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How I Learned To Stop Being a Grammar Nazi And Get On With Life


Confession time: I used to be a grammar Nazi. You know, the type who delights in bouncing from one Facebook wall to the next, gleefully calling attention to every misspelled word, incorrect usage, and carelessly placed apostrophe.

Actually, I wasn’t that bad. I was more of a stealth Nazi, not so uncouth as to correct you to your face, but secure enough in my own rightness to inwardly roll my eyes while taking smug satisfaction at being better-versed than most in the proper use of the language.

In my defense, I came by it honestly. I have worked as an editor almost as long as I have been able to read and write. First informally as a kid, assisting my less language-inclined classmates when they needed help with their own writing, and then later, correcting papers for many years as a high school, then college, English teacher. These days I don’t teach English but continue to tutor and edit material for publication in various contexts. My inner editor doesn’t automatically shut down when I switch from paid work to Facebook.

Correctness Is Often Not as Correct As You Think

In spite of that, though, I have in my advancing years become much less of a prescriptive, and more of a descriptive, grammarian. I’m not sure of the exact cause of the change, but it may have something to do with an increasing awareness of my own mortality. The closer you get to putting away your red pen for good, the more it seems there are more important things to do than leaving a trail of underlinings, deletions, and stets.

Not only that, but increase of years tends to lead to heightened humility. The decay of the flesh is real. When you’re more likely to make mistakes, you’re less inclined to shine a spotlight on those of others. Facebook’s “On This Day” feature has also poked a few healthy holes in my ego balloon, revealing more often than I care to admit that even a grammar Nazi is not exempt from typos.

Additionally, I think years spent as an editor have, ironically, driven home the realization that the designation of correctness is not always as cut-and-dried as we might think. For some time, I have had a running joke with friends about how to type a proper ellipsis. As an English major, I learned the MLA (Modern Language Association) style, which calls for putting spaces before, between, and after the dots, of which there should be only three, like this: . . . . (That fourth dot is a period, not part of the ellipsis.) Several of my online friends have taken great joy in repeatedly breaking my ellipsis rule on my Facebook wall, typing their ellipses with way too many dots all squished together, like this: ………

But then I started editing for an organization that follows AP (Associated Press) style and discovered that AP makes ellipses like this … with a space before and after but no spaces between the dots. Mind. blown.

But I shouldn’t be surprised. Random thumbing through just a few of the leading style guides quickly reveals multiple points of disagreement, not only regarding ellipses but all sorts of things. Are book titles italicized or put in quotation marks? Is passive voice always bad? And what about that Oxford comma? The answers are different depending whom (who?) you ask. In fact, I once had a publication change “whom” to “who” in my article because they don’t use “whom” ever. Too formal.

Language Is Alive

Then there is the reality that language changes, and with it, attitudes about correctness. When I was teaching English, it was anathema to use “their” for a singular antecedent (as in “Every citizen should know their rights”). Now my English major daughter tells me it’s considered acceptable usage in most of her classes. I still don’t like it. It sounds wrong to my ear. But who died and made me Grammar Queen? I can hold on, kicking and screaming, to my preferred practice, but the world is going to laugh at me and move on.

We only need look at the historical record to see that this is true. The standardization of spelling is a modern development. Even surnames, including that of one William Shakespeare, were not spelled consistently during Elizabethan times. Many of our ideas of correctness can be traced to the practice of applying Latin grammar rules to English usage. If that’s your standard, fine. But it’s debatable whether it should be.

Then there are the rules that are just dumb. When I was teaching English all those years ago, I used to mark what I saw as ungrammatical use of the word “hopefully.” “‘Hopefully’ is an adverb,” I told my students, “not a wish.” So, it was acceptable to write “The farmers waited hopefully for the rain” but not “Hopefully, it will rain.”

I hereby repent of that misguided notion. If “hopefully” isn’t allowable as a sentence adverb (the technical term for what you see in the second example), then why are other such -ly words all right? If you can’t say “Hopefully, it will rain,” you should also not be able to say, “Regrettably, we are out of money” or “Fortunately, we have more chocolate” or “Honestly, that is just dumb.”

I know some of my fellow grammar Nazis are unconvinced on this one. I don’t think it’s a hill to die (or kill others) on. (For more on this question, see Grammar Girl, one of my favorite, sensible, un-Nazi-ish grammarians.)

Ultimately, for me, good grammar boils down to clarity and common sense. Does the rule aid in communication? Then by all means, observe it. But when it comes to rules, I think George Orwell had it right: it’s better to break a rule than to say something “outright barbarous.”

I recently stumbled on the claim that the word “lot” is singular and that it is therefore incorrect to say, “A lot of books are on the shelf.” Supposedly it should instead be, “A lot of books is on the shelf” (with “of books” functioning as a prepositional phrase). Um, no. See Orwell, George, rule six, above.

Then There’s the Arrogance Factor

I would add, in addition to common sense and reasonableness, it’s better for your friends to see you as someone they like talking to (or for you fussy types, to whom they like to talk) than as one who is mentally picking apart their every utterance. Does it really matter whether you refer to a literary work as “titled” or “entitled”? Meh. People have different opinions, and at any rate, what matters is being understood. Telling someone he’s stupid because he used what you deem to be the wrong word will only make you unpopular.

Having said all that, I do have a few of my own personal pet peeves. I love language, particularly English, and I think precision in word choice sharpens communication. So I appreciate subtle differences between similar words such as further/farther, among/between, envy/jealousy, fewer/less, and lie/lay, and I try to observe them in my own usage.

I love language, particularly English, and I think precision in word choice sharpens communication.

Reading “your” when it should be “you’re,” hearing about people laying down (we lay bricks, but we lie down), or seeing last names like mine made plural by adding ‘s hurts my eyes. (It’s Magnesses, not Magness’s.) It irks me when people on TV use the phrase “begs the question” to refer to simply asking a question, when it means something completely different in classical rhetoric. It hurts my ears when someone says, “There’s three reasons for this.” No, no, no. There are three reasons, owing to the fact that there is this little thing called subject-verb agreement.

But am I going to slap you upside the head, literally or figuratively, if you break one of my pet rules? No. Because while you’re over there squishing your ellipses, loving your alot, and dropping the Oxford comma, I’ll be over here starting sentences with conjunctions, using more words than necessary for the sake of fluency, and employing the occasional preposition to end a sentence with. Oh, and using fragments for emphasis.

As long as we can understand each other, if you put up with my grammar, I’ll put up with yours. Deal?