Death of a Grammar Nazi

July 22, 2011 Comments Off on Death of a Grammar Nazi

I hereby officially renounce my status as a grammar nazi. I’m not saying I don’t still care deeply about spelling and commas, but a combination of factors has led me to conclude that grammar just isn’t worth stressing out over. Of course, it’s still extremely important for public documents because if all your grammar and spelling is correct, it removes the possibility that you are a complete moron (at least you knew enough to have someone proofread it for you) and shows that you care about presenting a good image to your customers (or constituents, or advisors, or employers, or whatever). But in general, live and let live, eh?

Part of this is a holdover from my Wisconsin Englishes dialect discrimination brainwashing (see Spider-Burp Juice and Standard English), which primed me to go easy on anything I can understand—and even a few things I can’t. If a friend is writing you an email and they don’t take the trouble to look up how to spell “definitely,” that’s okay. As long as they’re not going to put it up on a billboard, who cares? You know what they mean. (Although that’s a bad example because misspelling “definitely” is a pet peeve of mine. Not that hard, people.)

Part of it is coming to terms with my own grammatical failings. I generally correct everything before I say, write, or type it, but, for example, I’ve realized that every time I use the past participle of “take” I have to suppress an urge to say “tooken.” And recently I’ve been listening to Natalie Goldberg (Writing Down the Bones), who says you should just sit down every day and write fast without stopping, without correcting, without crossing out, and without worrying about legibility. The first time I tried this, I ended up writing in huge convulsive scrawls across the page; I found myself breathing hard, eyes wide, hyperfocused, and when I’d finished I was totally stoned. It completely altered my head at the time, and I’ve never forgotten it. I’ve tried it again a couple times, especially now that I’m reading/following The Artist’s Way, and it’s made me very relaxed about spelling. I make surprising mistakes—surprising mostly in that they’re consistent: I write too many of a repeated letter, I dyslexize the last two letters of a word, and if a word ends in the same letter that begins the following word, I never write the letter twice. And if I, Queen Speller of the World (ha), am comfortable with writing the kind of crazy-ass words I’ve been writing, then everyone else really needs to chill the fuck out.

Another anti-grammar-nazism influence was literary license. As I’ve been trying to get my proofreading business going, I’ve realized just how much of my own writing is technically incorrect. I use a lot of literary license to control the pace and tone of my writing, which is a good thing. But it involves from time to time using a comma splice, or writing sentence fragments or run-ons, or using unorthodox capitalization. And all this is okay. But it made me realize that there is essentially no correlation between quality of grammar and quality of writing. They’re completely separate, and, in the end, I care more about writing than I do about grammar. So there. Plus, I can still feel smug about certain things: for example, I know that ending a sentence with a preposition is completely acceptable. (Did anyone cringe at the sentence “Grammar just isn’t worth stressing out over”?) English has a grammatical feature called “preposition stranding.” Totally legal. Deal with it. It’s also okay to split infinitives—it’s just that people were worrying that English wasn’t enough like Latin, the perfect language. Trouble is, Latin’s infinitives are only one word, so the conclusion that English two-word infinitives couldn’t be split because you can’t do it in Latin is flawed.

And finally, I guess I just finally got confident enough with my writing to realize that I don’t need perfect grammar to prop up my self-esteem. I write well, even if some of it is technically wrong…but if I write well, who cares? It’s really fun and a source of great pride to know a language inside and out because it’s valuable knowledge and difficult to acquire—take it from someone who has taken stabs at learning seven or eight languages—but it’s just too mean-spirited to judge people for not taking pleasure in the minutiae of English grammar. Even though I find it difficult to understand why you wouldn’t.

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