grammar nazis, explain yourselfs!

(note, this post probably won't make a lot of sense unless you're familiar with facebook.com, the social networking website, and the 'groups' contained therein.)

it has come to my attention that there is a young breed of grammar nazis with a loud, proud presence on the facebook. a facebook search for ‘grammar’ returned 500+ hits for group names. a lot of these are grammar school reunion type groups, but even more are dedicated to proper grammar, or, more accurately, to hating improper grammar. i intended to look at all 500 and count how many were pro-grammar nazism and how many were against, but honestly, i just couldn't take it after about 10 pages of group profiles. (and my search, of course, didn't hit groups about vocabulary, spelling, or punctuation!) suffice it to say, of my sampling, the ratio of nazi to non-nazi groups was about 7 to 1.

this might not appear very worrisome at first glance--after all, has facebook so far proven to be an effective launch pad for political causes? and the ratio of, say, pro-drinking to anti-drinking groups is probably much higher than 7 to 1. yes, they're frivolous and often ironic. so i'm just taking the website, and people's willingness to join these groups as some general indicator of the vague fancies of my generation. the thing that does, honestly, make me feel a bit threatened is the vehemence and violence with which groups (from both sides of the aisle) attack their causes and each other.

i use the word 'cause' carefully in that last sentence. each group on facebook has a category designation, and the most common by far among grammar nazi groups is 'common interests: beliefs and causes'. they're positively militant! several of the group names/descriptions involve the joke 'bad grammar makes me [sic],' but several are even stronger, such as 'bad grammar makes me want to shit myself and die' or 'bad grammar kills kittens.'

aside from the violently titled groups, there are the social pressure groups, which seem to fall into two main categories, with a bit of overlap in the middle: judgmental, and sexual. the judgemental groups are mostly of the 'i judge you when you use bad grammar' variety. the description of the group 'Correct grammar is your friend,' to take one example among many, reads:
Your and you're are not the same thing.
Ur, u, r, and any other stupid abbreviation are not words.
How about we learn how to use correct grammar and spelling so our generation doesn't look like retards?
the groups i'm calling sexual rely on the notion, as do so many causes and ad campaigns, that sex sells. (a search i never thought i'd try, 'grammar sex,' returned 16 groups, about half of which were on topic.) they have names like 'good grammar is sexy,' 'proper grammar is a turn on,' and 'girls like guys with proper grammar.' and isn't that just a coercion off a different color?

of course, i'm not the first to notice this phenomenon. already there is a backlash in the facebook community--that outspoken eighth group that is anti-grammar nazi. these groups have names like 'bad grammar just had sex with your bf/gf,' and 'educated people against grammar and spelling.' a post on the message board of 'bad grammar feels good and sounds cool' (bgfgasc) reveals the depth of hatred between the two camps (i'm sorry for the length--i can't resist posting the whole thing.):
this group is a threat to all who use language.
grammar is not a joke!
grammar does not exist for the purpose of being raped by inexpressive and incoherent fools like yourselves! manipulating grammar to form thoughts and ideas is what allows human progress to occur!
you think shakespeare didn't care about grammar? thornton wilder? shel silverstein?
you fools, with your screwed up syntax and abuse of punctuation, will bring the downfall of language itself!
and such a slippery slope! what's next?
you all simply don't realize what kind of greatness can be achieved by using good grammar in speech and in writing because you don't have the ability or the will.
think about this: [sic--watch as he struggles not to end the sentence with a preposition!] how can bad grammar feel good without the good grammar to which to compare it? when you've reached the point where you don't know the difference between good grammar and bad, how will it feel good anymore?
but seriously. grammar is important. your use of it is what expresses your true intentions.
rape? fools? human progress? downfall of language!!? a group member responds:
"you fools, with your screwed up syntax and abuse of punctuation, will bring the downfall of language itself!"

We can only hope.
there are, of course, more moderate groups like 'good grammar: not entirely unimportant,' but their message boards are equally abuzz with members correcting each others' grammar (even a member of bgfgasc writes, "We're talking about speaking with bad grammar, right? Because poor grammar in writing is bad bad bad.") and railing against the opposite group.

lest you assume i will wholeheartedly come down on the grammar-free side of the debate, let me say that i find many of these groups almost as disturbing as their proper grammar counterparts. first, they use the same rhetorical tactics (sex, death), as the grammar nazis. second, almost all of the groups i've cited so far use the same fallacious reasoning about what grammar is and how it works. personally, i blame the schools.

most, if not all of these groups treat grammar as a set of rules of the type you learn in middle school. and that's fine. be as pro or anti the teaching of grammar as you want. but in a deeper sense, language IS grammar. a lot of group descriptions, and especially discussion board posts, act as though language could exist without a grammar. (another post at bgfgasc: "To have no universal laws of grammar would be like physics without math to explain it"... ... ... WHAT!?) then they argue that this would be good and freeing, or that it's dangerous to the possibility of communication.

