A Thing I’ve Noticed OR What No One Understands About Grammar Nazis

grammar Nazis be like "*are like"Dear World:

I know I haven’t sounded all that understanding of grammatical errors recently.  “Another Grammar Rant” was impassioned and frustrated; “Ode to the Em Dash” was both pretentious and angsty.  I know what I sound like when I rant about grammar, what I sound like when I rant about anything I care about.  I know what I sound like when I’m whiny.

I will freely admit that part of my love for semicolons exists because using them makes me feel correct and intellectually superior.

That’s not why I’m a grammar Nazi.  Not entirely, at least.  Not even mostly.

Recently, I’ve been trying to find some inkling on the Internet that what I do is appreciated, even by a sliver of a minority.  Instead, I’ve found scientific studies “proving” that I, being a grammar Nazi, am a jerk; I’ve found grammatically incorrect memes telling me I, being a grammar Nazi, am ridiculous; I’ve found people who are convinced that I, being a grammar Nazi, exist only to make their lives painful and annoying; I’ve found entire articles intent on proving that I, being a grammar Nazi, am just a bully who is insecure and unwilling to reveal my own imperfection.

That’s not me, either.

Even the kinder things I’ve found have been purely to tell me to be more compassionate, like I’m not already.  To tell me just to give up the greatest passion in my life.

Let me say this now, World: I won’t.  I can’t.  This is who I am.

I will not apologize for that.

I cannot speak on behalf of every other grammar Nazi in the world.  I cannot say that every grammar Nazi is not a scientifically proven jerk, is not ridiculous, does not exist to make others’ lives painful and annoying, or is not an insecure bully who attacks others’ imperfections to conceal his own.

I can speak for myself, though.  Maybe, somewhere out there, a fellow grammar Nazi will read this and realize that there is someone else like her; that not everyone thinks people who love grammar are useless and outdated.

Let’s start at the beginning.

I began my journey as a word nerd when I was in Kindergarten.  I was five years old, and I discovered Series of Unfortunate Events.  I spent all my free time (of which I had rather a lot) reading, a book in front of my face, walking into walls and listening to Lemony Snicket’s voice more than I listened to my parents’.  I was hooked, entranced by the glimmering strings of words that somehow wove themselves into a world I’d never thought of before.  It was magic.

When I was in fifth grade, I started writing a book.  It didn’t amount to much, but I learned the art of telling a story, of weaving my own words into a new world—my world—and I was hooked again.  Now I wasn’t just watching magic: I was making it.

I never liked the Grammar, Usage, and Mechanics class in school.  I thought it was boring.  I aced most every test, retook the ones I didn’t get, studied harder when I didn’t understand it, but I didn’t like it.  It was too easy.

I was a child, and I didn’t realize that what comes easily to me doesn’t always come easily to other people.

In high school, like in elementary and middle school, I learned online.  For the first time, in 9th grade, my interaction with my classmates was mostly limited to written discussions.  And I realized that some people didn’t “get” grammar like I did.

It annoyed me.  I freely admit that.  When I saw a classmate’s research paper, littered with misplaced commas and uncapitalized i’s, not a single period present, “LOL” after every complete thought, I was offended.  I used the word “stupid” rather a lot.

It wasn’t because I’m not a compassionate person.  It was because I was too compassionate.

I am the kind of person who looks at someone else and sees every ounce of unused potential glittering unnoticed inside him, and I want so badly for that person to use it all up and then find more.  I wish I could live in the kind of world where everyone wants to find out how good her best really is.  I don’t, though.  And I saw all my classmates, not just lacking understanding, but actively shunning it, actively doing less than their absolute best, and I hated it.  It caused me physical pain, not because they couldn’t do it, but because they didn’t try.

In my junior year, I took a class with one girl whose discussion posts were so grammatically incorrect they were completely unintelligible.  I mean to say, I physically was incapable of responding to her, because I didn’t know what she was saying.  Ever.  Yes, I found it frustrating.

