12.28.2006

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.

17 comments:

Seb said...

Are you really willing to say that speech errors are grammatical? I agree with a lot of what you say here, but that doesn't sound right to me.

The only other thing to say is that a club that claims that normative grammar is sexy may not be coercive. Rather, it may be a genuine self-expression of somebody's sexual preference. There probably are people out there who are attracted to what they teach in high school. I wouldn't deny them their right to express that.

Scott said...

I don't think anyone can claim that grammatical correctness is a sexual turn-on. (Maybe amidst some clandestine circles where pillow-talk scorns comma splices and faulty contractions.)

Also, under my interpretation of this laquerean rant: when she says that a speech error is grammatical what she's saying is that the speech error follows a predictable grammatical pattern. I'm sure somewhere on this god forsaken wasteland of digital diatribes we've talked about how pluralize death as "deathz". She could expound upon that a bit more if called upon, but I'm going to save myself time for now in not explaining it.

I might agree though that the heading "grammar" may be a bit to strict. Although, it's a cute word. Seriously. Grammar. Don't you want to play fetch with it? Meta-grammar is not so cute, but maybe that's where we're heading? I'd like to avoid meta-hell. So, let's just call it Zipadeedeeda from now on. Okay?

On that note. It's off to bed.

Hearts,

Scott

PS: Blog, I'm coming out of retirement. I'm like fucking Roger Clemens over here. Ya heard?

PPS: If I'm like Clemens does that mean I can have my own Rocket room? Cristi... What say you?

PPPS: gkkpyk :)

Anonymous said...

I just wanted to point out that while I think people are trying to make a point of supporting grammar or supporting poor grammar with facebook groups, the majority of them are also exaggerating their opinions to be funny.
~Joanne
(Creator of "bad grammar feels good and sounds cool")

Cristi said...

thanks to all commenters, especially joanne!

seb--scott is pretty much right. when i say grammar, i'm talking about two somewhat separate things (again, there's some overlap). the first is what you learn in grade school. the second is closer to a general systematicity. i'm arguing that errors are grammatical because they follow certain patterns that, while not necessarily predictable, are absolutely systematic. a good example is the fact that speech errors involving exchanging whole words almost exclusively exchange two words of the same grammatical category. linguists take this as evidence that those categories have some reality in our heads. we can't escape them or even really 'misuse' them.

and speech errors are a major source of linguistic innovation. that is, grammatical change is sort of grammatical in and of itself. i'm also not sure i'm willing to say meta-grammar (or zipadeedeeda, scott). i'd rather just do the derridian thing and say everything has a grammar. (see my last post on that point.)

as far as sexuality goes, good point. i may have been o'er-hasty in my clear assumption that no one finds grammaticality sexy. but why make/join a group advertising one's sexual preferences except to inform potential mates of how they should be? statements can be both self-expressive and coercive.

scott--there are no 'rooms' on the internet, rocket or any other variety. hope you'll come out of retirement anyway.

joanne--thanks so much for your post. for all my griping, i do come down much closer to the grammar-liberal side of this debate. and your group/group description are really funny and reasonable in my opinion. i talked about bgfgasc so much because the message boards are pretty amazing.

you're also definitely right about the exaggeration bit. i don't believe bad grammar actually makes anyone want to shit themselves and die. (at least, i hope it doesn't.) but the point stands that people take this debate seriously enough to make and join groups about it and to write about it themselves, even in a funny way. and i think a lot of the posts i cited do reveal something about how people thing grammar and language 'interact.' however the feel about it, some people really do go through life believing that systematicity is imposed and artificial. maybe all they're willing to do about it is make funny facebook groups, but somehow it still worries me.

Lauren said...

I'll admit: I've joined some of those "grammar nazi" groups. I've joined them because, yes, I do literally cringe when a person uses bad grammar. I cringe when someone says "u" instead of "you," or someone uses the wrong form of "your" or "there."

But I don't think that I'd die just be cause someone uses poor grammar. And even though I prefer guys and girls who can type and use correct grammar, I don't think it's "sexy," exactly. It's more that I don't want to be cringing at the same time I talk to my partner.

And I don't flame people when they use bad grammar. Say if I'm reading a fanfiction or a story online, and someone uses bad grammar, that's horrible. Well- if it's over-the-top. Like, typos are cool; everyone makes typos. But, all the same, I just comment telling them that they have grammar mistakes- sometimes telling them exactly what they did wrong (I'm very nit-picky like that) or sometimes offer to be their editor.

If someone wants to sound idiotic because of bad grammar, that's their choice. I know that I've judged people based on their grammar, and if they're okay with that then fine.

And to Miss "Creator of "bad grammar feels good and sounds cool:"

NO IT DOESN'T. IT SOUNDS LIKE YOU'RE STILL IN PRIMARY SCHOOL.

Anonymous said...

i like to ate ate ate apples and buhnaenaeesssssssssss

Cristi said...

lauren's comment brings up an important question i probably should have been asking from the beginning of this debate:

why the hate, dude?

why does bad grammar make you cringe? isn't saying that people sound 'idiotic' when they use poor grammar a kind of prejudice? do you believe that everyone less educated than you is an idiot?

fan fiction is an interesting case, because people publish it with the hope of receiving comments and corrections. but the grammar mistakes people make out of ignorance are clearly a class marker, right? correcting these kinds of mistakes is somewhere between correcting someone's table manners and making fun of someone's cheap clothes. the former may be justifiable if the behavior really does offend you... but we still need to ask why it does.

