Grammar, and Its Nazis…

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Grammar is one of those words that either causes a temporary heightening of stress, or it intrigues you to a point where you end up losing hours figuring out something about a language (no prizes for guessing which one applies to me) but a recent chat with someone got me thinking about the term “Grammar Nazi”… Are we just throwing it out there when an unwitting Internet user uses their instead of there? Are there greater implications on its use? When it comes to online communication, more and more people are using (or at least searching for, according to the following link) Grammar Nazi. If you’ve not seen this in use yet, let me firstly welcome you to the Internet, and explain it as follows: you might get your their/there mixed up, only to have it corrected by another person, to which you reply by calling them a “Grammar Nazi.”

This tends to occur – at least from what I’ve experienced – when there are homophones* and heterographs involved. These are words that sound the same when spoken but are spelled differently, such as there/their/they’re, your/you’re, and write/right/rite/wright (have a look here for a huge list of Engish multinyms). Sometimes it’s an honest mistake, and other times the writer won’t understand the differences. The “Grammar Nazi” will often censure your inappropriate use of a word. If you happen to be part of an online discussion or argument – often called a Flame War – use of this term can often heighten tensions, too.

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Some people don’t agree with its usage because of the connotations surrounding the word Nazi – a word which was nearly banned in Isreal earlier this year. Some people don’t agree with it because, as mentioned above, it often adds to and heightens an argument. While I  agree with these standpoints, my reasoning for the dislike also involves these two points:

  1. Whenever I want to talk to someone about an error/difference in language production, I will try to do so in the least patronising way possible. I know countless people who do this in exactly the same way. Unfortunately, it seems nowadays that the person helping is labelled a Grammar Nazi, and that just seems kind of rude
  2. Grammar is much more than just  heterographs, but the increase of this term may be skewing what people may think it means

To elaborate on that second point, a quick poll I performed showed that many people thought that grammar started and ended with punctuation and verbs, mainly due to these being the main areas that Grammar Nazis pull them up on. Remember, the grammar of a language are the rules of a language, so it covers much more:

  • Nouns – capitalisation rules, countable nouns, plural forms…
  • Adjectives – placement, formation of comparisons…
  • Verbs – tenses, moods, passives…
  • Adverbs – formation, adverbs of certainty, degree, time…
  • Determiners – articles, quantifiers, distributives…
  • Speech – direct, indirect, reporting…
  • Clauses – prepositons, defining and non-defining relative clauses…
  • Punctuation – full stops, semi-colons, parentheses…

Basically, there are A LOT of things that grammar entails in any language. Some languages have a stricter set of grammatical rules than others, and there will be areas of grammar that exist in one language that don’t exist in another (see my post on masculine and feminine nouns). Just have a quick think, though… if you’re native English, you’re probably using a lot of these aspects of grammar very accurately and through no more conscious effort than navigating from one room in a building to another.

So I suppose the conclusions to this post are as follows:

  • Grammar Nazi is a term that very rarely leads to good outcomes, so try to avoid using it, especially if the other person is only trying to help (if that person is being pedantic, however, you have my permission to give them death stares)
  • Grammar is much more than just mixing up homophones or knowing the difference between a comma and a semicolon
  • You know much more about grammar than you think, so don’t be afraid of it!

And finally…

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*Speaking of homophones, here’s a story of a school in Utah that fired a teacher, partially due to their misunderstanding of prefixes and mostly due to their intolerance

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One thought on “Grammar, and Its Nazis…

  1. English is my second language and was good enough in high school. But when I first have to use it as the main language in uni I have encountered its second face, many people with less capable english than me can speak better. Lucky me, I have some friends that still correcting my grammar even until now, not everytime but time to time, and most of the time I am the one who popped the questions too. So, I think unless one is really sensitive, having a ‘grammar Nazi’ friend is not that bad.

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