Sunday, March 4, 2012

On Being a Grammar Nazi

For those of you who know me, either on a personal level or from the Internet, you would have gathered that I am rather fond of respecting the English language. I have, on many occasions, corrected people on matters of spelling, punctuation and grammar, both online and during real-life conversations. Some people express genuine gratitude because I have righted their wrongs. Others hot-headedly abuse me, as though I were committing a crime against humanity. This has led me to restrain myself from voicing a correction on many instances. I have lost count of the number of occasions where I've suppressed the urge to enlighten someone about a superfluous 's' they tacked on to the end of 'anyway'. It hurts, but I consider such moments as practice for more important moments in my life where restraint will be key. 

Of course, being a Grammar Nazi requires sensitivity (unlike being Nazi). I will not correct a person's grammatical misdemeanours if he/she is holding back tears while recounting the death of a loved one. We Grammar Nazis have hearts, you know!? And that's essentially why I'm writing this post—to dispel the myth that anyone who cares about literacy is a mood-killer, or just a generally unpleasant person. The first thing you should know about Grammar Nazis is that most of us don't actually derive any enjoyment from correcting mistakes. Seeing mistakes evokes the sad realisation that the society I belong to is either lazy or uneducated. Every day, I scroll down my Facebook News Feed (I just had to refer to the website to see if it classifies 'News Feed' as a proper noun—it does) and bemoan the lack of effort that goes into some status updates. However, I very rarely tell people on Facebook about an error in their status update, because I know not everyone will appreciate the correction. I think it's a shameful indictment of our society that those who care about upholding a language are seen as the bad guys. Because I care about making sense, I am seen as analogous to someone from a racist, dictatorial regime. I often joke "If there are Grammar Nazis, does that mean that there are Grammar Stalinists?" You see, I do not mean to oppress the people I correct. I merely wish to teach them something. I'd like to think of myself as a 'Grammar Defender'. Is correcting spelling, grammar and punctuation an action of condescension? I think that differs from Grammar Nazi to Grammar Nazi. On one end of the spectrum, you have those who correct you in private. At the other end, you have those who vociferously decry the offending speaker/writer as an irredeemable simpleton. 

I still remember a moment from my Year 11 Visual Arts class. My teacher, Miss Kalianiotis, had finished marking some homework exercises, and was angry at the fact that a bunch of 16 and 17 year-olds could not differentiate between 'your' and 'you're', as well as 'their', 'there' and 'they're'. She grabbed a whiteboard marker and began explaining the correct usage of each word on the board. Most students were laughing. They could not believe they were being taught Year 1 material in Year 11. I didn't laugh, because I knew that those who were laughing were the exact same students who butchered the language in the homework. I was sad. Appalled. Disgusted. A Year 11 teacher actually had to devote time in class to going over such fundamentals of English. This is the reason why secondary level English curricula in Australia should not lose sight of teaching aspects of grammar. Too many high school teachers just assume that everyone 'gets it'. 

The sad truth is that a lot of people simply don't care about upholding proper literacy. This is why some people yell at me when I correct their mistakes. They don't like being told they're wrong, but ironically, they are more than happy to commit linguistic atrocities so carelessly. One thing that irks me intensely is the following school of thought, most commonly adopted by Generation Y: "Why should spelling matter? This is the Internet, not school." I'll tell you why it matters. It matters because the written word is one of the main currencies of civilisation. It's what separates us from other species. We rely on it to communicate, and ill communication can cause a lot more than you can foresee. As Orwell opined in his essay Politics and the English Language: "But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation even among people who should and do know better." Another thing that puzzles me is why someone would think a mistake matters less if it's on the Internet. What you publish on the Internet is seen by more people than what you write in a secretive diary. Is it really so difficult to type 'your' instead of 'ur'? You should use the former. Not only is it correct and nicer-looking, but it makes you look like a learned individual. Let me set something straight. I will not judge your morality if you misuse the English language. However, I will judge your intelligence. I assume that your potential employers will, as well (unless they're spellbound by your manipulative use of business jargon).

Being a Grammar Nazi comes with a burdensome reputation. People often incorrectly assume that my knowledge is exceptionally profound, merely because I type words as they should be when I type on the Internet. People ask me to proofread their essays, which I don't mind doing as long as they're grateful and willing to receive honest criticism. Still, I get the impression that many people 'use' me for my abilities. These abilities, I should add, are not the result of any intense indoctrination as a child. I merely listened to my teachers in primary school, did the homework they set, and it naturally sunk in. I've loved reading ever since I could pick up a book—reading helps, too. I respect the English language for two reasons. 1. It allows for fluid, coherent communication, and 2. It's just right. I don't see any reason not to respect it, and you shouldn't either. Please, do not be ashamed to type correctly due to the fear of being labelled a 'nerd'. I have reclaimed that word, and wear it as a badge of honour: 'word nerd', to be precise. I do not claim to be a supreme authority on the language, either. If a linguistics student were to read this blog entry, he/she could probably identify several grammatical errors that are completely oblivious to me. Thank you for reading this. If anything, I hope my words will echo in your mind the next time you begin to type a status update on Facebook. 

P.S. There is a lot of debate about whether 'grammar' should be capitalised in the context of 'Grammar Nazi'. I capitalise it, because I view 'Grammar Nazi' as a title unto itself, and not just as a type of Nazi.

Also, if you'd like to know more about my interest in words and the English language, check out an earlier blog I wrote, entitled The Walking Dictionary.