Monday, 13 February 2012

Why I hate Grammar Nazi's

ETA: The Sad Life of a Grammar Nazi 

For all those people who think that dyslexics and those with other learning disabilities have an unfair advantage, what with being allowed laptops in school and given extra time in exams (not that I had such advantages) please believe me that once we get into the real world, you have all the advantages.
This is an excerpt from a publisher's blog.
If we're talking actual query [letters] I don't overlook those mistakes AT ALL. They are HUGE red flags for the project being queried.  If you make mistakes in your query [letter] you'll make mistakes in your novel.  I can't submit an error-ridden novel to an editor. Well, I could but I flat out refuse to do so.  
I encounter this sentiment so many times, not just from publishers but in my every day life (it's not always aimed at me, I hasten to add).

Did you know that Agatha Christie, arguably the best writer of the 20th century, was dyslexic? She wasn't diagnosed but they can tell from studying her manuscripts and drafts. I don't claim to be the next Agatha Christie (I'd happy to be compared to a Mills & Boon writer) but I cant help but wonder what sort of reception Miss Christie would receive if she was trying to get published today.

The thing is, subjects like physics and algebra have always come easily to me. Given the easy with which I view these topics,  I have never felt that others are dumb just because they can't do what comes relatively easy to me.
What I would really like to know is why people for whom English has always come easy, feel the need to call others stupid and point out their mistakes to make them feel dumb, just because some people can't grasp language and it's nuances as easily as they do? 

Tell me, what makes English and language so super that you get the automatic right to look down on others?
  • The ability to spell never helped to invent the lightbulb.
  • Grammar didn't help harness the principles of magnetism, movement and electricity, which are the basis of modern life. 
  • Punctuation didn't send men to the moon.
Okay, so to give language it's due, there have been some good plays and books but I honestly don't think that even Shakespeare has improved anywhere near as many lives as electricity has! What would you rather give up, books, or all electrical equipment?

By any reasonable standards, the things that I am good at have done a hell of a lot more for the world than an understanding of spelling and grammar ever has.

Despite being often being above average in areas other than language, most dyslexics have grown up being made to feel dumb for something that they could do nothing about. I can't tell you how unfair it is and how disheartening it feels to get your homework 100% correct and still get marked down  20% for poor spelling and writing, especially if like me, you had no idea why you couldn't do what all your classmates could do with ease. Do you grammar Nazi's out there have any idea how humiliating it is to spend your lunch hours being given extra English lessons while your friends are out playing and then in your school holidays, have a private English tutor because, for reasons that are completely unknown to seemingly anyone on planet earth, you are so stupid that you can't grasp what everyone repeatedly tells you are simple principles?

Do you have the slightest idea how humiliating it is as an adult to still have to ask for help with English?
When I give my manuscripts to my my editor, I cringe inside. I literally shrink with embarrassment when I see her editing them, even though she is as nice and matter of fact about my mistakes as it is possible to be.
Those old insecurities never completely leave us. I am so embarrassed to call myself a writer, I still feel like someone is just going to start laughing, because I was raised to think that my having anything to do with the English language WAS completely laughable.

So the next time you're tempted to correct your/you're, there/their/they're, rein/reign/rain etc. stop and wonder if you aren't the billionth person to point this out to them and if just maybe, there is a reason that they can't get it and that that reason has nothing to do with their intellect. Then maybe wonder if they don't have talents that would would make you look and feel inept. And if you wouldn't like your nose rubbed in your failings, perhaps you shouldn't rub other peoples noses in theirs?

Wouldn't your time be better spent by focusing on what they're trying to say rather than on what they're doing wrong?

I encountered Grammar Nazi's a lot when I worked at the BMA in my early 20's. Finally I'd had enough and told my supervisor that I would learn to spell when she could explain to me exactly what principles are proved by the worlds most famous equation, E=MC2. She never chastised me from that point on, just corrected my mistakes. Why couldn't she have done that in the first place?


  1. Hmm, while I wouldn't call myself a Nazi I am a stickler for grammar when my students write. Some of them have disability accommodations but that doesn't mean they get graded to a different standard, especially because the law means I don't learn what their specific disability is. The reason I think grammar is important is that it reflects the writer's clarity of thought. In student work, I often get sentences written so poorly from a grammatical standpoint that their meaning is ambiguous or even unintelligible. I also happen to think that expressing oneself clearly is just as important in every day life in our world as solving equations or building engines. Communication is a central human activity; if our leaders could not speak or write, where would we be? What, for instance, if there were no Magna Charta or Bill of Rights? What good would electricity be, in the instance of publishing, for example, without freedom of the press, for example, which is something that had to be fought for with words? These documents are effective in part because they express the ideas behind them effectively. You can't have effective ideas without clear grammar. So I am skeptical about any argument that takes an either / or stance. One problem that many of us have, for instance, is encountering difficulties with using the technology we purchase because the technical writing in the directions / manuals that comes with it is so dreadful.

