Stop Worrying about Grammar Snobs

The Guardian is a very large and reputable newspaper, a prolific factory of words, ideas and comments.  It produces an overwhelming amount of articles from almost all walks of life. But, from time to time, it seems to struggle to find things to fill the empty spaces of the Internet. The following “rant” is an example of that occasionally fruitless struggle:

I have found that those who are preoccupied with grammar nazis are most often those who are desperate to flaunt some bit of grammar knowledge they have discovered along the way that seems to vindicate the mistakes they’ve been making for years. This knowledge is usually selective and incomplete, and their rants only serve to muddle the waters.

The argument seems more interested in exoneration of collective misuse than in grammar knowledge or language use. Complaining about those few people who walk around and point out everyone’s “annihilation of the English language” says more about the complainer than the grammar snob.  The likelihood is extremely low that someone who in some way misuses grammar has carefully parsed his or her own sentences or walked through the debate of real world use versus academic rules. The layman viewer of the video above will likely walk away with a confidence to be even more uninterested in whether they have made mistakes or not (yes, I wrote uninterested). The sophomoric revelation that language changes and grammarians are conservative and out of touch isn’t impressive; of course it does, and of course they are.  Which is time better spent, analyzing language and how it is used, or analyzing how assholes analyze language and how it is used?  Just as whining grammar snobs often do not have any real interest in language or communication (or friends), those who roll their eyes when someone corrects an overuse of literally also tend not to be overly concerned with the accuracy of language.

I diagrammed sentences in school, and it was traumatic and boring for most of my fellow students. I found it less terrible, and since that time my interest in grammar and linguistics has grown.  I am truly interested in language and how it is used, and therefore I spend a lot of time thinking about how to express myself clearly, but I also put much effort into trying to understand why someone else uses language in the way they do. There is a reason why George Bush says “nucular,” for example (grumble, moan, exasperated face emoticon here).  This empathetic effort is a responsibility of a developed adult that grows naturally from talking to a lot of different kinds of people. Some people are better at it than others. Linguists sometimes call this nerdview; it represents the ability to identify with another person and what they really mean to say.  The frustration of grammar snobs stems from a conflict between their own perceived specialized knowledge and common people’s comprehension of that knowledge in the real world.  It happens with any speciality.  Ask a cosmologist how many planets there are in our solar system and watch the facial contortions.

But when I fail to understand why someone apparently misuses a word or bungles syntax, and I raise a yellow card, it is not because I am a bitter white man who is taking advantage of a poorly educated imbecile.  Simply put, “you know what they mean” often isn’t good enough for me.  I want to know what and why, and I value the knowledge that I discover, and it helps me communicate better with everyone.  Unfortunately, this job is doubly difficult when a speaker doesn’t merely commit an error (i.e. “the man was wrongly committed of a crime”), which is just mistaking a word for another because of a temporary lack of concentration, but uses a malapropism, an occurrence in which the speaker or writer is unlikely to know where the mistake was, even if given the chance to revise or reword.  A lack of curiosity is at the heart of the latter problem.  Preoccupation with grammar nazis does not foster that curiosity.

I don’t expect others to share my enthusiasm, but I certainly have no patience for anyone with a condescending attitude toward my nerdy attitude toward grammar and all things word, and even less patience for people who temporarily pretend to be experts to justify their occasional (however justified) ignorance of rules. Does anyone who has watched the video above really suddenly want to argue about grammar and real world use with someone who likely spends too much time studying it?

There is a reason why terrific no longer means “filled with fear”, but I could care less is still problematic, and the key to understanding why is to give a shit in the first place.  Who knows, maybe in the year 3019 the word could will have evolved from an expression of possibility or ability to meaning inability, rejection, constipation, or the orange hue of a setting sun.  Maybe less will have changed to mean more, or half as much as the previous quantity mentioned, or a negative amount.  Maybe the whole notion of exaggeration or implication will no longer be useful, rendering the old 2016 expression “I could eat a horse” meaningless.  Maybe the entire clause will have molded into one word—couldcareless—a chunk of words meaning that you really don’t care at all what your interlocutor is saying. Maybe no one in 3019 will care about anything anyone says anyway, the sarcastic phrase having long died out.  But until then, I will insist on understanding that the grammar of the phrase “I could care less” is counterintuitive and lays just a bit of extra work on the careful reader or listener, first to assume what the speaker really means, and then to move on with the conversation as if nothing happened (not to mention deciding whether or not to reiterate the grammatically correct version at the risk of looking like a pretentious tit or a disdainful ass).

So, a middle ground must be found here, people.  Some suggestions:

  • If you use language as some sort of mechanism for tyranny or intimidation, it is ethically questionable at best.
  • If you aren’t sure what something means, look it up.
  • It is usually a waste of time to moan about someone’s apparent misuse of their own native language (but I won’t pretend I don’t do it).
  • If you simply don’t care if what you are saying is clear, correct, a misuse, or coherent, then don’t always expect to be taken seriously.
  • No — rappers, grocery signs, Internet memes and adolescents are not destroying English. Languages (especially English) change constantly, and this fact should be relished.  It is more interesting and worthwhile to pursue an understanding of Ludacris’s use of hyperbole than to dismiss it entirely.
  • If a publication has house style or rules, follow those rules and move on. If I had the opportunity to write for the New Yorker, I wouldn’t hesitate to spell reëlection that way.  If a local newspaper wants the Oxford comma, do it and get over it.  If your cat prefers the Chicago Manual of Style, abide.
  • If you ever find yourself in a confrontation with someone who is using their superior language as a weapon, it helps to have a few arrows in your own quiver.  The advantage almost always goes to the one with more expertise, not less.
  • If you want to know how to use language in a way that serves as a bullshit detector for both pretentious grammar snobs and pretentious people who complain about pretentious grammar snobs, read a lot of varied and diverse materials, and often.



2 thoughts on “Stop Worrying about Grammar Snobs

  1. I am a retired English teacher, and now copy edit and tutor part-time for a living, so I care very much about ‘correct’ usage — though I often use a softening approach — ‘this is casual; the usual formal phrasing is ______ or ______’. I also collect misusages, and I’ve added ‘commited of a crime’ to my growing list (e.g. ‘I would love to touch basis in the near future’). And I will appropriate, ponder, adapt and share your list of tips.

    One disagreement. Yes, people are often thoughtlessly misusing ‘I could care less’ — but I think it’s actually a valid colloquialism, along the lines of a double negative like ‘ain’t no reason’, and in fact about as far from counterintuitive as ‘ain’t no’ — as long as the speaker or writer is 1) clearly in a colloquial expressive mode and 2) aware of the technical or formal ‘incorrectness’ when using it.

    Many thanks and bright days!

    1. Thanks for the comment!
      Yes, I agree with your stance on “could care less.” As the expression evolves in usage, the technical meaning of the words may become irrelevant, which occurs often in our language, at which time I’ll have to finally get over my pet peeve.

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