Language Police and the Grammar Nazis

For most of my life I’ve been a grammar nazi. For part of my life I was a member of the language police. At one point, my business cards even identified me as punctuation czar.

I now have regrets.

In general, I hate the language police. However, I do understand their philosophy, and it’s not wrong. The implementation of it is sometimes questionable and heavy-handed, but the theory is sound. How we speak and the words we choose to use do affect our thinking. The reverse is also true. Our thinking determines our language choices. If you want to change one, changing the other one is one of the easiest routes. You can see its effectiveness in the fact that n-word is no longer acceptable not just in polite society, but in any context. The next to go will be the r-word, a much-used schoolyard taunt in my childhood. The world is better off without both of them.

Does eliminating the terms mean that people no longer think them or think of people in those terms? That’s a tough question, but we hope the change is real and positive. If there’s a chance that it is, the effort is worth it, even if restrictions of language choices seem foolish, feel dictatorial, and are easy to mock.

Indeed they are easy to mock. Hence the term “politically correct,” now a code-word for any words or phrases you think are unnecessary, clunky, or purely propaganda. Who hasn’t laughed at the saying, “I’m not overweight; I’m under-tall”? Who hasn’t winced when nouns (“slaves”) become long phrases (“person who is enslaved”). (The point of that one is to make the hearer think of the person first, and then the condition – slavery – and realize that slaves are not intrinsically slaves and not automatically slaves forever. They may have been free in the past or will be free in the future. I’m not sure that example will be successful. But “person with dyslexia” is, I think, better than “a dyslexic.”)

Textbooks these days are rife with examples, and when I wrote for and edited textbooks, I had to police the language. We couldn’t talk about birthday parties or vacations because some kids had never had one. We couldn’t talk about dragons, even in fiction because that might imply magic and hence Satanism. I once spent hours trying to think of a breakfast food that would be recognizable in most cultures. The best I could come up with was “juice.” Our joke was that the only acceptable words in the title of Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea were “the” and “and.”

Being a grammar nazi is a different matter. I used to take delight in knowing all the rules and enforcing them ruthlessly. Gradually I have gotten away from that practice. I felt it was impolite to go around correcting people unless they had asked for my help. I still corrected my family because – hey – it was mentally painful to be around people who misused hopefully or split infinitives. Or who mispronounced “nuclear” or “foliage,” for that matter. But I would keep my cringes inside when my boss mispronounced “sarcophagus,” until he finally asked me, “Is that how you say that?”

Over time, though, I’ve loosened up my standards a little bit. Before I was a prescriptivist (believing in and enforcing rules), but the older I get, the more I am moving in the direction of descriptivism (accepting the way people really talk). (Except in writing, which is more formal. And don’t tell me I just used a sentence fragment and started a sentence with a conjunction. That is the sort of thing up with which I will not put.)

I can thank linguistics for this shift in perspective. In one of my linguistics classes, I disputed with another student about whether a certain usage was sub-standard or non-standard. I was firmly on the side of non-standard. How I reconciled that with my insistence on the Oxford comma, I’ll never know.

The watershed moment in the prescriptivist/descriptivist debate came when one of the major dictionaries decided not to include usage labels like “vulgar” and “slang.” Essentially they were declaring that all words were equal in the eyes of the lexicographers. This caused quite an uproar. If there were no standards for usage, how could we prove that we were better than the people who spoke sloppily or incorrectly?

My soul was torn.

The change that came over me was due in part to a stunning revelation – that the English language and the Latin language are two separate animals. The old bugaboo about not splitting infinitive, to which I was passionately devoted, has its source in the fact that in Latin it is impossible to split an infinitive. Latin infinitives are all one word. It makes no sense to transfer that rule to English. “To boldly go” would not be possible in Latin but now is perfectly acceptable – to me – in terms of grammar as well as rhythm and meter.

I still can’t abide weather forecasters, though. “Rain shower precipitation activity”? What? Do they get paid by the word?


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