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Birth of a Silent Grammar NAZI

December 19, 2021
(image via wikimedia)

Everybody knows the scene. A kid walks up to a teacher during class and asks:

“Can I use the bathroom?”

The teacher says, “I don’t know… Can you?”

The student sighs and asks, “MAY I use the bathroom?”

The teacher says yes, believing he/she has taught a valuable lesson about the difference between the words ‘can’ and ‘may.’ The student goes to the restroom, glad to get out of the classroom but with the belief that the teacher is a dick. The student most likely never applies the lesson of ‘can’ and ‘may’ to any other future situation that doesn’t involve bathrooms or getting out of class.

I’m going to give myself credit. In my 30 years of teaching, I never responded to a bathroom request with, “I don’t know… Can you?” I wasn’t morally against saying “I don’t know… Can you?” I just saw it as ineffective. Plus, when I made semi-sarcastic remarks to my students, I liked to use my own original material.

Even though I understand the difference between the words ‘can’ and ‘may,’ I’m not a full grammar NAZI! Yes, I understand most sentence structure rules, and I apply them as best as I can when I speak and write. Yes, I notice the grammar and sentence structure mistakes that other people make when they speak or write… but I don’t say anything about them.

To be a complete grammar NAZI, you have to correct people to their faces. I couldn’t take that step outside of the classroom. That’s why I’m not a complete grammar NAZI. I’m only a silent grammar NAZI.

I’m not sure I could be considered a good grammar NAZI anyway. I’m not very good at following orders. NAZIs have to be good at following orders. When a boss gives me an order, I usually get a small detail wrong and mess it up, or I ask so many questions that the boss just gives the work to somebody else.

I understand most grammar rules, though. There’s a logic to the rules, except for the exceptions, which then make the rules interesting. I understand the rules because I had a very thorough 7th grade English teacher, Mrs. Reischmann.

Mrs. Reischmann was the first grammar NAZI I ever met. She was tall with short blonde hair. She looked like a female NAZI. She even had the letters R-E-I-C-H in her name. I think she put the ‘S’ in her name to hide her identity, but she couldn’t fool me. She had REICH written all over her.

I don’t remember any specific instances when she corrected my grammar. She probably did. I probably blocked it out of my memory.

Mrs. Reischmann gave me my first ZERO ever in school. That, I remember. Students were to keep a journal with several entries a week, and I’d turned in some half-hearted writing. Each of my entries had been one or two sentences, and that was it. In my defense, she hadn’t given us a word minimum. I was silently outraged when I received my ZERO. I hadn’t even gotten one point for each word. After that, I made sure to fill up the pages in my journal. Maybe her lesson inspired me to be a writer. Maybe it taught me to be long-winded.

Mrs. Reischmann also taught me sentence diagramming. I don’t mean just simple sentences with a prepositional phrase. Reischmann was serious. By the end of the year, I could diagram compound/complex sentences with multiple adjectives, adverbs, and prepositional phrases. I could have diagrammed Ulysses by James Joyce. I wouldn’t have understood it, but I could have diagrammed it.

Sentence diagramming seemed pointless at the time. I didn’t enjoy it. I remember complaining about it a lot… at home. We didn’t complain in Mrs. Reischmann’s class. But I never had to be taught grammar again. Over the next few years, whenever we students faced the grammar sections in our English books, I understood everything right away. In college, I gravitated toward the writing and literature classes, and then I became an English teacher.

A few years into my teaching career, I tried to teach sentence diagramming. That was one of my worst mistakes in teaching. Whenever I taught sentence diagramming, students would sneeze and fart. Students could tolerate me teaching many concepts, but not sentence diagramming.

Unfortunately, farting and sneezing are great ways to disrupt class. When you disrupt class with an over dramatic sneeze, you can (lie and) tell the teacher that’s how you always sneeze. When you stink up a class with a fart, you can blame the guy next to you. Even if the fart is a loud juicer, the teacher can’t prove it was you. The teacher might know, but the teacher can’t prove it. There’s no such thing as a fart detector to prove who dealt it. If fart detectors actually existed, schools would buy them up.

I’m stubborn, but I have my limits. I gave up sentence diagramming, and students eased up on the sneezing and farting. Sometimes teachers have to give students their victories. And it was nice to breathe freely in my own classroom again.

I’m glad that I’m not a full grammar NAZI. Since I don’t correct anybody’s grammar, most people can tolerate me, and I get along with almost everybody. I know the difference between the words ‘less’ and fewer’ (not ‘fuhrer’), but I’ve never discussed it with anybody outside of the classroom. I know what a gerund is, but the only person I’ve ever explained it to outside a classroom was my daughter, and when I was done, she said, “That’s it?”

But now she doesn’t remember what a gerund is. I guess she isn’t going to be a grammar NAZI, not even a silent one. It will die in my family bloodlines with me.

  1. The one that annoys me is using the word amount instead or number when talking of living things.

  2. In my thirty-one years as a middle -school English teacher I often noticed students had amazing abilities to execute coordinated fart- gas attacks. I didn’t realize that sentence diagramming was one of the major causes of it until you made that connection for me in this brilliant analysis. That finally explains the strange medical condition both Clint and Robert had in 1984, the year a grammer-Nazi principal strongly suggested I teach diagramming instead of using humor in the classroom. You have opened my eyes. That must be the reason my unit on Mark Twain generally cured gas attacks and even consoled the girls who were deeply addicted to diagramming. Thank you.

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