Mostly, though, my heart broke for the time when she would write a cover letter for her first job, and she wouldn’t find one because no one else would be able to understand her either.  I didn’t correct her, though, because I didn’t know where to begin, and I figured she got enough of that from the teacher anyway, and I didn’t want to be rude.

In my senior year, when I mentioned that I was a bit younger than most other seniors in my Biology introduction, a boy asked me, “hoe are you only [this many] years old and a senior.”

To this day, I don’t know if he misspelled “how” or tried to insult me but misspelled that too.  I asked him which he meant.  I never heard back

When I correct my parents’ text messages and emails, or when I tell a waiter that the menu contains a typo, or when I scowl at advertisements or t-shirts or what have you, I’m not being rude or disrespectful.  I really just want everyone to present themselves in the best light possible.  Grammar, to me, is like how people dress.  In person, you dress to convey the message that you’re worth hiring or knowing, that you’re fun or professional or geeky or fashionable.  The way you write is the first impression anyone will have of you on the Internet.  Why would you not strive to make it the best impression possible?

I am not a cruel person.  I do not take pleasure in correcting other people simply to prove that they are wrong.  I do not seek out opportunities to make people feel badly about themselves.

I’m just an idealist who wants everyone to want to be better.  And I convince myself, regularly, that they do want that.  That is why I correct people’s grammar: to help them be better in even the smallest way.

I understand that not everyone has the same skill set.  I understand that some people honestly do not have brains that process grammar rules.

But this is the way my brain works:  When I read something that contains a misspelling or other grammatical error, I see the error before I can process the message.  My brain places grammar as a higher priority than whatever the person is trying to say.  Therefore, when someone writes, “Your not helpful,” I process the incorrect use of “your” before I process the message.

And usually I don’t even point it out.  I see it, and I wince, and then I swallow all the annoyance and confusion and store it all away where it won’t offend anyone but me.  Reread the sentence a couple times to get the gist instead of the mistake.  Sigh.  Move on with my life.

But the few times I do point it out, actually take someone by the hand and say, “Look,” I get this look like, “How dare you?”  Like I’m somehow at fault for noticing when you’re wrong, for pointing it out gently, for saying, “I saw this; please let me show you how to fix it.”

I’m not trying to be mean.  I’m not trying to make you feel badly about yourself.  I’m trying to understand what the everloving heck you are saying to me, but that doesn’t work if you write it badly.

I think everyone has something to say.  I think that at least most people have something worthwhile to say.  I regularly wish that I could read every book in the world.

But I can’t even read most comments on a single subject on one site on the Internet if I don’t know what anyone is saying.  I can learn someone else’s language; I can’t not see when someone writes his own language badly.

When I say that grammar is essential to understanding, I actually mean it.  I am not being unnecessarily belligerent, and I am not being melodramatic.

I want to know what people believe.  I want to understand what you believe is worth communicating.  But I can’t if uz riites lyk dis yo

But instead of a single person making an effort to understand that,  you tell grammar Nazis this: “You’re being unnecessarily rude to foreigners who don’t have English as a first language.  You should be more understanding.”

But I’m trying to be understanding, World.  I can’t do that if I can’t understand.  I’m not being rude at all: I addressed you with kindness and courtesy; I will address the next person I speak to about grammar or anything else with the same attitude.

Anyway, as a learner of two languages, I would be thrilled if someone corrected my grammar, because it would be an opportunity to improve that particular skill set.  Also, it is fully possible to learn a second, third, or fourth language to such an extent that your grammar is flawless.  It’s called fluency.  I have rarely seen such a well-placed semicolon or em dash as in Atlas Shrugged, which was written in English by a native Russian.

But no one thinks of that.  You’re too busy saying, “Grammar Nazis aren’t perfect either!  You have flaws, too!”

