It has come to my attention that I may have reached my bellyaching quota for the week, so today I would like to turn my attention to something completely different: Grammar Nazis. To many people who are not authors or aspiring authors, Grammar Nazis are notorious snobs who eavesdrop on conversations like linguistic vultures waiting to feed on the carrion of our 21st Century syntax. But among many writers I know, the term is worn as a badge of honor, despite the fact that—and I think this goes without saying—no phrase with “Nazi” in it should be worn as a badge of anything other than shame.
Perhaps you just take pride in your own mastery of the finer points of our language. I can respect that. No, really, I can! In fact, I applaud you. However, I believe the time has come to retire the phrase “Grammar Nazi” from our lexicon in order to search for a term that is less insulting, less antiquated, and also something that is more proactive and beneficial towards the very language we profess to want to defend.
But how did the phrase “Grammar Nazi” come into being anyway? If you’re like me, you probably thought the phrase originated decades ago as natural fallout from World War II. If you’re like my girlfriend, you may have thought it sprung from TV’s Seinfeld, where phrases like “Soup Nazi” suddenly made the “Noun + Nazi” equation vogue for anyone looking to ascribe ironic ruthlessness to some ordinary concept, i.e. “Barbecue Nazi”, “Trout Nazi”, “Unicycle Nazi”, “Lamp Nazi”. The possibilities are endless!
As a matter of fact, according to the website “Know Your Meme”, the expression is only about 9 years old. It was traced back to 2003 and, strangely, I can’t quite remember having heard it earlier than that, although I admittedly would have been only 17 or 18 at the time. If anyone else can distinctly remember the phrase going back farther than that, you may want to gather your proof and make “Know Your Meme” aware of the error. The definition, according to KYM, is “someone who believes it is his/her duty to amend any grammar and/or spelling mistakes made by others in conversation. In most cases, the term carries a negative connotation of either being a buzzkiller who ruins a good joke by getting too technical or a n00b that’s fallen into the Grammar Trap, an intentional practice of using incorrect grammar for the purpose of spotting a Grammar Nazi.” I’ll adopt that as my definition moving forward since it seems pretty accurate.
So why am I up in arms over the phrase? Well, for starters, I absolutely believe that there is a dire need for those of us who are willing to help preserve the English language in an age of texting and Jersey Shore slang, because beautiful poetry like “parting is such sweet sorrow” written in text speak would be “PISSS” (gross.). Therefore, I think it is a public duty for us to help defend what, in my opinion, is not necessarily the world’s most beautiful-sounding language (I would probably bestow that honor upon Spanish, citing the works of Cervantes and Pablo Neruda) but is the world’s most descriptive and versatile language. However, I want to repeat that my problem is with those of us who seem to proudly declare ourselves “Grammar Nazis”, which I think is not only belittling to our cause of defending our language but also insensitive to those who suffered the depravity of the political group who inspired the term. We are not Nazis. We should not aspire to be Nazis. We should not even co-opt the term. Only one person in history has ever been “Hitler” and it was Adolph Hitler and no people except those who were members of the Nazi party should call themselves Nazis. Period.
But my purpose here is not to chastise those of you who may have used the expression flippantly and declared openly, “I’m a bit of a Grammar Nazi”. My purpose here is to proclaim that WE CAN DO BETTER! We are better than disgracing ourselves at parties or social functions by making uninvited interruptions to correct a grammatical faux pas. We are better than lambasting writers in comment forums across the web for incorrectly using “they’re”/“there”/“their”, even though the very sight of such mistakes may make you want to sling holy water over your keyboard, cross your index fingers, and hold them towards your computer screen while shouting “The power of Christ compels you!”. Such passive aggression is not going to endear people to our cause; we will only annoy the crap out of people who probably come by their poor grasp of the English language honestly.
Let’s explore that statement.
I have several pretentious friends—the very sort of folks who are self-proclaimed “Grammar Nazis”—who, upon hearing poor grammar, keel over as if they have just been stabbed in the stomach. They take every grammatical error as some sort of personal attack and usually go off the deep end as they wage their assault. It’s like fighting an ill-timed water balloon with a napalm bomb. What happens when the assault is over? Feelings are hurt and my grammar-defending friend pompously moseys away from the conversation, holding his or her head high to have defended the language, and meanwhile everyone else in the group declares: “What an ass,” turns back to the person who had been telling the story, and says, “Now, let’s get back to you’re story.” GAHHH!
The point is that most people do not like to have their grammar publicly corrected and doing so rarely does anything to actually fix the error. Furthermore, it has been my experience that many people are not solely to blame for their poor grasp of the language’s more difficult intricacies. Take my own students, for example. I tutor for a wealthy private school in Kentucky and many of my students are among Lexington’s brightest but even my best students have an astonishingly poor grasp of proper grammar. When I try to explain the difference between “who” and “whom”, I can see their eyes glaze over. They swear to me, time and time again, that their English teachers never covered the concepts we discuss. Why? Because their class spent 4 months discussing Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Four months! Now, I would have no problem devoting such time to Shakespeare if I saw any proof that the payoff was worth the investment. Instead, I end up with throngs of tutoring students who have read Hamlet about 9-10 times, still don’t understand exactly what that story is about, divined nothing from the book with regard to “proper English”, and who have read nothing else of note in that four-month span.
Something is rotten in the state of Denmark Kentucky.
I have met students who have gone their whole lives without a single formal grammar class. In fact, I happen to fall into that category myself. I know beyond any shadow of a doubt that my own grammar, though far from perfect, is what it is because of the tireless efforts of my mother and grandmother to refine my grammar from an early age. By the time I was five years old, I could never have thought of getting away with “Me and my friend are going to the park”. By the time I was eight or nine and already writing short stories, it would have been a cold day in Hell before I mistook “your” for “you’re”. Not all young people are so fortunate. In fact, millions throughout our great country are not. I am positive that there are children in Kentucky, for example, who go their whole day without hearing proper grammar spoken by an adult or having their own grammar corrected by one. This is not an indictment of our teachers; it is merely a reminder to “Grammar Nazis” that they should be eternally grateful to the adults who helped nurture their grammar in youth—not openly critical of all those who never had such a mentor or mentors.
So how do we reconcile the points I have listed here? How do we retire “Grammar Nazi” and look to the future? The first thing we can do, clearly, is to make a point of instilling good grammar in our children. In this age of texting, we should not let our own kin get away with the erosion of our wonderful language. We should teach our young to be proud of our words and how they fit together. We should make them aware of English’s rich history and motivate them to keep that legacy alive. And, finally, we should bestow upon them the gift of our language’s most profound voices—encourage them to read the classics. Help them appreciate Shakespeare or Chaucer instead of ramming it down their throats as an educational obligation. Four months of Hamlet are no better than four minutes of Hamlet if the student is not open to learning.
What is my alternative for the phrase “Grammar Nazi”, you ask? I don’t have one! The truth is that I could care less what people call us so long as our work is done. You could call me “Grammar Doctor”, “Grammar Knight”, “Grammar Guardian”, or “Grammar Advocate”. The point is that nothing would honor me more than being declared “A Keeper of the Language”. Doesn’t that sound so much nobler than being dubbed a tyrant or criminal? Hit me with your suggestions. The age of “Grammar Nazi” is dead. What should we call ourselves instead?