Yes, it is true. I am not ashamed to admit it. I am a Grammar Nazi.
It's an unfortunate title that obviously evolved out of deliberately mocking comparisons by the non-grammar inclined, and it's even more unfortunate that this title seems to have stuck and now embeds itself in our vernacular as the only real choice available when self-identifying as someone who gives a shit about not looking like a gerbil with a keyboard when in dialogue over the net. I don't particularly care for it, really I'd consider myself more of a Grammar Socialist, but the spirit behind the title is something I very much stand for, and will now defend to the best of my ability.
I suppose the main reason I'm doing this blog post is because I'm getting a little tired of the trend of anti-intellectualism that I'm noticing more and more on the web. It's always been there as a background noise but lately it's becoming more pervasive. There seems to be this general consensus that learning, intelligence and anything that could be looked upon with jealousy are inherently bad, and I find that worrying. There was a time where education was regarded that way, and everyone was stupid but the unpopular kids. Then the nerds grew up to be Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, and geekiness became cool. Now we're slipping back down to the worship of mediocrity, and people who battle to keep the standards high get demonized as self-righteous or snobbish. I want to put a stop to this once and for all.
We Grammar Nazis get a tough rap on the nets, there's no shortage of trolls wearing the title to justify their acting like pricks to people who really don't have it coming. Then there's the Grammar Nazi's Grammar Nazis, the people who incessantly try to correct us on our grammar as some twisted kind of poetic justice, which really only compounds the negative impression we get as it descends into a dictionary battle that just pisses off the bystanders. Then there are the people who try to be Grammar Nazis, but don't actually know basic spelling or grammar (or gerbils in jackboots, as I call them). Those are the worst. The in-fighting between all these groups reinforces this stigmatized impression of us as assholes, making it very difficult to defend yourself, because at some point you end up reasoning with a mob.
When it comes to this topic the Internet can be divided into roughly three groups. Grammar Nazis, gerbils, and people who pretty much know how to spell but find the Grammar Nazis intolerable rather than the gerbils. Of course, this means the deck is stacked against those like myself. On the one hand, everyone who is possessed of even a passable degree of literacy feels a tiny stab in their guts when they see people who for the life of them just can't understand the difference between "there", "they're" or "their". On the other hand... nobody likes a smartass, and everyone likes putting one in their place (even if it means behaving like a far more insufferable smartass in the process).
I can understand it from their point of view. I really can. Grammar Nazis must look somewhat like the obnoxious stereotypical comic book nerds battling one another about the technicalities of what happened in issue #321 of the Spastic Disaster Series, or the square-jawed body-building jocks looking down on those around them for not being as obsessed with the spandex-thonged glistening muscular bodies of their weightlifter idols as they are (in a totally non-homo way of course). The fact is when you have an elective group of people whose lives revolve around a particular speciality, it is justifiable to call them annoying and obnoxious when they spend their time poking at the lay people around them for not also being experts.
But that, right there, is my problem. Good grammar is NOT a speciality skill, it is NOT something that only those who have been educated in a specific way should understand. It's a life-skill, that means it's a basic part of the curriculum which you need to survive in the modern world. As elemental and necessary as knowing how to tie your shoelaces. Yes, it's true there are SOME people who take it to the next level, and snarkily flick verbal beans at one another with derisive, esoteric wit about one another's misuse of ellipses or dangling participials. It's true that not everyone needs to have THAT much knowledge of grammar to survive, but I'm not saying they should. I'm far more concerned with the basics.
I get it though, even with that aside I look like a dick when I go up to someone and point out what they're doing wrong. I mean, come on. Who wouldn't look like a dick doing that? In a vacuum, I freely admit that that just plain sounds like dickish behaviour. But I'd like to ask you for a moment to put aside that reactionary mentality. To take a moment to flush away all your current opinions and thoughts on the matter, and try to view it from a completely objective point of view. As if you'd never encountered anything like it before. Ask yourself... is it really rude to do this? What, exactly, makes it so rude? Bear with me here.
Let's say you're hanging out with a friend, you know, in the real world. That place I am told exists somewhere to the side of my monitor. You're hanging out, you're having fun, trading Pokemon cards or dancing to the Eminem music or whatever hip, young people do these days, and maybe you decide to go do something more entertaining. So naturally you go to the Museum of Historical Scissors. What better way to bond than over some well-preserved flint blades? Now here's the thing, while you're there you keep noticing that your friend pronounces it "sKissors". What do you do?