In addition to being painfully obvious, though, this is a completely irrelevant argument.  If I’m ever ridiculous enough to enter a discussion about chemistry, biology, nuclear physics, video games, Windows XP, comic book collections, plastic surgery, or anything else about which I am ignorant, PLEASE FEEL FREE to correct the glaring errors I will make.  Tell me I’m wrong.  Be annoyed.  Be as rude as you like.  Maybe I’ll even learn something.  I will welcome it as an opportunity to do just that.

But we do not live in an age where people see criticism as constructive or helpful.  You’re all too busy crying victim, saying to grammar Nazis everywhere, “You can’t call me illiterate!  That’s mean.  You’re a bully.”

Never mind that, if you are actually illiterate, my statement is a neutral scientific fact.  (Also, you wouldn’t be able to read my statement anyway, if that was the case, so I doubt very much that your feelings would be hurt.)  And if you are not illiterate, then clearly I am guilty of faulty reasoning, hyperbole, or straight-up lying in addition to ad hominem.  If that is the case, you are welcome to dismiss my statement as irrelevant for one or all of those reasons.

But none of you seem think that clearly, because you’re too busy accusing grammar Nazis: “You’re just insecure.  Just wait until you make a grammar error and someone corrects you!  You’ll get yours…”

Newsflash:

  1. Occasionally, I am insecure.  That’s because I’m a person.
  2. Sometimes, I’m even insecure about my grammar.  That’s when I look it up on the Internet, like you could be doing right now instead of wasting your time making an argument you know I’m going to reflexively correct anyway.
  3. I have made grammatical errors before.  I’ve missed other people’s grammatical errors before when asked to help them correct something.  That’s also because I’m a person.
  4. I have had my grammar corrected before.  Once more: I’m a person.  Also, I accepted it gratefully as a chance to grow.

For the record, one of my favorite moments in my entire time as a high-school student was when someone Peer Reviewed my essay and told me that there were things wrong with it.

I hated it when the only critique I received was “It’s great.  You’re a really good writer.”  I got it a lot, because my peers either were trying to be nice or didn’t care enough to put much time into the assignment.  One way or another, I missed out on several opportunities to improve myself and my craft.

But you don’t care about that, either.  You’re too busy demanding that grammar Nazis make everyone else’s life easier.  “Just keep it to yourself!” you cry.

Maybe that would make you more comfortable.  It would not help you grow as a person.  It also would not help me relieve my own distress at seeing the state of your grammar.

“But,” you protest.  “It’s not your job to make me a better person!”

You’re right, too.  That’s not my job.  But maybe I’d kind of like it to be.  Anyway, you’re welcome to return the favor if you’d like.  I like becoming a better person.

Also, I could tell you what it says about your character that you’re willing to put energy into defending your Right to Stagnancy and your Right to be Wrong.  But that would be rude, so I’ll keep my mouth shut and make you happy and me depressed.  You’re welcome.

You aren’t even aware of the inner struggle that I experience every time I see something written incorrectly.  You’re so busy calling me a troll that you don’t even think about why I am politely pointing something out to you.  Instead of gratitude, acceptance, or even simple tolerance, you say, “You’re a jerk.  Science says so.”

Congrats?  That’s a logical fallacy, by the way.  It’s called ad hominem.  It doesn’t make me wrong, but it does make your argument invalid.  (Also, I say in the back of my mind, but never out loud, since the conversation has devolved this far, I will take this as an opportunity to point out that when you commit the ad hominem fallacy, you look like a sulking child and an idiot.)

I am not a grammar Nazi to make your life worse.  I am not being rude, or trying to be rude.  I’m not trying to waste time.  I am, however, trying to make my world a little better in the best way I know how.

That said, I usually don’t point out other people’s grammatical errors, even when I’m itching allergically to do so.  That’s because I’m nice, because I have some grasp on social skills, and because high school probably taught me more tolerance for wrongness than I actually needed.

