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. icon
    LostSailor (profile), 29 Oct 2009 @ 10:40am

    Effective Communication

    Grammar rules are mostly to make people feel elite, not to make them any clearer, according to the book.

    I echo what Chris and others have said. The point of grammar is effective communication of ideas. Some grammar "rules," such as the oft-mentioned rule about split infinitives, are in most circumstances somewhat silly. But others are reasonable rules for effectively and clearly communicating a writer's ideas to a reader. Spelling and proper punctuation count as well.

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

    This is often a fine standard for informal writing, but the problem is that while you may think that your idea is perfectly communicated, if you use poor grammar, punctuation, and sentence structure, you may not, in fact, be communicating effectively.

    On occasion, Mike, you've accused me in comments of "twisting" or not understanding your words. I'd submit that this may not be true; it's possible that you communicated your idea poorly and left yourself open to a reading of your words that was other than you intended, no matter how convinced you are that you wrote clearly.

    Pointing out grammatical lapses in blog comments is pointless. However, for anyone who writes professionally, and bloggers such as yourself certainly qualify, paying attention to good grammar, spelling, and proper punctuation is almost a duty if you want to communicate effectively and be taken seriously.

    Forget manuals of style. I'd recommend The Careful Writer: A Modern Guide to English Usage by Theodore M. Bernstein. It's perhaps the best guide to good writing around.

    My favorite part:

    Grave issues of law have hung on commas.... Michigan discovered that its state constitution inadvertently legalized slavery. Section 8, Article 2, read: "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, unless for the punishment of crime, shall ever be tolerated in this state." It was decided to move the comma after "servitude" and place it after "slavery."


    Indeed, our modern political life would be much easier if the Founding Fathers had used clearer punctuation in the Second Amendment in the bill of rights.

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