While I'm sure there are one or two exceptions... there always are (usually offered by people trying to be clever by attempting to derail your point) I expect that most people wouldn't think anything of it. They would simply say "You mean sCissors, right?" or some such statement lacking any negative connotations, to politely correct their friend, and be on their way to enjoy a riveting two hour lecture on the evolution of sheers from basic farming tools. Clearly this is a healthy friendship. When you see someone making a mistake, you HELP them. This is a sensible reaction. It's not only harmless, I'd go so far as to say it is the right thing to do.
People don't spontaneously lose their shit the moment they realised they got a word wrong or misplaced a vowel. It's not the rudest thing in the world to help them see it, and it isn't received as some malicious attack in the outside world. Most of the time the only way you learn a new word or what one you already use really means is by someone else pointing it out for you, so it's actually beneficial to our vocabulary. In fact most sane human beings probably wouldn't even bat an eyelid and, dare I say, might just even be grateful. You see, the truth is it's only on the Internet where we have developed this odd social barrier against fixing problems just to protect the fragile egos of those who may end up experiencing a split-second of feeling stupid.
Are we really so thin-skinned as a generation that we can't handle the simple act of someone pointing out a mistake without it leaving us so traumatized that everyone else must chip in to keep us safe from it? It's not like it's a harmless problem either. We're talking about people who honestly don't know where commas go, how the simplest of words are spelled. Are you going to tell me that education ISN'T a big deal in the modern world? Please. Education is the single factor that stands between the human race that built computers, the Empire state building, internal combustion, the cure for the black plague and the Internet, and the human race whose solution to the problem of "What do I do with all my feces?" was "Let's tip it out the window".
Education. Is. Everything. This isn't just about me not being annoyed by you not knowing how to type or speak, we're talking about communication here, that which separates us from every other animal. People who aren't raised to understand basic English (other languages I'll get to in just a moment) are lacking a fundamental life-skill that is exactingly imperative when it comes to finding employment, being successful, finding a mate who isn't willing to settle for gerbil, and in turn contributes to the domino effect of general enlightenment that will lead to them being an intelligent person with informed political and social opinions. You can't get through life as a sensible human being if you don't even have the most basic tools available to you.
We all have an obligation to look out for one another, and by extension, the future of this race. If someone doesn't know how to operate a door, are you being a dick for holding it open for them? If someone can't work the coffee machine, is helping them some kind of transgression? Might we consider it wrong every time someone stops someone else to say "There's something on your face" or points out that your shoelaces are untied? Should I also feel offended by the instruction manuals in every device I buy, or the store clerk who stops to ask if I need help when I look lost? There are few real world circumstances in which pointing out a mistake someone has made is not usually received as a helpful gesture.
Of course, tone and attitude play a big role in that. "You missed a spot" is seldom heard in a tone bereft of snideness, and perhaps that's a big part of the problem. How do you convey a helpful tone via text? It's all too easy on hearing correction to default to a caustic cadence for the delicate egos of the unhugged, sexually-repressed manchilds in this soft age of bubble-wrapped sharp edges and censorship. Anything remotely critical is immediately turned into an attack, and when graced by the protective anonymity of the 'net which so allures our inner elitists, isn't it also possible that those criticisms are sometimes deliberately spiced with a touch extra subtle mockery? I'd be lying if that wasn't the case, even for me.
Having said that, I honestly don't correct people who I see using poor grammar to be malicious or a jerk, I do it because I care about the horrendous, declining state of education in the modern world. Granted there is a certain karmic satisfaction, but the core goal is to fix a problem, not rejoice in it. I didn't do well at school, at all, and it was a very crappy school, but even I somehow came out of it with an understanding of the difference between "than" and "then". What on Earth is being taught in schools these days that causes so many students to enter the big, wide world with the knowledge of infants? It's like not knowing how to walk, you NEED to know the difference between a comma and an apostrophe.
