difference between i.e. and e.g. and have to content myself with generalisations (i.e. the use of apostrophes).

(Misuse of i.e. actually DOES make my head hurt… because I have to go back and work out that the writer didn’t mean “in other words” (id est) – i.e. a definition, or “this means that” – but actually meant e.g. or “for example” (exempli gratia) – e.g. one of several illustrative possibilities.)

And why is it that people tend to enclose things in quotes? I think the intention is to draw attention to the word – but in a sentence like ‘your first cup is “free”’ then it tends to convey the implication that you might think your first cup is free, but really, it isn’t. Quotation marks are exactly that – for quotations. Are you guilty of a “Dr Evil” abuse of them?

All along, though, it caused me to think about “why?”. Why DO I get so worked up about language and grammar? Why does it matter so much to me?

Now, I am not in favour of ‘the ultimate solution’ here. I will still split infinitives with the best of them. I will sometimes begin a sentence with “and”. And I will sometimes choose to bravely point out grammatical errors (see what I did there). It’s language, and sometimes it’s colloquial. And sometimes I, too, make mistakes. When I do, I usually get hoist on my own petard (look it up if you need to) – usually by my closest friends and family.

I will occasionally make use of the ugly construct “s/he” simply because we haven’t thought of a better way to write it differently. Sometimes I will play cruel tricks with the English language – very deliberately.

File:Grammar Nazi Icon.svgBut here’s the thing. I do this knowing (mostly) what I am doing. I’ll read more books in a week than some people read in a lifetime. I’ve studied language for long enough that I know how the tricks work. Sometimes I am using language to be very precise and accurate…and other times I have a different effect in mind. Sometimes I am choosing to be very formal – and other times I am choosing to be chatty and colloquial. Sometimes I will use words in a way that’s slightly confusing.. because that way, I can confuse the conscious mind of the reader while helping their unconscious mind to understand things at a deeper level.

It’s said that jazz musicians have to learn long and hard to play “within the rules” so that they can then break those rules in freeform competition. It usually takes a master of an art to parody it and pretend to be really bad at it. Take a look at Paul Hunt’s performance on the parallel bars as an example. It’s got nothing whatsoever to do with grammar, but it made me chuckle….

Paul Hunt in 1981

But why DO I get so excited (or dismayed) by grammatical errors? After my friend lampooned me as a grammar nazi, I wanted to look hard at why I feel that way. Why do I dislike the creeping use of ‘text speak’ – and why do I carefully add apostrophes and punctuation to my text messages?

Thai Food(I did feel rather sorry for the guy who had painstakingly corrected a restaurant’s sign promising “gateaux’s” and “panini’s” to “gateauxs” and “paninis” without realising that the greater error was not in the misuse of the apostrophe, but in failing to recognise different languages have different rules: so “gateau” has the plural “gateaux”, while “panini” is already the plural (singular “panino”). Truly, international cuisine is a minefield (as I found when ordering “Thai hot” from a seemingly harmless old lady in Hawai’i). That’s her on the left…

So here it is.. for me, language is a thing of beauty. Written well, language flows off the page and creates pictures, images, wonder, beauty – it inspires feelings, provokes a reaction, creates a world limited only by the writer’s imagination. It communicates, shares, explains, pleads. When someone misuses it, then that, for me, grates. Badly. Suddenly, a thing of beauty becomes something that’s not quite as beautiful as it could be.

Now, I’m what they call a ‘difference person’. Some people are ‘sameness people’ – they see what’s alike between two things. I see differences more clearly – which means that spelling errors, grammar errors and misuse of language are more painfully obvious to me than they might be to others. And yet, I would rather see someone share something with poor grammar and sloppy spelling, than not share it at all.

So that Facebook picture may convey a wonderful sentiment – and yet poor grammar gets in the way of that message every time. You might have spent hours Photoshopping that inspirational picture so it looks perfect – only to ruin it with poor use of English. That advert might be selling just what I need to buy… but can I possibly trust a company that can’t even get its advertisement right?

Language can be wonderful, beautiful, incredible – yet poor use of words, sloppy grammar, bad punctuation: they all get in the way of the message. If it’s worth reading, then I might fight through it.. but it becomes a tough uphill struggle rather than a joy.

So have mercy on me – and on millions of others like me – and check what you say before you say it. I may have mellowed… I may be more like a good old British bobby (“hello hello hello, who’s been playing around with their gerunds again?”) than NYPD (“OK, take your hands off the keyboard, step away from the computer and no sudden tense changes or I’ll drill a hole in your participles”) but every now and then I might just point out that maybe, just maybe, it might be worth checking before hitting ‘Send’ next time. Please?



P.S. probably best to refrain from correcting any grammatical errors in this post. After all, they might be deliberate, and you don’t want to be the only person who didn’t get the joke, do you??

P.P.S. YES. It is something that I do professionally, and I WILL do proofreading on books, ebooks, web sites, letters and so on. Get in touch if you’re interested.

One Response to “Confessions of a grammar nazi.”

  1. Monique September 4, 2012 at 7:31 pm #

    Are you taking applications for the Grammar Nazi Gang :o)

    The English grammar lessons and grading system in Belgium are clearly a lot more demanding than they are here. I am forever correcting native English speakers on spelling and grammar. Not that I ALWAYS get it right, but at least I have an excuse. :o)

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