I’m not saying that the only thing that matters in life is grammar.  I’m not even saying it’s important in the grand scheme of things.  I’m saying that it is important to me, and I am respectfully asking you to try to understand that point of view.  I am respectfully asking you to stop disrespecting one of my greatest passions and to stop telling me that I’m a horrible person for loving something.  Basically, don’t dismiss me for caring.  I don’t dismiss you for caring about chemical equations or video games or anything else.

Thank you.

Sincerely,

Cara Kennaway

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5 thoughts on “A Thing I’ve Noticed OR What No One Understands About Grammar Nazis

  1. Firstly, I want to say that this is an excellent post. I think you express yourself beautifully, and that you’re completely justified in your frustrations and reasonable in your defense and your expectations.

    Secondly, I would never look at someone politely correcting someone else’s grammar and think “Wow, what a jerk”, or “Gosh, how ridiculous” or “That person’s clearly just masking his/her own insecurities”. I don’t even assume such things when I see people *im*politely correcting other people’s grammar. And I get that I’m not at all the type of person to whom you’re responding with this post, but it seems like a silly interpretation to me, particularly when one considers the fact that there are thousands of comments on the Internet far more insensitive and impolitic than “you used the wrong ‘your'”. Also, people condemning other people’s harmless enthusiasm is one of my biggest pet peeves. You love language and you love accuracy in language, and if somebody says that’s a bad thing they’re essentially telling you you’re wrong to like something, which is hugely annoying, because there’s more than enough negativity and indifference in the world without people acting like it’s a bad thing to passionately care about stuff. (I realize I might be rambling, but I just REALLY CARE ABOUT THIS, okay?)

    That being said…

    Some people don’t take criticism well. *I* don’t take criticism well, even when it’s well-earned. Making a glaring error and then getting upset because someone else noticed it and pointed it out is something I’m guilty of doing. Of course, no person who’s ever corrected me has done anything wrong – I’m not mad at them for calling my attention to my mistake, I’m mad at myself for making the mistake in the first place. But when I’m feeling imperfect and embarrassed and therefore defensive and angry, it can be difficult to communicate the difference.

    Which is not meant to be a negative response to you in any way. Like I said – I think you’re completely justified in feeling the way you do, and I think you’re justified in correcting people.

    I think what I’m really trying to say is this; you offer constructive criticism because you enjoy receiving it. I am loath to offer constructive criticism because I hate receiving it. And there we encounter one of the greatest difficulties encountered in interpersonal communication: we as people are caught in the perpetual balancing act of understanding and controlling our own responses to situations while also understanding and empathizing with other people’s emotional responses. I may be hurt by something someone else says, but that doesn’t mean that person intended to be hurtful. And I may enjoy and seek out a certain kind of response from people, but that doesn’t mean other people will appreciate the same kind of response if I offer it to them.

    Now I’m definitely rambling, and I doubt I’m saying anything that hasn’t already occurred to you. More than anything else, this is me getting my own thoughts in order.

    Once again, this is a really great post, and I agree with and applaud what you said in it. And I’m having trouble coming up with a suitable way of concluding this comment, so… I suppose I’ll just stop right there.

    1. I feel it necessary to quote you: “Truly I know not how to respond to this overwhelmingly impassioned outpouring of righteous indignation.” Like, for real. I’m…glad you found it…compelling? ;-)

      Now that I’ve finished good-naturedly teasing you for writing a 500-word comment (also, there was a run-on sentence in the second paragraph—see if you can spot it), let me address what you’ve actually said.

      I’m glad you liked it and found it agreeable and reasonable and completely justified. This is, in part, because I enjoy being in agreement with people, but mostly it’s just because I really kind of needed that validation. So thank you.

      I get that not everyone likes being criticized. And that’s why I usually keep my mouth shut. :-)

      Anyway, thank you for listening to my overly explanatory, self-pitying rant. Jolly good.

      -Cara

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