Now, personally speaking, I reserve my Grammar Nazi powers for the villainous and douchey. Unless it's a shockingly poorly written post with EVERYTHING misspelled, I let it go. Anyone can make typos or slip up and type the wrong word, happens to me all the time. I'm not interested in pointing out obvious mistakes, only correcting people who genuinely don't seem to know they are making them. I generally wait until I see someone who is acting like a douche to someone else but in the process repeatedly messes up, then it's fair game. I use it not only to take them down from their assumed position of power and remind them what humility is, but also to contribute to the education they need to overcome such assholeish behaviour as well.
To be very clear on what kind of context we're talking about here, I'm saying that I won't just walk up to someone and point out that they can't spell. However, if I see someone making racist, bigoted or generally mean-spirited remarks towards someone else, either accusing them of not knowing English while hypocritically misspelling half the words, or simply accusing other people of being "dum" or "stuepid" - that's when I crack my knuckles. Consider it a mechanism of social justice, or a love of irony. It is never really something that comes out of left field though. They always deserve to have the soap box kicked out from under them.
Of course, this just pertains to my use of correction as a form of ridicule, I am less conservative about occasionally offering up a little *you're or *their to nudge someone who clearly never learned these simple distinctions in the right direction. This is with no sour undertones however, and is better judged in terms of that "there's something on your face" helpful mentality. Part of the reason there is no derision intended in these circumstances pertains to my next point, which I'm sure is something most people would immediately (and probably already did) recognize to be a flaw in the Grammar Nazi etiquette.
It's true that there are many people for whom English is a second or third language, and for such people, it is more than easily forgiveable if they don't happen to have quite as polished a vocabulary as native English speakers. They may well be fluent in their own languages, which is probably a lot more than I could claim to be, so obviously I am far more lenient in such cases. It's usually fairly easy for a trained eye to recognize a non-English speaker when you see one, the ordering of their words, the general phrasing. Obviously I give these people a free pass, even if they are being douches. I am certainly not one of those obnoxious people who take the attitude that if you're going to post on the internet you "must" know English.
It can be hard for some people to tell when they're dealing with someone for whom English isn't their main language, and to be fair some people speak the language so well, it's almost too subtle to notice. If I do call someone out on their grammar and they end up telling me this is the case, I'll happily apologize and congratulate them on how well they do speak it - before continuing to eviscerate whatever stupid shit they were saying to begin with. If you think someone isn't native to the language - let them go, that's a fairly obvious policy (which some people, regrettably, seem to neglect).
Note - I also reserve the same policy for those with disorders that make spelling and grammar more difficult, although being born with a difficulty is no excuse for acquiescence to low standards.
The goal isn't to convert the world to speaking English. I'm just as happy with people doing the same thing I do but in other languages. It's about protecting the fidelity to your chosen language and ensuring its purity, protecting it from misuse and abuse, and taking steps to prevent it from becoming the meaningless gibberish of an idiocracy over the coming generations. I don't think it's wrong to want to prevent that. If we're not going to respect language then why even bother with anything? Why don't we all just make random noises at each other? Because language has a purpose, and if it is to be useful, it needs rules that must be adhered to.
Since I generally remain reticent on other people's English skills until in some kind of conflict with them (and even then, only when they have it coming), it doesn't become a problem until I cross swords with someone, wherein it (hopefully) serves to distil a higher quality of argument from that person, as they attempt to compete not only with my case, but also my speech pattern, and hopefully help encourage them to become smarter. That's not to imply I'm automatically smarter than they are, in fact they may well be far superior to myself, but that's the point. They have to at least be on my level in order to take me down a peg, which is very difficult if they can't really convey their argument due to their own ineptitude.
I mean, not only does it make communication difficult, but it's also reflective of how well-educated you are likely to be in other areas as well, so it simply destroys all credibility. Do you want to look like you don't even know what you're talking about? If I'm debating with someone who can't help but look like they're typing with a turnip, how is anyone supposed to take them seriously? If you're going to stand any chance of disagreeing with people on a matter and not looking like a fool doing so, you'll need to learn to wield the language with some dignity and grace. Best case scenario? They leave, learn how to communicate more effectively, and come back a smarter person for it. I've seen it happen. Hell, it happened to me.
