Grammar Nazis: Useful Language Experts, Or Elitist Snobs?

from the well-this-ought-to-be-fun dept

I know that my grammar is not ideal, though I really do strive to get the basics right. There are times, however, when I feel that the strict "rules" that are put forth by grammar go too far. If the text makes the point in a way that people can understand, what is the problem? On top of that, there's the utter snobbishness with which some (no, not all!) grammar aficionados put down anyone who makes a silly mistake. I have no problem with someone letting me know about a typo or a grammatical problem in a friendly and useful manner -- but all too often the message is delivered in the tone suggesting that making such an elementary grammatical error suggests that I obviously never made it out of the second grade. So I'm glad to see an English professor taking on the grammar nazis.

Salon is running a review of a new book by English professor Jack Lynch, called The Lexicographer's Dilemma, which argues that grammar nazis should chill out. Grammar rules are mostly to make people feel elite, not to make them any clearer, according to the book. Again, I have no problem with basic grammar rules for the sake of clarity, but focusing too much on the rules over the clarity is a mistake, and it's nice to see at least some "experts" agreeing.

Filed Under: english, grammar, language

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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 29 Oct 2009 @ 4:15pm

    If the text makes the point in a way that people can understand, what is the problem?

    I think the bar should be considerably higher than this, at least for anything I'm likely to bother trying to read. Things like capitalization and punctuation are used for a reason: they make writing easier (and quicker) to read, even when they aren't needed to avoid ambiguity. Bad grammar can be distracting and confusing as well, even if it's possible to figure out what was intended.

    As for prescriptive grammar in schools, back when I was in school, I was annoyed on many occasions when my English teachers declared that things like split infinitives were disallowed, because I knew that people have long used those constructions and that sometimes using them can be the best way to convey one's thoughts.

    Now though, I realize that my English teachers were completely right to make rules like that. The fact is, the vast majority of the time a high school student breaks one of these rules (even the "rules" that I disagreed with) they're engaging in bad writing. By demanding that students follow these rules, teachers can improve the writing of the vast majority of the students, while not adversely affecting the writing of few students who know better. I think this was even beneficial to me as well, as it made me pay more attention every time I used those constructions to whether there might be a better way to express the same thing.

    Here's a contrived example: whether or not the sentence "A preposition is a word you should never end a sentence with" is grammatically incorrect, the sentence "You should never end a sentence with a preposition" is a far better way to say the same thing.

    English, used properly, does end sentences with prepositions [does that make them postpositions?].

    I seem to recall that "postponed preposition" is the term. There are good linguistic reasons (which I don't remember) not to call them postpositions.

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