Tuesday, 27 December 2011

A repudiation of spelling nazism

Tuesday 27 December 2011


There was a time when I probably would've proudly identified as a spelling nazi. I think I first heard the term some time in high school, when you're eager to define yourself and will seize upon any idiosyncratic characteristic that vaguely applies to you and claim it as your own. But when I got to uni, I started seeing other people who called themselves 'spelling nazis', and it wasn't pretty when viewed from the outside, with matured eyes. It was just so clearly about attention. 'Look at me!' they seemed to be saying. 'Aren't I just so quirky? Aren't I so individual? Aren't I so smart? Aren't I just so ob-sessed with all things literary?'

It didn't help that most of these self-proclaimed spelling nazis weren't actually so great with spelling and grammar. Most of them were studying English Literatures or Creative Writing, not English Language and Linguistics.* (Evidently) they hadn't done any outside reading on language. They didn't have any real understanding of grammatical concepts or language philosophy; they just had that innate, approximate proficiency with spelling and grammar that is pretty much the best result that can be achieved by the implicit system of teaching grammar I mentioned in the last post.

*Obviously not to denigrate the worthy disciplines of English Lit or Creative Writing, in which I myself am undertaking studies. It's just that in those two, it would be quite easy to carry on at the same level of grammatical capability as at high school, without any real understanding (until Editing, perhaps, in Creative Writing). While doing English Lit, Creative Writing and Linguistics constitutes probably the most comprehensive study of the English language available at undergraduate level, it's really Linguistics that I credit with forcing me to think about language enough to move beyond the level of the 'spelling nazi'.

Yeah, this is pretty much how it is.

And then that obligatory, awkward class in first year came around, where your tutor hands back the first assessment of your degree and makes a big speech about how many people in the class didn't reference correctly and how many spelling and grammar issues there were. And there would be the nazi, sucking up to the tutor and declaring how they can't stand when they see spelling mistakes, and they think it's such a shame that no one can spell any more. And they'd always finish with a faux-self-conscious laugh and say, 'But then I'm a total spelling nazi, so maybe that's just me.'

To me, then, spelling and grammar nazis are usually just over-compensating. As perhaps is connoted by the name, they're using their often uninformed proficiency with grammar to try to gain power over others. Very often when any contentious grammatical issue arises in class, often at their own instigation, their formerly self-extolled body of knowledge is shown to be built on false precepts. They frequently have an outdated propensity towards prescriptive, rather than descriptive, grammar. They learn what they think are the 'rules' of grammar, largely propagated by misinformed primary school teachers, and apply them unquestioningly, not knowing that many of these rules are wrong. And so they go on through life, arrogantly insisting, for example, the legitimately anglicised plural octopuses become octopi, decrying the ending of sentences with prepositions, and denouncing the starting of sentences with and. Octopus has Greek roots, not Latin and, as such, if we insist on being pedantic, should technically be realised in its plural form as octopodes. The ridiculously popular notion that sentences should not end in prepositions, as Bill Bryson points out in his thoroughly entertaining and insightful book Mother Tongue (which I highly recommend as a humbling device for any spelling nazi clinging obstinately to prescriptivism*) seems to be founded merely on the fact that the word contains the prefix pre-. And as for not starting sentences with and, what possible justification could there be for the imposition of such a rule other than the self-realising argument that 'it's bad grammar'?

*I have a copy if you know me and want to borrow it.

The long-term popularity of these false (or rather, arbitrary and unnecessary) rules has gone some way to giving them the weight of truth, but even this hiccough in linguistic history has enriched language. We now have the option to adhere to these rules if we want to sound formal in, for example, an academic context, but we can remain unconstrained by them in more casual or expressive discourses like everyday speech or fiction. To insist that sentences not end in prepositions in any other context, as Susan May does, is completely absurd, and I defy any prescriptivist to explain to me why it isn't without saying, 'It's just bad writing.' 