I mentioned that I went to a terrible school earlier. The truth is, while I did walk out of that landfill with a passable understanding of basic grammar, my general spelling skills were lacking, as was my vocabulary. I was never very good at getting across the thoughts and ideas that swam about in my brain soup (which I may be going into greater detail on in a future post...) but the point is, I rose to the challenge. I realised that I wasn't giving the best first impression, and I wanted to be taken seriously. That was one of the first steps on my road to re-education and general self-improvement, and I don't regret it. Sometimes you just have to look like a dumbass in order to recognize that you're not one, and find a way to show it.
Look, I'm not saying I'm a saint, or that there is a complete absence of predatory gratification in what I do, but my core motives are decent. I won't deny that it does make me genuinely angry to see the language getting massacred by idiots, and I won't pretend that I really welcome it when such correction comes my way, whether justified or not. But if you really asked yourself where you wish to stand on this spectrum, from intellectual to gerbil - where would you want to find yourself? You don't leave your house without pants on, you don't try to handle money if you can't count, you don't go to a restaurant and eat your pasta with your bare hands and if you don't want to look like a clown, you don't try to argue with people via text when you can't even spell. There are some things you just need to be able to do.
But are we really "Nazis"? Is this in any way a fair comparison? I don't think it is. There's no censorship implied in telling people to speak properly. There's no social police element to the passive act of simply pointing out the shit someone has tracked in. We have not the power to make you stop talking nonsense, only to ask you not to, and occasionally mock you for not knowing how. What's wrong with respecting the language I speak so much that I care whether or not other people do it justice? To me the English language is beautiful, its rhythms and patterns almost song-like. And if I hear someone butchering a song I like, guess what? I'll point it out. I do understand why this can seem rude, but I don't apologize for doing it.
Grammar Nazis aren't the bad guys, we just care more about you not looking stupid than you do. We give a damn about the shockingly poor state of education in this modern world, and the consequences that can have in every other corner of life. I know many of you hate seeing someone try to one-up someone else, but would you really prefer a world in which no one gets called out on it when they do something wrong? A world with no accountability or standards? Aren't you really just protecting people from the consequences of their stupidity, and thus enabling the stupidity itself? If you stand between a GN and his/her prey, what you're really announcing to the world is that you care less about who is in the wrong than you do about enforcing this egg-shell-laden landscape of social censorship and the insulation from basic education.
So who's really the Nazi?
All I want is to make sure that we're all on a level-playing field. Gerbils who can't spell are at a disadvantage, to say nothing of the validity of their points. You can't defend a position if you can't get three words without making yourself look like a moron. I did use to be a bit more vitriolic in the past, and maybe did it a bit more often, but time mellows, so I do understand the temptation to do so. My advice to other GN's is to hold off until it seems absolutely necessary. Doing this won't win you any friends. At the same time, however, don't let the fragile sensibilities of those around you dictate what you say. When you see an error, it is the duty of every conscionable person to correct it.
It isn't rude to do this, it isn't mean or vulgar or symptomatic of an attention-seeking mind, it's just standing up for the language we are all using as a medium to get across thoughts and feelings. If we abandon that medium, if we let it degrade into something less, something duller, what a travesty that would be. Protecting that language, even if it makes you unpopular, is not only objectively right, it's morally right, and the only place on Earth where people are so sponge-soft that they can't handle such simplistic correction is here on the net, where anonymity not only helps invoke such criticism to begin with, but also grants free licence for those at the receiving end of it to stomp their feet and pout and cry like whiny little babies simply because they, like all of us, dislike being reminded of their own fallibility.
For that small moment of inconvenience over which you flail and flounder like weak-minded little monkeys, you have learned something that you would have found far easier to unlearn had it not been delivered with such pointed barb, and for that you're welcome. You're welcome even though you cry and accuse, for the fact that you know something today that you didn't know yesterday. And should that education snowball, as you look up these words in attempt to disprove my correction, and gradually begin to care about being right, you're welcome for that also. We try to improve the world around us, albeit sometimes with a bit of venom, certainly, because if we don't - who will? Before we were Grammar Nazis we were just "people who know how to spell", we've been around as long as stupidity has, and we're the reason there exist rules to maintain and preserve the language in the first place. You're welcome.
So why am I a Grammar Nazi (or Socialist)? Why not just keep my mouth shut and let people spew whatever nonsense they want? Because I care. I honestly do. I care about people having the skills to improve their intelligence and help them convey good ideas. I care about not letting idiots infect other people with their stupidity. I care about communication and the enormous benefit it has had to our species. If only other people would care half as much as I do about not tarnishing such a valuable tool, maybe we'd all be a little bit better off. But at the end of the day, if you're going to sing my song at me, you better damn well know the melody.