    That said, there's a difference between a dyslexic and someone who hasn't mastered grammar. Dyslexia is a particular sort of processing error in the brain / nervous system. Most dyslexics I have met speak English without any difficulty and thus prove that they understand grammar and syntax. The issue in writing becomes a problem in coding their oral expression. People who haven't mastered grammar are in a separate category. They usually speak poorly, and as a consequence, they are unable to communicate their ideas. They genuinely don't understand how sentences fit together or how clauses modify each other, and they write things that simply make no sense. I suspect it's this type of writer that your editor above really wishes to avoid when he offers his diatribe about grammar.

    My guess is that unfortunately, this man doesn't understand well the difference between typography / mechanics and grammatical expression. Even the most gifted prose writers make mechanical / typographical / orthographical errors, and a professional author will/should always have his/her prose edited by a copyeditor before publication. I can understand, having copyedited a journal for ten years, why the man would decide, in a world where he can demand clean text, to do so. Providing clean text, even if you had to have help editing it, does make you look like you cared enough to provide the best text possible. But I suspect he would agree that the point is that the text be as clear and communicative as possible. For the latter, grammar is necessary (and mechanics are a plus).


    1. The written word on those documents is simply an expression of what those men worked out between them, but you're right they do need to be concise and even though they probably are (haven't personally read the Bill of Rights as it's American nor the Magna Carta as it's in Latin). Nevertheless, people are still picking over their precise meaning even today and twisting those words to fit their argument so it seems that it doesn't matter now precise language is, it is still always open to interpretation.

      Just look as how many different Christian religions are based on one bible, each interpreting the word of god in their own differing ways.

      However there is clearly a difference between someone who hasn't mastered language and someone who simply mixes homonyms up occasionally.

      I realise and accept that certain types of writing must be held to a higher standard than others but on the internet, in a simple letter or when sending an email, when the meaning IS crystal clear why do so many people feel superior by pointing out the difference between your/you're?

      I don't get it and as someone who grew up fighting against this prejudice on a daily basis, I think it's time that people got over themselves and let the little stuff slide.

    2. Actually, the Bill of Rights I was thinking of is English (1689), also, and I picked it because of that (although you are right that there are many documents with this name) -- sorry, I am a historian. :) Of course language is open to some interpretation, but it isn't infinitely open to interpretation. No does not mean yes, for instance, even if some men think so. Gerry hits Tom does not mean Tom hits Gerry. And of course its usage is historical, so that what a text meant four centuries ago may not be the way it's understood today (although, again, that's not really a matter of grammar). For any legal purpose, for instance, exactness is important, and I'm not going to apologize for teaching people that it is important to express themselves as clearly as possible, or for showing them how understanding and using correct grammar allows them to do so. I still think most of that what you're angry about is not grammar, it's either typography / mechanics, or insecure, ill-tempered behavior.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. So, Agatha Christie was arguably the greatest writer of the 20th century? Who on Earth have you been arguing with, The Disney Corporation? If it’s dyslexic writers you’re looking for what about Yeats or Fitzgerald?
    Truthfully, I find the concept of a writer who plainly states they have no particular love of language or the written word, who thinks having a microwave more beneficial to the human condition than the music of Maya Angelou’s words, a trifle strange. And the idea that landing on the moon, the development of the internal combustion engine, or the harnessing of magnetism, movement and electricity, would have ever happened if Shen Kuo, Gilbert, Newton or Faraday, had not written down their thoughts and findings, is more than faintly ridiculous.

    1. Christie is certainly the most prolific and had had many more reprints, not to mentions adaptations of her work than either Yeats or Fitzgerald. At the end of the day, sales is what counts to publishers and Christie's sales top the list for any dyslexic writer ever, not just last century.

      I cant claim any particular love of language because I simply don't like those books that everyone lauds. Perhaps PG Wodehouse use of language is superb but I couldn't make it through one book. I honestly couldn't care what the literati think of a book because all the books that I have heard praised to high heaven were unreadable to me.

