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In Defense of the Grammar Nazi

July 13, 2018

(image via wikimedia)

It’s a lot easier to defend a grammar Nazi than most people believe.  Grammar Nazis are almost universally hated because they correct the grammar of others with no permission or warning.  People hate being corrected, especially about what is perceived as minor stuff.  People also hate Nazis.  When you combine grammar with a Nazi, it’s easy to make somebody hated.

But is it really fair to malign a grammar Nazi?  I’m not so sure anymore.  For a long time, I believed that correcting a grammar error was worse than making a grammar error.  For example, when a kid asks a teacher, “Can I go to the bathroom?” and the teacher responds with, “I don’t know; can you?” everybody thinks the teacher is being a dick.  Nobody thinks the kid is a dick for not knowing the difference between the words can and may.  Kids are almost always dicks, and the teacher gets blamed.  This doesn’t make sense.

This just shows how group think can poison the mind.  Grammar is important in making sure everybody can be understood.  It’s okay if a minor rule is broken here or there, but if every rule is broken all the time, people eventually will have a tough time communicating, and poor communication leads to conflict, and conflict leads to murder and genocide.  I don’t want genocide.  It’s ironic that a grammar Nazi is actually trying to prevent genocide.

The term Nazi is really overused today.  Technically, nobody is really a Nazi anymore.  Nazi was a political party, the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (it really should be NAZI, but nobody does that anymore, and I don’t want to correct myself).  Yeah, it was a political party filled with murderous thugs, but it was still a political party.  I’ve never seen a grammar Nazi try to murder somebody over imperfect wording or bad punctuation.  If anything, a grammar Nazi is more likely to be the victim of violence if he/she corrects the wrong person.

Besides, Nazi is just a term thrown around to disparage people you disagree with.  If somebody is a Nazi, you don’t have to reason with him/her.  Nazis are the lowest form of human scum and don’t need to be treated with respect.  That’s why you have to be careful with the word Nazi.  It’s a loaded word.

Some people don’t trust grammar Nazis because grammar Nazis are too structured, too bound to rules, and they change the topic of conversation just to correct grammar.  Nobody is talking grammar when the grammar Nazi corrects grammar.  The topic is politics or sports or reality TV when the grammar Nazi steps in.  That’s part of the problem.  The grammar Nazi almost always disrupts the flow of conversation just to make a point about grammar.  If people wanted to know about grammar, they would have been talking about grammar.  But nobody ever talks about grammar just for the heck of it, nobody except the grammar Nazi.

Even though most people don’t like grammar Nazis, I don’t trust people who get too defensive when their grammar is corrected.  I understand annoyance, if only because of the disruption of the conversation.  That’s understandable.  But people get defensive and angry and mean-spirited when their grammar is corrected.  You have to be angry if you call somebody a Nazi.  Nazi is not a term of endearment.  I don’t think even real Nazis walk around calling each other Nazi in a friendly way.  I’ve never heard a Nazi greet another Nazi by saying “What’s up, Nazi?”  I’ve never heard a Nazi say “How’s it hanging, Nazi?” to another Nazi.  I mean, I don’t hang around Nazis, but I’m pretty sure that stuff never happens.

Nazi is one of the worst things to call somebody.  A grammar stickler might be annoying, but the stickler doesn’t deserve being called a Nazi.  Hardly anybody deserves to be called a Nazi.  If somebody commits genocide in support of a political party, that person probably deserves being called a Nazi.  If a person combines nationalism with socialism, maybe that person is a Nazi.  But being obnoxious does not make a person a Nazi, even if that obnoxious behavior is about grammar.

This brings me to the hateful people with sloppy grammar who use the term grammar Nazi.  Those lazy, sloppy communicators would rather call a grammarian a Nazi than admit their own minor mistakes in grammar.  They would rather use a hateful term than agree that they were wrong about a really minor point and move on.  The term Nazi is used to shame people who are simply trying to make sure that the standards of communication are maintained.  Yeah, being called out on your grammar can be embarrassing and annoying, but it isn’t done from a place of hate.  Calling somebody a Nazi, though… there is not much that is more hateful than that.

*****

What do you think?  Do grammar Nazis really deserve that much hate?  Is calling somebody a Nazi one of the worst insults you can use?

15 Comments
  1. This is the most thoughtful commentary on this subject I’ve seen. Great.

  2. ‘For example, when a kid asks a teacher, “Can I go to the bathroom?” and the teacher responds with, “I don’t know; can you?” everybody thinks the teacher is being a dick.’ The teacher I had for most of fifth grade (and one class in sixth grade) would respond to, “May I go to the bathroom?” with, “I don’t know, may you?” Correct grammar had nothing to do with it, or he wouldn’t have been making fun of the kids who used correct grammar.

    One of the problems I have with the term grammar Nazi (aside from assuming person who gives unwanted correction of grammar = murderous thug bent on committing genocide) is that some people will call literally anyone who knows the difference between there and they’re a grammar Nazi, even when that person never interrupts a conversation or otherwise butts in where they aren’t wanted for the purpose of saying, ‘Your grammar is wrong.’