Susan May's post actually defeats its own argument. Not only does she state that '[n]obody says, unless you are English gentry perhaps, 'From where is that noise coming?'', but she also keeps ending sentences in prepositions, sentences that sound perfectly natural, and then having to re-word or rearrange them so as to avoid doing so. But what's wrong with ending a sentence with what I'm talking about? Nothing! May seems to think that any sentence ending in a preposition is automatically invalid and sloppy, and needs to be changed, but that this is okay because the alternative is always less clunky. I have less faith. Take, for example, Churchill's famous debunking of the preposition rule (which I actually think is misattributed to him, but nevertheless): 'This is the kind of English up with which I will not put.' In that case, and in many others, it would be much smoother to end the sentence in a preposition, i.e.: 'This is the type of English I will not put up with.' May might contend that another verb phrase besides 'put up' should have been used, but I believe it's silly to disqualify certain phrasings from writing arbitrarily. Nazi discrimination is what it is.

In the old days, grammar and linguistics weren't about observing how language works, but about making up rules for how it should work, about glorifying Latin as an ancient, 'pure' language, and about ensuring any words inherited or imported from other languages continued to be used in the way their original languages used them so that, for example, they retained their original plural forms instead of gaining English ones. They were about Proper Sentences and prer NUN sea ayshun, to borrow from Arundhati Roy. In other words, they were prescriptive. Luckily for us, we've moved away from all that and accepted that language is a fluid entity, and this fluidity is to be celebrated, not castigated. It's what has led English and, indeed, language on the whole to flourish.

'Of course it is, of course it is, of course it is, of course it is. Language is my mother, my father, my husband, my brother, my sister, my whore, my mistress, my checkout girl. Language is a complimentary moist, lemon-scented cleansing square or handy freshen-up wipette. Language is the breath of God. Language is the dew on a fresh apple. It's the soft rain of dust that falls into a shaft of morning light as you pull from an old bookshelf a half-forgotten book of erotic memoirs. Language is the creak on a stair. It's a spluttering match held to a frosted pane. It's a half-remembered childhood birthday party. It's the warm, wet, trusting touch of a leaking nappy. The hulk of a charred Panzer. The underside of a granite boulder. The first downy growth on the upper lip of a Mediterrenean girl. It's cobwebs long since overrun by an old Wellington boot.'

With their limited understanding of language, though, spelling and grammar nazis tend to default to prescriptivism the result of caring about language, but not knowing much about it. Nazis and prescriptivists alike, then, refuse to accept or are ignorant of the fluidity of language and seek to pin it down. They regard any change or evolution within language with hostility, as an 'attack', or as 'erosion' or 'perversion'. If their attempts to censor new developments and neologisms in language were always successful, we would be deprived of some of our richest and most useful expressions. Fortunately, they rarely succeed, and the people behind them tend to become history's fools when the grammatical concepts they denounce take hold and become fundamental parts of common vernacular.

Sometimes, of course, language is 'under assault'. Sometimes it's used in a way that will not aid its development, a way that is redundant or banal or that obfuscates meaning. Pontification on language should be reserved for these instances, not organic occurrences which may sound different or silly, but which ultimately enrich language and expression. Those who rail against developments and changes in language should be regarded with automatic suspicion, and their arguments need to be examined. Is the change actually occurring and, if so, is it actually a bad thing, or just a different thing?  Sometimes, however, even changes for the worse end up becoming standardised, and we just need to accept this.

Are you picking up on any resemblances here? Outdated doctrines? Unquestioning belief in unfounded rules? Unreasonable opposition to change? Yep, that's right. Prescriptivist spelling nazis are the linguistic equivalent of sociopolitical conservatives, except with much, much less ground to stand on. Is it any wonder I'm scrambling to dissociate myself from them? 

