Grammar Nazis

An ugly name for an ugly phenomenon. So why are there Grammar Nazis? Is it really about grammar, or about what the word Nazi represents, which is to say, the desire to control and criticize other people?

It’s definitely not about grammar, because grammar is entirely misunderstood by grammar Nazis, and often by their victims too. Grammar is a descriptive science, like botany or zoology. It reports the structures which binds words together to make meaningful sentences, just as botany reports the structures which enable plants to reproduce and grow. In biology, it makes no sense to describe something you’ve observed in nature as wrong or bad. The only ‘wrong’ thing you could describe would be a species of mammal with three heads or with ears on their legs. It would be wrong because such things never occur. But you could correctly describe an insect with hearing organs on its legs — they exist.

In the same way, it makes no sense to speak of wrong or bad grammar. The only possible meaning to the expression wrong or bad grammar is a sentence that never occurs, like this: cat the mat the on sat. (There are languages in which the equivalent words, so arranged, would make up a well-formed sentence.)

The way a person joins words together in sentences can’t be wrong, any more than the way fruit grows on a plant or fur grows on an animal can be wrong. Of course, when people speak, they do very often produce highly disjointed sentences, but this is due to their changing their minds about what they are trying to say, getting confused, stumbling over words, trying to remember things, and so on. It doesn’t affect the fact that they can use the structures of the language as well as anyone else.

There are indeed many things that can be structured in more than one way in the English language as in every other. A small minority of these have historically been picked on by purists wanting to identify one of the two variants as right and the other as wrong. There are many other variations that no one seems to have a problem with. As far as I know, nobody worries about whether you say this laptop needs to be mended, this laptop needs mending, or (if you are Scottish) this laptop needs mended. But there is often a furore about I was sat at the bus stop for an hour rather than I was sitting at the bus stop for an hour. Sometimes it’s a matter of regional or (as in the latter case) class dialect difference, sometimes not.

In quite a few cases where two ways of putting something coexist, it is actually a gradual linguistic change that is taking place. This is fascinating for the historian of language, who can see the evidence of change in texts from past ages but can only guess at the mechanisms behind them. A paper written in the 1960s predicted that in time, aware of and conscious of would be overtaken by aware about and conscious about. This is now happening.

Here’s another example of a change within standard English. In my old-fashioned idiolect, I say if you had got up early this morning you might have heard the cuckoo, implying that you didn’t do either. But it is now common to say, with the same meaning, if you had got up early you may have heard the cuckoo, which sounds like nonsense, since for me you may have heard the cuckoo means that I don’t know whether you did or not. 

When I revised the Oxford English Dictionary’s entry for the verb MAY about 20 years ago I was fascinated to discover this grammatical change. Modal verbs, of which MAY is one, are intricate and ever changing, so for me, as a grammarian, it was like discovering a new species of beetle is for an entomologist (not to be confused with an etymologist, which I also am). Because I’m an oldie it grates on me to hear this new ‘unreal’ use of MAY, but I’m not going to get out jackboots and a whip. I recognize that this is probably an unstoppable development, like the dozens of others that MAY has gone through: once upon a time it meant ‘have power or strength’, then ‘be able’, then ‘be permitted’, then ‘be likely’. Such changes are interesting and fun.

As with changes in vocabulary, people often make out that features of grammar that they don’t like are innovations, Americanisms, or not found in the best authors. This is usually incorrect. Often when I come across a harangue about split infinitives I think of the great Samuel Johnson writing Milton was too busy to much miss his wife.

Grammar is neither logical nor consistent. Take pronouns. Standard English distinguishes subjective and objective functions in I—me, he—him, she—her, we—us, they—them, but not in it. (Whom is practically dead — but that’s another controversy!). It also distinguishes singular and plural in I—we, he, she, it—they. But it makes neither kind of distinction in you (except in the reflexive pronoun which has a singular yourself and a plural yourselves). It’s often awkward not knowing whether one is being addressed individually or as a member of a group, which is why some dialects have developed youse, you all, and so on. I’m sorry,  by the way, that I haven’t got (or don’t have!) space to discuss themself and theirselves.

There’s no such thing as bad grammar, only differences in grammar. Thank y’all for listening.

My credentials for pronouncing on grammar, by the way, apart from 43 years editing the OED, are: The Oxford Guide to English Usage (1983), The Oxford Dictionary of Grammar (1994), and The Oxford Reference Grammar (2000).

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