      But make no mistake, publishers don't care about fantastic prose either because those kinds of books don't sell in high numbers. Finding the next Dan Brown is a much more important to a publishing house than finding the new Dostoyevsky.

      My love of language and writing comes from and is limited to a desire to read and tell stories. If I could call my job 'Storyteller' I would. Unfortunately people always require an explanation when I say that so I stick with writer or author, which everyone understands.

      Writing has it's purpose, of course, but that purpose should never be blown out of all proportion, which grammar nazi's do. The primary purpose of language is being the ability to share knowledge and on thw whole, the written word enables that knowledge to travel much further and more accurately than the spoken word.

      However, the written word has not changed the world in any significant way. It had recorded the wishes and agreements of people, rulers and courts and it has helped spread peoples ideas but the written word itself doesn't change anything. People change things and someone write about it.

      Two of the most well known events in the fights for equality had nothing to do with the written word, except as a way to share the news after the fact. One is Martin Luther King's 'I have a dream' speech. I have little doubt that had that speech only been produced in a pamphlet, it wouldn't be anywhere near so well known or have had such an impact.

      The second is when Emily Davison died after throwing herself under the King's horse to bring awareness to the suffragette movement. Her gesture involved no words at all but it's impact was felt through out the UK.

      And just so you know, Michael Faraday, Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, Albert Einstein, Henry Ford and William Hewlett (of Hewlett Packard) were all dyslexic and yet somehow their spelling and grammatical errors didn't stop them from changing the world and science as it was.

      Why did Leonardo write from right-to-left, in mirror image? Although unusual, this is a trait shared by many left-handed dyslexic people. Most of the time, dyslexic writers are not even consciously aware that they are writing this way.

      Perhaps the most famous dyslexic is Leonardo Da Vinci, who not only wrote backwards but his spelling was considered very erratic and strange. Still, I guess people weren't too concerned about that as his contributions to anatomy and science are unmistakable and much of his scientific work is still admired today for being far ahead of it's time.

      What would have happened if their poorly written, badly spelled work had been ridiculed and dismissed, as the agent in my post was want to do?

      Somehow, despite their lingual failings, they managed to get their point across, which makes your argument that correct grammar and spelling are essential sound rather ridiculous.

      It is also worth noting that most of these so called "rules" for grammar were actually the work men who based their opinions on their understanding of Latin, as it was fashionable for English to be more like Latin at the time.


    2. When it comes to things like American spellings, it was Noah Webster (of Miriam Webster) who purposely misspelled words in his "spelling books" because he believed that America should have it's own language. That's why Americans drop the U from words like colour, humour and honour, changed the S to Z in words like civilised and changed the the 're' around in centre and theatre.

      To think that such large portions of our language and it's rules can be dictated by as little as one individual makes arguing about those rules rather redundant. Who's rules supersede the others? English is older than America so doesn't our spelling supersede American spellings?

      Language is fluid, it changes over time and words even take on whole new meanings and spellings. To argue about these so called rules and put others down for not playing by them when clearly their meaning is still clear, is slightly ridiculous when since these so called rules so arbitrary to begin with.

  4. Pretty, but the rhetoric is weak and manner surly. The opinion you express hold little substance. and may I add some advice? When consulting Wikipedia, read carefully, remember it is not always accurate.

    1. Nothing I posted came from Wiki. At all.

      Your argument holds even less weight since you don't actually have an argument.

      Telling me that you're right and I'm wrong is not an argument, unless you're three years old.

      If you can actually refute any of my points, I look forward to it.

      If not, then thank you for playing but you are obviously outmatched and clinging to your learned ideas because you are afraid to admit that perhaps you have been wrong in the past, which would mean that you aren't superior to people just because you can spell and understand these arbitrary "rules" better than they do.

  5. I've been really troubled all day, since reading your assertion that the written word has not changed the world in any significant way. I probably shouldn't say what I think of that opinion. But I can think of a dozen examples where people were moved to do things by the written word that they might not have done otherwise. How else do you explain the significance of books like (for example) the Bible? Yes, people act, but they don't act independently, and the written word induces them to do so. We read this over and over again in the written records of the last two millennia: people who say, "I read this, and then I decided to...." It's hard to imagine how the abolition of slavery would have happened in the U.S. without "Uncle Tom's Cabin," to name just one example.