The prescriptivistconservative parallel is perhaps nowhere clearer than in the dynamic between French literary legend Marcel Proust and his contemporary Louis Ganderax, as explored by philosopher Alain de Botton. 'For Ganderax', says de Botton, 

     the priority of good writing was to follow precedent, to follow
     examples of the most distinguished authors in history, while
     bad writing began with the arrogant belief that one could avoid
     paying homage to great minds and write to one's own fancy. It
     was fitting that Ganderax had elsewhere awarded himself the 
     title of "defender of the French Language." The language needed
     to be defended against the assaults of decadents who refused to
     follow the rules of expression dictated by tradition, leading 
     Ganderax to complain publicly if he spotted a past participle in
     the wrong place or a word falsely applied in a published text. (93)

Sound familiar? Ganderax is a grammar nazi! What's scary is that you could easily replace a couple of words there and he would sound just like an American Republican politician.

Conversely, Proust had a much more sensible view of language:

     The only way to defend language is to attack it, yes, yes, Madame
     Straus! ... This man who is so sceptical has grammatical
     certainties. Alas, Madame Straus, there are no certainties, even
     grammatical ones ... [O]nly that which bears the imprint of our
     choice, our taste, our certainty, our desire and our weakness can
     be beautiful. (94)

It's troubling that France's attitude to its beautiful language seems currently to be rather more Ganderaxian (?) than Proustian, with the notorious Académie française constantly making its restrictions on the way the language can be used. Perhaps that's only what's needed to protect against the culturally imperialistic incursions of the anglosphere, but isn't the very idea of 'protecting' a language from influences pointless and counter-productive? An interplay of languages can be beneficial. Something like 30% of English words, in fact, came from French, remnants of a time when England was ruled by francophones. Imagining where English would be now, without that influence, is impossible; it has benefited immeasurably. Now the tables have turned and English is the dominant tongue seeking, if you will, to pay off its loan, but French doesn't want it. It's isolating itself from an exchange that could well promote growth. Who knows what effect this stifling will have on French? If French became as beautiful as it is via a process of change, what will ossification do to it? Won't it only make English a more attractive option, and French increasingly out-of-touch and incapable of keeping up with demand?

When we looked at de Botton's essay in WRIT316: Advanced Editing for Practising Writers, my lecturer Dr Chrissy Howe, knowing how zealous an editor I was, expected me to come down on the side of Ganderax, to take issue with Proust's wishy-washy approach to language. When she said so, I launched off on a massive tirade basically comprised of everything I've said so far. Just because you love language doesn't mean you have to be a grammar nazi.

The fight with prescriptivism takes place on a million battlefields every day. The latest instance I've come across was in the debate between YouTube atheist Cristina Rad, or 'ZOMGitsCriss' (who appeared in the episode of Q&A Til and I went to see) and another atheist named Kate Fahr going by the name of 'BionicDance'.


I think this is really at the heart of what I find so frustrating about spelling nazi prescriptivism. There's nothing more irritating (and cringe-inducing) than watching someone belittle someone else for a reason that you know is totally unjustified. Fahr's video response to Rad, declaratively titled 'You ARE TOO an Agnostic Atheist' was smug and patronising, delivered in an indescribably (but nevertheless infuriatingly) condescending tone. It opened with a melodramatic sigh and the statement, 'Folks, when someone's wrong, they're wrong, and they should be called out on it.' Too right. She then went on to use the phrase you see and kiddo to top and tail every other sentence, and kept on saying, 'I don't know what else to say to you', like an eccentric, longwinded aunt lecturing her niece or something. On top of all of that, she kept making these weird faces at the end of every point, as if to say, 'Oops, you were wrong how awkward for you.'

Can't you just hear your mum saying this to you?: 'If you want to actually discuss these issues rationally and reasonably, like an adult, well, you're going to have to accept the fact that some of the things you don't like apply to you.'

