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Why I Am Perfectly Justified In Being A "Grammar Nazi"

Date/Time Permalink: 04/06/13 10:05:50 am
Category: Geek Culture

punctuation list

For many years, when online and encountering sloppy spelling, grammar, and punctuation, I resisted the urge to stick up for proper language usage online. "Don't be such a nag!", I'd say to myself. "What if English isn't their first language?", I'd reason. "Not everybody can handle dyslexia, ADHD, Asperger's, etc.", I'd excuse. "It's not that big a deal.", I'd shrug.

On and on we go, year after year, using the Internet, a medium that relies exclusively upon text, while heedless of the simple methods of expressing ourselves with that text. First, we tried to helpfully guide those who struggled along. Then, when the inevitable, damning label of "Grammar Nazi" was hung around our necks, we backed off, puzzled, but not in the mood to be the world's white knight today. But now, the tide has turned all the way around. The straight-A students are now the "bad guys" and the drop-outs the "good guys."

Now we have... I guess I have to coin it myself... "Laziness Nazis"! People who attack you for using correct language! "Oh, you stuck-up snob! You elitist! Who do you think you're trying to impress, with your showing off? You must really think highly of yourself using a semicolon there!"


I even complacently tolerated this, as well. For far too long, I recently realized.

Here's one page to give an example - I assure you, I only limit myself to one example to save space. This example is a perfect snapshot of the spirit of the times. Dangerous Minds proposes a new CAPTCHA system to screen out those who cannot distinguish between similar elementary words like (there / their / they're), (were / we're / where), and (lose / loose). And you can ironically dance through the comments and pluck up the flames like wildflowers a-bloom. The mob reacts: How... how DARE they!

At the center of the "only elitists use correct grammar / spelling" movement is this attitude that "knowledge of language does not equal intelligence". And then I wonder... doesn't it?

That's when I had this epiphany.

Because typing the correct word does not cost anything. Leaving out a superfluous apostrophe doesn't require expending extra effort. Remembering a rule of sentence structure does not place a great burden upon people - there are parrots out there with a vocabulary of thousands of words, there are gorillas who learn sign language to communicate with their handlers in a semantically logical fashion. Even dogs I have owned understood the difference between "Where did your ball go?" and "We're going to the vet." And for Heaven's sake, unlike the parrots, gorillas, and dogs, we have built-in spell-checkers at our disposal.

Using correct grammar, spelling, and punctuation does not cost anything. Using correct grammar, spelling, and punctuation requires only mental effort. A person who cannot be bothered to expend the mental effort required to distinguish between two elementary-school words is also someone who cannot be bothered to expend the mental effort required to reason soundly... use logic... read carefully... think critically... have intellectual curiosity... take pleasure in solving problems... seek things out inspired by pure curiosity. Someone who is careless and sloppy in such a simple matter as typing out a few keystrokes - while using a medium that depends entirely upon typing the correct keystrokes in order to use it effectively - and gets belligerently defensive and insulting hostile when other people try to help them use this medium more effectively, is someone with a lazy brain that does not like to do work.

And that, my friends, I am so regretful to report, is an idiot.

Email, commenting, and texting are not constitutionally-protected rights, you know.

Now let's hear all the excuses the intellectually lazy use:

What if English isn't your first language? Then you have undertaken to learn a second language - so LEARN it! I have, in fact, been fluent in Spanish, having been born and raised in Southern California (I am no longer fluent in Spanish because I've lived up north for ten years now, so I'm out of practice). When I was rubbing elbows with Spanish-speakers, I tried to pay attention and get it right. When I made a mistake and was corrected, without fail, I was grateful every single time and thanked them for the lesson. And now that I am too rusty in Spanish to use it effectively, I stay out of Spanish forums. If I undertake Spanish again, I will ensure that I am at least back up to speed when I do so. And if a native speaker corrects my grammar, I express gratitude for the free lesson. In fact, I've never met the ESL (English-second-language) speaker who was hostile at being corrected - it's always the English-native "Laziness Nazis" who use the old ESL defense.

But is English too hard a language? Yes, I know, English has its little quirks: "Why do we park in a driveway and drive in a parkway?" and all that. That's because English is derived from West Germanic, Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, and French. It is not consistent in its rules because it draws from many languages with different rules, and we even import more words from other languages with impunity.

But so what, do you think English is hard? Oh my goodness, try some other languages. Try Spanish, which has the concept of grammatical gender, so that 'taco' is male but 'quesadilla' is female, and then the rest of the words in the sentence have to agree with the gender of the subject. Try Japanese, which has the concept of honorifics, suffixes attached to the end of any word referring to people, which change depending upon the relationship between speaker and "speakee"; thus your brother George is 'George-san' to you, but your father calls him 'George-kun'. Try Thai, which has the concept of phonemic tones, so that five words which are spelled and pronounced identically have radically different meanings depending on the tone of voice you use; the syllable 'na' on a rising note means 'thick', but on a falling note means 'face'. And try Chinese , which uses 600 pictograms just to get started with a baby-level vocabulary!

What, you feel taxed because you have to keep "they're" and "their" straight? Oh my God, when is the telethon? I want to contribute all I can.

What if you have dyslexia, ADHD, and Asperger's? Yes, I know someone who has all three. You do, now, too. In fact, you're reading something written by him right now! And I chose not to go through life with a brass band in front of me declaring my handicaps like a flag that people have to salute. All I have to do, you see, is care about overcoming my own natural disadvantages, and then I overcame them. Because I am a human being, with a spine and a brain and a heart, and I would rather live standing on my two feet than hide behind a diagnosis, like a coward. Which is why I have never mentioned it before and will never mention it again. For the same reason, I also don't bring up that I was raised in poverty, had to miss a lot of school to support my family, was raised in a broken home, could not afford college, was forced to self-educate, or dozens of other excuses I could use.

