Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Grammar, Obsessions, and Nazis

Have you ever seen someone accused of being a "grammar nazi"? We all know, from numerous films and television shows (Indiana Jones is a good example of this), that Nazis are the easiest shorthand for "villain." Nobody likes Nazis, except other Nazis. Therefore, when someone is annoying, especially in a way that indicates their enthusiasm or a policing of others, out comes the accusation of "Nazi."

It is rather like the accusations of "elitism" which are bandied about during election time. Our "western" culture seems to have a distrust of academics and intelligence. We talk about wanting "joe sixpack" representing us, ask which candidate we would rather have over for a barbeque, and dislike politicians who seem too smart or have a good education. Both John Kerry and Al Gore were told they lost partly because they seemed too smart and, therefore, too cold, too elite, too.... well, too much like a politician.

Correcting others' grammar mistakes will often bring about the same charge. It may be annoying to be wrong and to have it pointed out in a public forum, but if the person was polite in pointing out the error, should "grammar nazi" charges really start flying? It makes the offense of pointing out an error seem hideous while reducing the seriousness of the Nazis' offenses. The phrase seems a lose-lose proposition.

Professionalism, Trust, and Grammar

I used to teach business writing at a local community college. One thing I tried to teach my students is that grammatical mistakes make a business look unprofessional. I have less trust in a business to take care of my needs if that business can not be bothered to have correct grammar in a sign, brochure, menu, or letter.

Years ago, I wrote my local councilwoman (she is now a state senator) about a local issue. I received a letter in return which almost made me cry. It had ten major spelling and grammar issues. It was typed by a secretary, but the councilwoman had signed it. I had been a secretary and I knew that my boss would never have signed a letter containing errors of any kind. She knew that the letter would represent her to the reader; I would have to redo a letter containing errors before it could go out. Here was a politician who either didn't bother to read the letters she was signing (and didn't know how bad her secretary was), didn't care about presenting herself professionally, or didn't know that these were errors. None of these options seemed good to me and I was unhappy to see her climb the political ladder (although this was partly because she did not help in the local issue I was concerned about either).

We all make mistakes. I am sure that someone will probably point out an error I have made, either in this post or another post. The point is whether the author tries to correct errors and makes an honest effort to improve.

There are some bloggers out there, even some popular ones, which I have trouble reading. One young and popular author does not know the difference between "its" and "it's" and "their" and "they're." I cringe to read his work, even though the content is frequently good. I unsubscribed eventually; although I still check in occasionally, I soon leave because I find that while his content remains good, his grammar remains bad. Even after it is pointed out to him, the errors remain and continue in newer posts.

I once read a very good post on a favorite blog where the author gave tips to "perspective home buyers" instead of "prospective home buyers" and it gave me a headache. This is like taking a diamond ring and wrapping it in dirty newspaper before giving it to the reader. The diamond ring is still lovely, but the recipient can be forgiven for not wanting to handle it. The covering sullies the content.

Obsession: It Comes Now With Sentence Diagramming, But No Vandalism

I will admit to a slight obsession with grammar. It is to be expected after teaching composition courses in colleges and universities for over fourteen years. I have spent a lot of time teaching grammar errors and correcting papers. It can get to be a habit, a slightly addicting one.

I enjoy the day I introduce "dangling modifiers" to the class (probably the funniest error one can write). I have fun with subordinate clauses. Commonly mistaken words can lead to some funny sentence exercises. I use traffic accidents as an example of passive voice and how the person doing the action can disappear (making it seems like it isn't your fault that the old lady was hit). Grammar is never boring for me and I try to pass on the enjoyment to my students.

A recent court case brought it home for me. Perhaps you heard of TEAL? This was a project/blog by a young man who thought it would be fun to go on a road trip and correct errors on public signs. TEAL stood for "Typo Eradication Advancement League." His blog was well written and contained many funny pictures of errors he had spotted and then corrected. I checked in on it every day or so. The problem came when he corrected a sign in a national park. The park found out who had "vandalized" the historic sign and went after the two young men. (More info can be found here.) They are now banned from national parks and face other penalties. The blog is gone.