WHY do so many people hate bad grammar? (and, to joanne: i think lauren's comment is great evidence that, while some of the facebook stuff is exaggerated, 'hate' is not too strong a word to describe people's feelings on the matter.)

Seb said...

I'm aware that you were refering to two different things by "grammar"--prescriptive and descriptive grammar.

And my comment was meant to express that I don't think speech errors should be included within descriptive grammar.

While I agree that speech errors may be systematic in the sense that they occur with certain regularities and not others, and while it may be true that the kinds of erros people make are constrained by the kinds of linguistic categories that exist in the grammar, I don't think it follows that speech errors are grammatical, in the same sense that syntactically valid speech act that comes out as intended is grammatical.

I think I still basically agree with the validity of a competance/performance distinction, which seems to carry with it a notion of misperforming something. I think there's cognitive reality to this too: if there is some problem in the mechanism that makes me express speech act that happens downstream (neurally) of the initiation of the speech act, then it seems to me to make sense to call it an "error," and deny it's grammaticality.

natalia said...

it amazes me how many haters of bad grammar use absolutely terrible syntax. how is it acceptable to criticise improper usage of "your" and "there" in sentence fragments? how is it more acceptable to put commas in places where they should not be and omitting them where they should be? typing in lowercase? etc. goddamn hypocrites.
it's pretty hard to take a pro-grammar rant seriously when it contains a sentence like "but seriously".
freakin nazis.

steve said...

Hey -- that long passage "bad grammar is a threat..." -- I wrote it. You could have cited me! ;)

But really, while I do believe all that I wrote, as Joanne said, I was using hyperbole to be amusing.

If you thought I was showing hatred toward those who use bad grammar, you misinterpreted, and are yourself taking the whole thing way too seriously.

Cristi said...

thanks again, everyone. i'm glad this issue is getting the reaction it deserves!

seb- i think your prescriptive/descriptive breakdown might be oversimplifying what i'm getting at. but i'm glad you acknowledged that this issue comes down to a performance/competence distinction. i AM, in fact, attempting to reject said distinction. i think it hurts the study of linguistics, and i think it adds to the kind of grammar phobia/philia phobia we see all around us. i think the distinction necessarily relies on a 'meaning' being attached to each utterance. (along with quine) i don't believe this is a concept we can incorporate into scientific theories (yet?). i'm much more interested in the surface--exactly what is said. also, errors that become standard language seem to fly in the face of the distinction... how do we explain their absorption into whatever kind of deep structure we're positing? it seems much simpler to use a system (as the functionalist school does) that counts EVERY utterance and makes predictions based on their frequency. it's so much more elegant than all this right/wrong/what i meant/not what i meant stuff.

n-bone- yeah, the arbitrariness of these right/wrong distinctions really comes out when you read their rants with an eye out for any possible errors.

steve- sorry for the lack of cred! i probably am taking this way too seriously. but a) i am talking about it in terms of the rhetoric surrounding the issue. granted, we're talking about a group of people who are particularly rhetorically skilled, so maybe that explains the amount of strong language about this. hyperbole, whatever... it's still worth talking about. b) you're talking to a person who's kept a linguistics blog for over 18 months. when it comes to grammar, i just can't help myself.

Ross said...

To natalia:

I think there's a distinction between improper grammar (e.g. "it's" vs "its" or "you're vs. your") and improper syntax (e.g. using sentence fragments). When I read "you're," my brain interprets it as "you are." So when I'm reading and someone screws up, my first thought is: "Wow. This doesn't make any sense. This guy's an idiot." It's not necessarily true, but it's my natural reaction, and I'd assume it's the same way for other people who dislike bad grammar.

Philip said...

"do you believe that everyone less educated than you is an idiot?"

Yes.

Anonymous said...

you're an idiot. big time idiot.

Do you really know what a nazi is??

what the hell they have to do with grammar???

Anonymous said...

The bigger question: is "systematicity" a real word?

mike said...

I understand 100% with you.

I get people telling me about my grammar on my company website, it can be abit petty !

They are mostly teachers who tell me off even though I am nearly 35 !

Grammar is a good thing but we are not all perfect in English eeven though I am English.

Some people get a buzz from checking peoples Grammar and spelling but as long as we all communicate with each other...does it really matter...?

I enjoyed reading your post :)

teeth whitening teeth whitening

The Grammarphile said...

In response to Scott's comment: While good grammar isn't necessarily a turn-on, bad grammar is a definite turn-off. I've also noticed that the men with whom I've hooked up who have excellent grammar skills were way better in bed than the men whose grammar skills were mediocre at best.

I think it's cool that there are Facebook groups that support good grammar. (I belong to several of them...but not the violent onces!) Using good grammar is often a lost art these days. if you don't believe me, check my Grammar Nazi-ish website, http://redpeninc.blogspot.com, and see for yourself. Any groups out there that support good grammar are cool in my book (unless they kill kitties or something, and then I guess they kinda suck).

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