What excuse is it now? Did you have a poor education? Well, if you are in such a bad way that you fail kindergarten literacy, then what are you doing online at 2AM arguing about which Marvel superhero deserves to have the film with the biggest budget this summer? You have to hurry to your tutoring appointment - you have no time for idle chit-chat! And by the way, how do you manage to hold down a job, procure a place to live, or even find your way around town? Who gave you a laptop? How did you find this website?

You say you didn't have the time to spell it out the long way when you texted me? Well, what are you, an EMT? What are you doing while you text - driving a fire engine on the way to a four-alarmer? Yes, I know, I have a smartphone too, and my fingers are as fat as Grecian columns and the buttons are as tiny as fleas. I still text in complete sentences. And if I'm too busy to do that, then I'm too busy to text at all.

You say "mistakes happen"? Yes, they do! In an essay of this length with nobody to edit it (or publish it, for that matter) but me, I'm sure that I've made a few mistakes. I will try to catch and correct all that I can. I will save a draft and re-read it. When others catch mistakes, I will acknowledge them and correct the error (and have a sense of humor enough to laugh at the irony, given the subject). The difference between the occasional typo and lazy thinking is painfully, painfully obvious. ERRORS are random; LAZY is a habit. Pro-intelligence people admit to error; anti-intelligence people attack the one who pointed it out.

Oh, wait, maybe you'll catch me on some really arcane Strunk-and-White-type style rule. English, you say, has so many rules, nobody could be expected to memorize them all. Oh, please! We're not talking about dangling participles or split infinitives or ending a sentence on a preposition here - we're talking about the difference between 'there', 'their', and 'they're' - an adverb, a pronoun, and a contraction for a pronoun and a verb - words that most any three-year-old child knows.

You say that I am "exclusionist" for wanting to limit my online company to good writers? Why yes, yes I am. This is the "social" web, after all, and I see no problems with applying the same standards to virtual socializing on the Internet that I deploy, sans controversy, in the real-life socializing that takes place in my living room. So from now on, I will also ask all rude, violent, and irresponsible people to stay off my website as well. In fact, as soon as webcams are standard, I intend to be exclusionist to the point that, just as I would when answering the door, I give prospective visitors the once-over through the peephole and refuse them entry if I don't like the way they look.

And now I have an unpleasant task to do. I really, really like British performer Stephen Fry, have been following his work for quite some time, and have just plain looked up to him in the past.

But now, I have to pound sand in his rat-hole.

I have to do this because of this video, linked to and cited more and more every day as a "take that" to us "Grammar Nazis".

I'm afraid that I don't much care for Stephen Fry anymore.

In this little vlog, he does the very un-British (but very, very American) act of taking "Grammar Nazis" to task who, for example, protest the sign in the grocery store that says "Ten items or less" when it should (allegedly) say "Ten items or fewer".

OK, Stephen, I'll play your little game, because I have an appetite for straw men today.

In defense of the offending sign-painter, Fry has the audacity to cite Oscar Wilde and Shakespeare (basically, it amounts to "they didn't use perfect English, either"), and then looks down his noses at us "pedants" for not appreciating the rhythm, music, art, spirit, and joy of language as a dynamic, alive, and vibrant thing.

Gee, golly. We're sorry. No, actually on second thought, we're not the least sorry, Stephen Fry! You write like slugs on opium bugger, you have no more command of English than a USA beauty-pageant contestant, and you're only a British David Hasslehoff pandering to your real fan-base overseas because you're a loser in your own home country. And to put a fine point on how out-of-touch you are and perhaps always have been, you start off getting it wrong regarding whom is calling whom 'elitist'. It's the Laziness Nazis calling the Grammar Nazis 'elitist'; it wouldn't make any sense for it to be the other way around, now bloody would it?

That was the ad hominem appetizer. Now for the main course of reasoned arguments:

One does not have to violate the rules of spelling, grammar, and punctuation in order to produce a beautiful work of language any more than engineers must violate the laws of physics to pull off a perfect rocket launch. When Oscar Wilde or William Shakespeare misplace a comma or noun a verb, they have a license to do so by virtue of being historic and world-famous authors. Historic and world-famous authors do not get to be historic and world-famous authors by being ignorant of the rules, but by having mastered the rules, to a degree such that they know when they can augment them to serve the higher purpose of their own, more inspired writing.

Not that sign-painter. No historic and world-famous author, he. And he knew it. When the store hired him to paint a sign for the express check-out lane, he wasn't trying to wring the most succulent morsel of poetry from the dry bone of commercial store display work. No, he was getting paid bottom dollar to crank out the sloppiest, but still acceptable, possible wording and head for the pub while the paint dried.

And for such a simple task to which he was appointed, he was too incompetent even at that. For the correct phrase would not have been "12 items or less" nor even "12 items or fewer", but "12 item limit", a solution which is unambiguous, irrefutably correct, and takes less space and less time to boot.

But that sign painter, anonymous forever, did not think of it. And do you know why? Because he could not be bothered to expend the mental effort. Because he had a lazy brain that does not like to do work. Because he was a "Laziness Nazi", and people like Stephen Fry are making a living appealing to the Populist masses by telling them that their sloth is justified.

And that, my friends, I am so regretful to report, is an idiot.

proof-reading provided by Cutty Sark

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