Grammar Nazis and Other Friends

posted in: Blog 3

Lately on my Facebook feed there has been a LOT of language-ism going down. Assorted grammar Nazi’s, custodians of English and how she is spoke and other miscellaneous lofty opinion holders supposedly of influence and high repute.

Now, don’t get me wrong, some of my best friends are Grammar Nazis and I love them for it, and am very grateful they exist. As someone who describes himself as a writer, those who are preoccupied with grammar and punctuation enforce uniformity on written language that should and does help us understand each other better.

Professionally, this is amazing, powerful and important. But when I see people condemning words, phrases, poor spelling, typos and sloppy punctuation to the 5th circle of hell, I really do wonder what is going on in their heads.

Firstly, unless you suffer from acute OCD I do not see how a few errors in social discourse can warrant so much energetically expelled bile. Secondly, I wonder how much such expellers of bile really care about the content and intent of the targets of their ire or if they are more simply engaged in ritualistic ‘mine is bigger than yours’ practice.

But lastly and more importantly, I wonder about their grasp of the history and meaning of written language and how it came to be represented by any system of symbols at all.

You see, language is a symbol system. What this means is that words stand in for things as symbols. There is nothing inherent in the letters or the order thereof that defines the meaning of the object they symbolise. As such they are arbitrary signifiers. There is nothing in the letters B L U E as arranged in that order that MEANS the specific frequency of light we mutually agree is blue… it could just as easily be ‘elephant’ that stood there. We agree that blue means that frequency of light, the word does not MEAN it. Similarly, the arrangement of letters that we agree represent female humans may just as well point to males. It is a social contract that gives interpretations to these symbols. From these interpretations we infer meaning.

Further, the agreed meaning of these symbols is in constant flux. As indeed are the rules of grammar, spelling and punctuation. For a concise example consider CUNT. In the time of Chaucer it was the polite word for a woman’s genitalia. Now it’s a word no-one utters in polite company. Too old? Try fanny. In the USA it means arse. In the UK and the commonwealth, it brings us back to female genitalia.

This is why it is a mistake to put too much emphasis on words, on lists, on naming and shaming. All too often people understand things slightly differently; all too often what we are doing is random, ego-centred and not likely to influence our experienced reality. Over-identification with language is an over-identification with an artificial construct that does not actually represent anything real.

It seems to me therefore that when we rail against ‘amazeballs’, ‘fully’, or any other current slang or jargon we are attempted to act as censor or guide to the evolution of language and meaning and stake our own private claim to part of its history.

It is also amusing that very often those who are the most pedantic in this regard are otherwise going as liberal, free thinking embracers of change. But such a limpet-like adherence to a dogma of meaning in the codification of language points to a totalitarian train of thought that denies variety, change and the ability to influence your environment. In other words, not very liberal at all.

I am sure that most of us have way better things we could waste our time doing. And I say waste specifically because the process of trying to condemn the meaning of random symbols that at best point vaguely at things is doomed to failure.

Think of the amazing things you could accomplish with the time and energy you would save if instead of getting all antsy about this, you just observed yet another moment in the evolution of your language. Wouldn’t that be more satisfying than giving yourself a coronary about something you cannot change?

3 Responses

  1. Dj bob

    Nice piece Dave. Evolution, yes, but the laziness that emerges with the shorthand is very irritating. Wht r yr thghts on this?

  2. DavidChiz

    I submit that its OK! Irritating, but in terms of the bigger picture, I am ok with it!

  3. Andy Crouch

    I agree that languages must most definitely evolve & keep up with the times, I’m with you on that point David.

    However, (I don’t consider myself some lofty grammarian btw) ,it’s important we bear in mind that grammar actually speaks of the relationship between words as well as of basic rules of the inflexions of a particular language rather than words themselves. The structure of a string of words or symbols representing words, be they outdated or contemporarily fresh, is surely what makes grammar for grandpa the same as grammar for grandchild – eg the grammar utilised by Yoda of StarWars would be considered grammatically correct English neither then nor now, wouldn’t you say?

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