    I’ve occasionally been called a grammar Nazi by people who came to me for help with grammar and such. (I’m a copyeditor; people pay me to correct their grammar.) I’ve been accused to sitting around and memorizing/re-reading The Chicago Manual of Style for fun because I have no life, and besides, anyone who understands the difference between a question mark and a period is too stodgy and boring to have any friends, right? *rolls eyes* It is assumed (possibly by zombies — I don’t know, because I never asked any — but certainly by people making excuses for their own ignorance/apathy) that anyone who understands this stuff is butting into conversations to correct (or “correct” — there’s no rule that says someone giving unwanted advice has to know what the heck they’re talking about) what someone has said. It’s considered being a “grammar Nazi” to say regardless instead of irregardless even though you don’t correct anyone who uses the wrong word; it’s considered being a grammar Nazi to pronounce words correctly (such as not blurring every short vowel into a schwa — some people do pronounce grammar with an a in the second syllable); it’s considered being a grammar Nazi to spell the word your instead of using ur.

  3. I am for grammar, but against Nazis.

  4. Al Archibald permalink

    Not “no-one is talking grammar”, but “no-one is talking grammatically” 😉

    • I was too casual with my language there. I meant it as “no one is talking about grammar” in that sentence, but it probably doesn’t come across that way.

      This just shows how important grammar is for communicating correctly.

  5. I have four Grammar Nazi moments that bother me right now in American English:

    Number confusion with impersonal constructions:
    eg. “There’s bagels by the toaster.”

    Superfluous “is”:
    eg. “The problems is, is that the screen is cracked on my phone.”

    Using “as” instead of “since” or “because” in coordinating constructions:
    (not technically incorrect; I just hate this usage)
    eg. “I won’t be able to take your phone call, as I am out this week.”

    Journalists who use gerunds instead of conjugated verbs
    (I’m looking at you, David Muir):
    eg. “Journalists using gerunds as conjugated verbs.”

    I don’t actually correct people for their colloquial grammatical patterns, though. I live in upstate New York, where the whiny, nasal, orally fronted accent upsets my native New England ears and I am often painfully aware that different people in different places say things differently.

    Personally, I get corrected all the time because I use British spelling conventions in the United States. Not matter how many people point it out, I’m still going to spell favourite with a u.

    Great article,
    –Morgan Howland
    Pop Song History

  6. Here in Germany, that American term is particularly loathed because pulling the word “Nazi” out of its historical context is felt to show lack of respect for the victims of the real Nazis

  7. Another great post, in a deceptively simple style. I seem to have spent a lifetime biting back corrections to other people’s unbearable grammar. I have taught myself to keep the rage inside, even though they are polluting my beloved language. From a Grammar Nazi (and as you say, that term is sloppy too) point of view, it’s like being a musician and having to listen to an audition full of wannabe pop stars singing out of tune without even the luxury of stuffing your fingers in your ears.

  8. My own language Nazi moment here: Asserting a difference in meaning between “may” and “can” is a matter of word definitions, not grammar.

    I’ve ranted quite a bit about the “prescrivtist” vs “descriptivist” debate, which occupied some people endlessly:

    https://kitchenmudge.wordpress.com/2012/12/06/more-bad-language/#more-1966

  9. Grammar sticklers > non-grammar sticklers. How many times have I seen someone post a meme on Facebook, to which I could relate, and yet the misspellings made me unable to “like” it, because WHO ON EARTH could like something so horrendous? I live in Texas and see signs that say ya’ll on them, as though the producer of said sign could not possibly muster up the brain energy to understand how contractions work. It’s y’all. It’s you and all, and we squeezed them together. But we live in a world where parents name their kids N’tanya and D’shelle and go whackjob crazy on apostrophes without the full understanding of what they’re doing. Natanya makes more sense. What’s next? S’percal’frag’listic’ex””””””””””s?

  10. It’s frustrating when you do your work, and you’re totally overloaded for the day but you manage to pull a miraculous save and finish everything. I’m literally talking about two people’s worth of paperwork in one shift by yourself. And then one of your documents is sent back to you with a corresponding email stating that the entire document has been bounced back because it one sentence you put the period OUTSIDE the quotation mark. Yes, this is the American way because of type-setting in the 1800’s, but the other way is called “logical punctuation” and just about every other country uses it.

    It is my belief that if you do 2 people’s worth of work in one shift, the Grammar Nazi should just lay dormant, or if they must speak up, just send the email, not require the person to redo the entire document because of one minor error like that. Especially when other people that do their required paperwork couldn’t string together a coherent sentence if it was all that stood between them and certain death.

    Examples:
    MINE: Before he left, he stated that he felt “nauseous and dizzy”.
    THEIRS: Nausea and dizzy were symptoms said to me by him then he went to their.

    Those are actual examples. And yes, their is how they spelled it. For some reason there/their, to/too/two, etc is impossible for people to get right on formal documents. And they almost never get corrected because to do so, the boss would have to redo the paperwork herself because these people just don’t understand what they did wrong. But I’m supposed to go and find the exact sentence and change it from quote-period to period-quote because I have nothing better to do.

    Yeah, still bitter and it’s been like 3 mos.

    • You’re right; doing the work of two people should make you off limits to a grammar Nazi’s corrections, especially for a minor error.

      Unfortunately, the grammar Nazi might disagree. That’s probably why the word Nazi is used.

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