    Re grammar: perhaps the parallel in mathematics is something that in US classrooms is called "order of operations" (I always found in Germany that things had different names, so don't know if it's called this in the UK, too, or has a different name instead). It's stressed fairly early on in algebra that you can't solve an equation unless you understand the order of operations, because they tell you the order in which steps have to be performed in order for you to find the correct solution to the unknown variable. No one in mathematics would ever say that it doesn't matter where a parenthesis goes, or if you add before multiplying, or factor a polynomial incorrectly. It's true there are some situations where order of operations doesn't matter (in the sense that there are some equations where precedence rules aren't generated by that particular problem). But if you forget order of operations you simply arrive at the wrong solution. That's what grammar does in language.

    1. I am willing to concede though that I was probably a little to harsh in my original post because I was putting the con argument, not the pro argument.

      As I have said, the written word does help spread news and ideas but it doesn't create that news or those ideas.

      I mentioned many famous dyslexic's in the fields of science and invention, where one would assume that accuracy is also very important since they're dealing with some complex theories and equations. Those men wrote by hand in the time before dyslexia was widely known. Nevertheless those men's ideas were understood and people were able to see past the poor spelling and grammar and still grasp the complex theories.

      I wonder if the world then was a full of grammar nazi's as it seems today's, how many of those papers and theories would have just been binned without even a cursory glance because the covering letter contained flaws.

      Your likeness of grammar to maths is probably similar to legal writing in that it must be exact, but in 99% of everyday maths such stringent rules are not necessary as people are totting up a shopping list or balancing a cheque book, both things where the order doesn't much matter. And when I tot up my shopping, I round up or down to the nearest pound, so that's really not accurate at all but it suffices for my purposes!

      I would agree with you that when writing certain documents, accuracy is important, however you can't tell me that you can't understand the sentences below or that even with very poor spelling and grammar, their meaning can be interpreted various ways.

      "You're cats in me garden." (3 mistakes)
      "He reigned the horse in." (2 mistakes)
      "Its you're fault." (2 mistakes)
      Even the famous "let's eat grandpa" example is rubbish. It's hard to mistake the meaning unless you are reading an article or book on cannibalism.

      In short, unless your job requires attention to detail (such as law or editing/proofreading) and outside of teaching situations, people have no right to point out other peoples mistakes. Even if you are right (and believe me, many of these so called rules are wide open to interpretation or they simply have many exceptions, such as 'fewer or less' and 'I before e except after c').

      When my friends tell me they've waited 2 hours for someone from the AA to come and change their tyre, I don't tell them how ridiculously easy it is to change a tyre and ask why they didn't just look in the manual and do it themselves. When they call in an electrician (or me) to change a fuse or rewire a plug, I don't tell them that they must be idiots because even a five years old could do that.

      Sometimes people can't or won't do things that I think they should be able to do. Sometimes their actions even go against all of my principles, such as able bodied women needing a man to do simple things on their cars for them, but who died and made me the king of how other people should behave?

      You're good at English, which is great for you but I can guarantee you that you have failings in other areas. Maybe you are tone deaf, maybe you don't understand why the seasons change or why days get longer and shorter through out the year, maybe you're just untidy or disorganised. My point is that we all have failings that we would rather weren't constantly pointed out to us and the majority of people are happy to gloss over those things as they aren't really that important.

      Grammar nazis seem to be the exception to that rule and can't seem to help themselves. They're not nice about it, they're not trying to educate those whom they correct (and even if they could, what gives them the right?) and they seem take an ugly kind of glee in pointing out other peoples failings.

  6. I have worked as a professional editor and writer, as well as an engineer and a manager, for decades. I have known "grammar Nazis", the people who want to make others feel small and stupid because they have no other claim to fame. In my work, yes, I have been rigorous, but many engineers are dyslexic (and, oddly, left-handed and colour-blind) so they have needed me to be stringent about grammar, both linguistic and mathematical. I have seen my role as helping their work to look as good as it really is, serving to defend them against the critics who attack form rather than substance. Even when a manuscript is "dripping blood", there's no point to being unkind.

    1. How wonderful to hear from someone who can see that poor grammar and spelling doesn't equal thick.

      I confess, my manuscripts do come back "dripping blood". I hope you don't mind if I steal that phrase, especially since I write vampire fiction from time to time!

  7. I have a son who is dyslexic. We have heard incredibly rude comments about laziness. I don't know how many hours we have spent together trying to teach him spelling and grammar. To this day, he sends me stuff to read through - just in case. When he started college this fall, I told him to be open about his reading and writing difficulties. He is one smart kid, but you wouldn't think so by reading through his writing-heavy classes. Now all of his hard work is finally beginning to pay off, but he is always going to be a terrible speller.