I do not condone vandalism. The guys from TEAL often asked the owners of signs to fix them, but they also would correct things themselves (which is where things got ugly). I do understand the desire to fix the typos of this world. When an error is repeated too often, it becomes commonplace and may even become accepted usage. Just a few years ago, many newspapers decided to accept the split infinitive. My local paper uses the split infinitive several times an issue now (and I notice every one of them). What was once an error is now accepted usage. The split infinitive (made famous by Star Trek and "to boldly go where no man has gone before") is here to stay and perhaps that is okay, but there are plenty of errors I do not want to see become acceptable in modern English.

A few years ago, near USC, I saw a campaign to promote the local street of Figueroa with signs proclaiming of the area: "Its whats happening!" This was a large campaign and was right next to a major university. I was embarrassed for us all. I just never got out a pen and fixed the signs. Vandalism was the line I would not cross. However, I have been known to point out errors to business owners or blog writers; I want them to be able to present themselves professionally. I hope they will appreciate my concern and I try to be polite. I am often greeted with polite (and, occasionally, not so polite) scorn but at least I tried.

Nazis and Nerds

I began this post by talking about Nazis. What I really want to point out is that an interest in correct grammar (even an obsession about it) does not deserve such a stupid label. Nazis are an easy enemy today because we all know that they did some truly evil things (unless you are a Holocaust denier, of course, but that's a different issue). Wanting people to have correct grammar and spelling is not a sign of a Nazi.

I would like to see our culture move back to accepting education and intelligence as good things--rather than denigrating it with labels like "nerd," "elite," or "grammar nazi." Being smart and literate should be desirable--especially in our leaders. I hope that the politicians from both parties are very smart and educated people; I want a leader who is intelligent, not just one who would be funny while standing next to a grill with a beer in hand.

Some of my favorite grammar-related blogs:
The "Blog" of "Unnecessary" Quotes
Apostrophe Abuse
Engrish (errors in English by non-native speakers, which may be offensive to some, but I enjoy puzzling over what it was in our grammar or word definitions which led to such a bad translation--probably a holdover from teaching many ESL students.)
Cake Wrecks (sometimes has grammar issues, but often just funny cake designs, but either way it is too good to miss)

P.S.: I promise to be grateful if you point out any errors you find in my writing. I will know it is just because you care enough about my writing and about my readers to want to see the problems corrected.

UPDATE: An hour after I posted this, my attention was brought to a post on Engadget which generated debate over the usage of "further" and "farther" (with jokes about "father"). My favorite comment was:
And further, my father can throw your father further than Brett Favre can throw, which is farther than a few furlongs, furthering the argument that father knows best.
That commenter became my "hero of the day" for bringing humor to an increasingly pointed discussion. Further, this is a difficult word usage issue and I am glad to see that several people did care enough to write in and discuss it and no "nazi" accusations had flown (at least at the time I read the comments).


Sam said...

My father purchased the Elements of Style for me when I started high school. It has been an indispensable tool on my desk ever since.

Proper grammar, sentence structure, and spelling are no longer a priority within our education system or society. Standardized testing, email, and texting have all de-emphasized writing skills.

Dy said...

I have decided to declare you my hero of the day! While grammar is not my strongest point, I do notice when it is incorrect and it drives me nuts, a definite case of "I'll know it when I see it."

Thank you for showing me I am not the only person driven mad by poor grammar!

michal.lisa said...

Is there a term for it when commonly repeated incorrect grammar becomes accepted over time? I can't think of an example right now, and perhaps it's nothing more than slang, but I thought there was a word or phrase for that phenomenon.

Kim said...

That's a really good question. I can't think of a word off the top of my head that means grammar errors which become accepted over time, but I'd be surprised if there isn't one within the field of linguistics.

I remember from my linguistics class years ago that they had terms for all sorts of things, like the creation of a word, shortening a word and having it become common (taxi or cab from taxicab, for example), etc.

It is true that grammar errors, over time, become normal and accepted. We are gradually allowing split infinitives into the language (it is no longer an error for many style books for newspapers, for instance).

The English language is not static and although the French try to stop their language from changing (having a group which officially tries to weed out foreign words, grammar changes, etc.), the English language does not have a system of police to enforce grammar rules. We simply have style books and common usage and slowly, over time, common usage will cause the style books to change.

I'm just not an early adopter of those changes. :)