both positions are patently absurd because, and i can't stress this enough, even our mistakes are grammatical. EVERYTHING we do toward the end of communication involves grammar. 'improper' grammar follows patterns. speech errors, typos and mispellings are systematic. people who think they're eschewing grammatical rules to feel good and sound cool are sorely mistaken! they're just following even more deeply (cognitively?) ingrained rules that are so basic you don't even have to learn them in school! the same admonition goes for those who think others are 'breaking' the rules. they may break with certain conventions of erudite usage, but they'll never escape grammar or--god forbid--damage communication in any way. if people make mistakes that are too wild, they fail at communication, and that's the end of the story. if the same mistake occurs over and over again (and these are the mistakes grammar nazis are really afraid of), it's, first, psycholinguistically motivated, and second, it becomes the norm (or the rule, if it gains enough status). and that's how language changes.

i did find one group, 'El Club: Where Creativity And Originality Meets Punctuality And Grammar,' that seemed to have a reasonable political agenda. it bills itself as a safe space for spanish speakers to express themselves (in spanish, english, or spanglish) without worrying about grammatical norms. this makes sense because a minority or foreign group can be persecuted/excluded/marginalized for speaking improperly, and speaking properly in a foreign language might be especially difficult and socially intimidating. (interestingly, this group wasn't listed as a 'cause', but as a 'common interest: language' group.)

but, by and large, these groups that people choose to freely associate themselves with are argument for the sake of argument. they're all anti and very little pro. almost none of the groups posted anything resembling the 'beautiful' or 'free' language they claim their approaches will generate. they rhetorically marshal all the best and worst things in life: sex, death, illness, politics (don't think they don't talk about W.), violence, money, prestige, and acceptance, for what? for words? for apostrophes and commas? for a subject-verb agreement that will change in 50 years no matter what we do? that makes me sad for my generation.


i wanna be a grammatologist.

so, on a personal note, i'm casting about for a career. glamorous unpaid internships beckon, as does linguistics grad school. but my real passion turns out to be completely fictitious. worse than that, it's just a grammatical derivation of 'grammatology'.

'of grammatology' is one of jacques derrida's best known works; it's something like the bible (ahem!) of deconstruction. (i've never gotten through the whole thing, nor, unfortunately, do i have a copy in front of me.) in it, derrida outlines (literally--he sets the boundaries) of a non-science known as grammatology. on the one hand, it's a semiotics--a study of signs. on the other hand, it examines the foundations of the possibility of human knowledge. the tenets of the book never add up to a course of action for a positive science or a philosophy that one could live by. grammatology would always be stuck examining its own foundations in a never-ending self-reflexive mess of critical theory and no one would ever read the whole thing (ahem).

a google search for the term 'grammatologist' asked if i really wanted 'dermatologist,' but i think it's too late for med school. grammatologist returns only 763 hits, but they're some of the most interesting i've encountered.

-most appropriately, in an somewhat clumsy interview, jacques himself explains that there's no such thing as a grammatologist.
-a language log post about the history of the word grammelot and the tediousness of academic review in the blogosphere.
-a post on rhizome.org about a piece of pynchonian net art by mark amerika called 'phon:e:me,' which features a character who 'moonlights as an applied grammatologist' (it can be viewed with firefox, btw).
-and last, but not least, a mysterious message board discussion about martial arts, easter philosophy, and language.

but i think grammatology is more legit than a lot of people who use the term realize. i'm currently applying to a couple of linguistics graduate programs that focus on an phenomena known as 'grammaticization' or 'grammaticalization' (don't worry, linguists, i'm not going to say grammaticization is the same as grammatology!) grammaticization is a process of language change whereby new words and structures form from old bits of linguistic material. a canonical example is 'gonna.' 'going to' used to have a strictly physical meaning, but somehow developed the metaphorical meaning of future or intention. that semantic meaning became phonologically different from the physical 'going to,' which is still used (no one would ever say 'i'm gonna the store'), effectively making 'gonna' a new word or grammatical marker. (i don't really have an adequate grasp of all this yet!)

so, great, grammaticization happens according to certain predictable patterns. what does this have to do with grammatology? well, for semioticians, everything has a grammar. signs don't function as signs (don't convey their intended meaning, let's provisionally say) unless they're properly deployed within a grammatical structure. let's take a fairly literal and real-world example: street signs are a system of signs. they have a syntax--spatial, rather than temporal. the 'stop' sign at the end of my block is turned upside down, so it sort of reads 'pots,' but it still functions as a sign--we still stop at it. however, a friend and i, driving up i-35, saw a truck hauling a sign saying 'NW 63rd street, exit only' across a bridge. we did not interpret that sign to mean that we were approaching 63rd street, because it wasn't within the correct syntactic structure (namely, on a stationary pole over the highway). some errors impair meaning and some don't. if the same 'error' (saying 'gonna' for 'going to') is made over and over, it can enable a new sign to emerge within the same grammatical structure (i wish i could think of an example to apply this to street signs).

if linguists are studying the way new grammatical categories and words and structures form, what if they arrived at a generalizable model for how grammars grow and change? what if we could apply these phenomena of repeated error and re-interpretation to all systems of meaning and explain how totalities form, change, die? wouldn't it be sweet to be a grammatologist?