UPDATE: As always, none of my blogs are "finished", and always subject to updating or alteration. I have elected to include in this article a short, hopefully memorable guide on how to be a Grammar Nazi effectively and without douchiness. Not all GN's behave in accordance with these rules, but those who do tend to be of a higher calibre in my opinion.
Edicts of the Grammar Nazi.
Rule 1. Never correct a typo.
Remember, the aim is to educate and improve the knowledge of others. Correcting a mistake serves no purpose and only makes you look like a jackass. When in doubt, phrase your correction as a question; "Did you mean to say X?" or simply leave it alone. The likelihood of it being a misspelling over a typo should be factored into this decision, for example "thier" is more likely to be a typo, whereas "there" used as a possessive pronoun is more likely a case of poor education, and requires swift correction. Let us also agree that this same rule implicitly applies to colloquialisms and slang.
Rule 2. Be as polite and dignified as possible.
That which distinguishes GN's from trolls is our ability to carry out the unenviable task of correcting the belligerent while retaining some class and decorum in doing so. Mock where mocking is necessary, hold back where it is not. Though requiring more restraint, it is objectively better to wait until someone makes a fool of themselves, rather than go out of your way to make a fool of them. Again, never forget, the goal is to improve, not denigrate. When helping someone else with an error, etiquette demands a certain level of patience and approachability.
Rule 3. Respect language barriers and disorders.
The goal is not to convert the world to speaking your language, and whatever culture you are a part of is not the only one on the internet. Always think before you attempt to correct. Analyse your subject, observe their sentence structure and try to judge if it seems likely they are not native speakers of the language they are using. Likewise, if you suspect, or are informed that the subject is suffering from a literacy disorder, do the right thing. Walk away. If there is any doubt in your mind that either of these options might be the case, just ask. Sometimes it is preferable to contact them in private to offer your tutelage in an environment free of embarrassment. Remember, though, that such limitations do not grant these people free licence to act like ass-hats.
Rule 4. Pedantry over advanced grammar is best avoided, except in case of serious douchebaggery.
Nothing puts people off more than GN's talking like human dictionaries, throwing out oblique technicalities and archaic rules just to look superior. Reserve this level of grammar correction for the sorts of people who have made themselves a worthy target by attacking or debasing other people first and can't be taken down by simpler means. Note - in case of stupidity, go with the obvious faults first. There's no need to add criticisms which most people might find unfair, especially if there are elementary mistakes already present. That just makes you look like you're piling on. Restraint is an excellent tool of any educator.
Rule 5. Never be afraid to educate.
Do not be intimidated by bullying and the ganging up on you of illiterate internet gerbils. Do not be squashed into silence by the unkempt mobs who sully their own potential with the worship of ignorance. Nothing good ever came from the sort of person who decided the correct thing to do about lacking basic knowledge is to ignore the problem or enable that ignorance in others by ignoring it too out of a misguided sense of politeness. If you care about the state of humanity today, and worry about how it will look tomorrow, do your part now. Sometimes intimidation will battle confidence, but at the end of the day, remember one simple fact - you are literally in the right, and they, the wrong. Is this really a world in which the truth about whether or not something is correct is less important than whether or not we feel a moment of discomfort upon being corrected? SHOULD it be? You decide whether that is the case with your actions.
Of course, the golden rule in all things internet, is know when to walk away. If you let trolls dictate your life, your argument will be as endless as it is ineffectual, and your life will be wasted. Grammar Nazis are a necessary mechanism of the internet (and education in general, when you think about it), and the modern age has developed an ecosystem in which we are truly fundamental.
We teach the lazy schoolkids what they should be learning in class when they are busy insulting people over the internet on their cellphones. We correct the people who simply never bothered to learn, or were unable to, and would, if uncorrected, go on to infect others with their anti-education. People learn by being corrected these days more so than just being informed in the first place. It's our job to be the bad guy who takes care of that.
We're here to help, not to insult. Forget that, and you cease to be a positive force in this inter-connected world, and fail in your duties as an intellectual custodian.
Thanks for your time, and take care.
No gerbils were harmed in the making of this blog.