The issue of agnosticism vs atheism is a different one which I hope to treat in the future, but for now, Fahr's criticisms of Rad were totally wrong, founded as they were in prescriptivism. Rad asserted that she is not an agnostic, but an atheist. Fahr responded, 'But you see the truth is, that is what you are. You just don't realise it because your definitions are wrong.' I almost can't even imagine a more typically prescriptivist argument. Fahr makes an appeal to what she calls the 'correct, etymological definitions' of the words to prove her point, interrogating what those words' morphemes (a- gnos -tic and a- the -ist) mean in their root language. Her claim is that the former means 'without knowledge' and the latter means 'without belief'. As Rad rightly retorts, though, these etymological definitions actually have little to do with the words' actual meanings today, as is the case with most words due to the process I call semantic decay. Fahr keeps on talking about words being 'etymologically incorrect' and 'technical, etymologically correct definitions'; she wants to prescribe how words should be used according to their etymology, but Rad knows that 'the value of words is given by how people use them'.

At the end of the day, spelling, grammar and punctuation, as Dr Shady Cosgrove taught me, are all about clarity. It only takes a little extrapolation to get from clarity to expression, expression to communication, communication to connection, and connection to empathy. Prescriptivists and spelling nazis, conversely, are about stasis and homogeneity: expressing yourself in a rigid, unchanging, 'correct' manner which then stymies diversity of communication, and thereby affects connection and empathy just one more reason I feel the need to discredit it. Although it can be difficult, we need to learn not to regard change with automatic revulsion, but to interrogate each new development based on its own merits, not only in language, but in life.

That's all for now, but check the comments below for my model of a spelling nazi's response to this post.

References 
The Australian Broadcasting Corporation's television episode, 'A Philosophical Q and A' from its television program Q&A, Season 4, Episode 34.

Alain de Botton's book chapter, 'How to Express Your Emotions' (85103), in his book, How Proust Can Change Your Life, published by Vintage International in 1998.

Bill Bryson's book, Mother Tongue, published by Penguin in 1991.

Kate Fahr (BionicDance)'s video 'You ARE TOO an Agnostic Atheist' from her YouTube Channel 'Rabid Lesbian Atheist of DOOM!'.

Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie's sketch, 'Tricky Linguistics', in their television series, A Bit of Fry and Laurie, Season 1, Episode 3.


Cristina Rad (ZOMGitsCriss)'s video 'I am not an Agnostic Atheist. Seriously' from her YouTube Channel 'k-rina'.

Cristina Rad (ZOMGitsCriss)'s video 'Belief. Knowledge. Agnosticism' from her YouTube Channel 'k-rina'.

Arundhati Roy's novel, The God of Small Things, published by Harper Perennial in 2004.

7 comments:

  1. Angry grammar Nazi27 December 2011 at 17:00

    Don't you know that "Nazi" should have an initial capital? I guess that shows what kind of expert you are. Also, I'm sick and tired of people misusing that word! A Nazi is a person who supported or belonged to the Nationalsozialistiche Deutsche Arbeiterpartei in the mid-twentieth century. That's all! Please stop disseminating these lies about spelling and grammar and learn the rules correctly. It's people like you that are causing the deterioration of the English language.

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    2. Almost excellent example of a grammar nazi - I see that you were parodying. What would have made it better if you had gone back further in it's meaning, which loosely translates to how 'red neck' is used today. But then, I can see that might bring up a regression to say that 'red neck' is not being properly used.
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  2. Dear Angry grammar Nazi,
    Beat it.
    Love Krysten

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  3. That was me, Krysten! Haha. ("check the comments below for my model of a spelling nazi's response to this post.") Thanks, anyway, though!

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  4. Dear Angry grammar Nazi, it is: NationalsozialistiSche Deutsche Arbeiterpartei!

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  5. Proscriptive language I would say is called for when clarity is demanded, such as in specialist languages.
    I have argued with a Greek language person that English is a better language because it is by its nature flexible. Greek may supposedly have more words, but ironically, many of the Greek words used are by English speakers.
    Your example though may bring up a weakness of non-prescriptive language, in that while it is developing, there can be a wide gulf of misunderstanding between the different branches that advocate different meanings.

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