mike, a fellow student in my child language acquisition class, has posted an experiment (part of his final project) online... it strikes me as a fun task, and you can participate, even if you're not a child!

it's about the way we learn to recognize words in speech. i won't say too much else now, or risk biasing potential subjects, but perhaps after finals, i can recruit him to say a bit about his results.

test 1,
test 2,
test 3

ps - seems there's some paypal (as opposed to cash) money involved.

fake dictionaries

i've been sitting on this one for a while, admittedly, but there are two good reasons to be blogging about the phenomenon that is the fake dictionary genre. the first reason is that i was asked to review one called "mixtionary" by its publsiher, IDW publishing. the second is that i went to a small press book fair in manhattan last weekend (working for coral press www.coralpress.com), and discovered a couple of other prominent fake dictionaries. it occurs to me that the emergence of this genre and its commercial viability probably mean something about our relationship to words. let's see what it is!

the devil's dictionary (view online here) seems like a good place to start, and might be one of the earliest examples of the genre. written by ambrose bierce as a newspaper serial from 1886-1906, it was finally bookified in 1911. a cynical and satirical work, it purports to give the true definitions of common words for "enlightened souls who prefer dry wines to sweet, sense to sentiment, wit to humor and clean English to slang." thus, from the preface, the book is already directed to those who believe there is a right and a wrong way to use language. take, for example, the following entry:
No longer used by the timid. Said chiefly of words. A word which some lexicographer has marked obsolete is ever thereafter an object of dread and loathing to the fool writer, but if it is a good word and has no exact modern equivalent equally good, it is good enough for the good writer. Indeed, a writer's attitude toward "obsolete" words is as true a measure of his literary ability as anything except the character of his work. A dictionary of obsolete and obsolescent words would not only be singularly rich in strong and sweet parts of speech; it would add large possessions to the vocabulary of every competent writer who might not happen to be a competent reader.
as though words could be 'good' based on their aptness of meaning! there clearly seems to be a mindset here that meanings exist in the world, and to best express them we must simply be able to find the words that match.

a newer addition to the true-usage dictionary genre is maggie balistreri's 'evasion english dictionary.' the book is in its fourth printing with melville press, and is a list of trendy, throw-away, and other words the author generally considers useless or even misleading. the dictionary is touted as a mode of cultural critique, but unfortunately written as a personal attack. each definition is written as a statement the speaker might have said instead. for example, one of her ten definitions of 'like' is "I have finished my sentence." the word DOES function this way, and we all understand it to mean this on a daily basis. so why should i buy the book? what's so funny about the fact that 'like' has come to mean something new, and it keeps people from having to say "I have finished my sentence now. Is there anything YOU would like to say?"

the more i think about it, less i know where to start this critique. sure, it's easier to ask "does that make me a bad person?" than "doesn't that make me bad person?" but that's not the fault of any individual speaker, which m.b's rhetoric clearly implies. it also doesn't mean that 'does' MEANS 'doesn't' in any sense of the word 'mean'. and additionally, who says language shouldn't be easier to use? is it lazy or dishonest to ask the question one way rather than the other? is there no room for tact in linguistic prescriptivism? is it even possible to speak completely and literally at all times? watch how i pile up rhetorical questions i'm sure you know my answer to!

both dictionaries wittily point out interesting changes that occur in the language, but the odds that they actually mean anything about our culture are slim to none. there have always been hedge terms. there have always been more or less direct ways to say something. these facts are part of the flow of how language changes. we often abandon words once their meaning becomes too direct and transparent. but this is nothing to be afraid of, and especially nothing to be scornful and superior about.

mixtionary might be a special case, since it defines new, made up words, rather than giving 'true' definitions for words we use falsely. however, its project still has this 'were not using language properly' feel to it, since it seems to be proposing that we need to fill holes in the language. this, however, makes it a cute novelty and not much else.

it's got cartoons of situations in which the new words should be used (which are surprisingly female-centric... almost all of the main characters are women, and there is a disproportionately high number of words about shoes). the words are formed as portmanteau in a, once again, cute but uninventive way (as in 'fleeceo,' fleece + ceo... you can guess what it means). and, to be a nit-picky crossword puzzler for a minute, the words often do not match the definitions in part of speech ('blahtiful = blah + beautiful; a beautiful person who is vapid.')

so the book bills itself (sarcastically?) as "a guide to communicating efficiently in the modern world, in which new-fangled ideas and phenomena leave us at a loss for words." but the idea that anyone might read a book like this and actually adopt a word from it is about as absurd as the idea that people might stop being evasive after reading the evasion english dictionary.

i submit that the fake dictionary genre is intended for people who already care a lot about language and believe that other people don't. it creates a meaning/saying distinction that indicates we need some special training to really understand everyday language. perpetuating this attitude in a joking way strikes me as particularly dangerous, though i'm not sure why. maybe it's because it allows us to discount others' language by believing we know what they mean better than they do. readers can pat themselves on the back for knowing that, though the general public may go on changing language, the literati can always read the truth.