By September 28, 2017 0 Comments Read More →

Why I’m Not A Grammar Nazi

Years ago, I was interviewed for a podcast in which the host began our conversation by asking, “So, you’re a grammar Nazi?”

I proceeded to explain to this guy why I was not a “grammar Nazi”. Three years later, I married him, but I digress…

It’s a common misconception that linguists are “grammar Nazis”, “grammar snobs”, or the “grammar police”.

This is not true. Linguistics takes a “descriptive” approach to language, rather than a “prescriptive” one. That means, we describe how people talk and write, we don’t tell them how to talk and write. You don’t need to worry when you’re around a linguist that you “don’t speak properly” or “have bad grammar”.

If you think that linguists correct people’s grammar then you are confusing us with those who taught you “Language” or “English” class in school.

Many people think that grammar can be “good” or “bad”, “right” or “wrong”, or “correct” or “incorrect”. Linguists are more likely to describe these ways of speaking or writing as “standard” and “nonstandard”. Grammar that may sound ‘wrong’ to you might simply be unfamiliar to you, such as a regional dialect spoken somewhere else.

Some people mistakenly believe that “bad grammar” has no rules, but these nonstandard varieties have rules too, just different ones.

As I discussed in a previous article, many prescriptive rules such as “don’t end a sentence with a preposition” and “don’t split your infinitives” were devised by Robert Lowth in his A Short Introduction to English Grammar (1762). Lowth’s book was remarkably influential, probably because he happened to be the Bishop of London. As Jean Aitchison (Language Change: Progress or Decay) suggests, perhaps people believed his insights were divinely inspired.

Writers of the time were worried that English was slipping into decline (a concern that’s still around today) and that their works wouldn’t be understood by future generations, and so grammar guidelines became all the rage. However, these rules were just style preferences, which were often influenced by Latin. (Remember that English is a Germanic language, not an Italic language.)

Ironically, Bishop Lowth’s own writings often fell short of the strict laws promoted in his book of grammar, which is something I often see with people who preach “good grammar” today.

Prescriptive rules are not “correct” or “better”. Among linguists, the myth that grammar can be “bad” constitutes what has been variously described as “folklore linguistics” or the “flat earth” view of language.

Imposing rules on language is not scientific. It is merely a matter of preference (and prejudice) that was decided by the religious upper classes of England centuries ago.

So, as you can see, linguists are not grammar Nazis.

Before you go “correcting” someone’s grammatical “errors”, know that you are not “right”. You are merely imposing your personal preference on someone else, and it kinda makes you look like a dick…

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Karen Stollznow

About the Author:

Dr. Karen Stollznow is a linguist with a background in history and anthropology, and is the author of the best-selling book God Bless America. Her other titles include Hits & Mrs., Language Myths, Mysteries and Magic and Haunting America. Her forthcoming books include Missed Conceptions and Not What The Doctor Ordered.

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