Monday, 11 November 2013

Grammar Nazis

Firstly, let me say how completely apt I find the term. It is not excessive or overblown in the least to compare persons pedantic about spelling and punctuation, with a regime which committed acts so horrific, and with such a mechanical ruthlessness, as to cause them to be burned into our collective consciousness forever. I can only imagine my friends must feel the same revulsion when visiting Auchswitz as they do when I point out to them a stray apostrophe or comma. It seems entirely likely that the disgust I feel for an incorrect use of there/their/they’re is the same feeling provoked in members of the Nazi party by Jews and homosexuals.

Sarcasm aside (well, no promises), I would like to examine my own pedantry in this regard. I have been thinking about the possible reasons behind my own irritation, and have come to the following conclusions:
OCD: Yes, this must be one of the main reasons, surely. I have a certain feeling that things should be done in a certain way. With language, even though the rules are sometimes arbitrary and often based on archaic rules which themselves were founded on an attempt to force the English language into a Greek or Latin mould, there are rules nonetheless. The wrong word in the wrong place, the wrong spelling, these things just upset my sense of things in their right place.

Communication: I honestly struggle sometimes to understand just what the hell people have said. Is it possible for things to get to the stage when I simply cannot communicate with people who have been taught and who speak the same language as me? I suppose it happens sometimes, verbally, so maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. It’s not as if the problem is likely to creep into the academic field, hospitals, the military, the legal profession, or other places where it could do real damage, is it? Or is it? I have often received emails from my colleagues which I had to spend time deciphering, or which required me to call them to explain just what they were trying to say. This leads nicely to my next point.

Standards (a): a friend of mine said to me that she doesn’t bother writing correctly online because it’s too much of an effort, and that she only takes care when at work. This, to me, speaks to a lowering of standards outside the workplace. Sure, I understand that behaviour is often different in different contexts, and that there is value in switching off from work, but I also feel that this excuse misses the point. I believe that if you write poorly at home, those errors will creep into your professional work. Good habits are hard to form and easy to use. There is also the question of why you would want to be any less thorough at home. It makes sense to be switched on at work, but I take pride in my writing whenever I do it.

Standards (b): Another point which occurs to me is the idea that it is somehow ok to lower standards outside of work in the written word. Imagine if I applied this principle to mathematics. I doubt my local supermarket would be impressed when they asked me for £15.31 and I handed them a tenner. When given a quizzical look, I doubt the explanation ‘it’s not like I’m at work’ would fly very far.

Beauty: True communication can be beautiful. The right word in the right place; a semi-colon well-situated; words well-used have the power to transcend themselves and become true art. Good writing is like the most moving music; bad writing can be like hearing foxes screech mid-coitus at three in the morning.

Superiority: Perhaps it just makes me feel smarter than other people. Or, perhaps, more disciplined. Perhaps it is just a personal OCD, as mentioned, and it hurts me that the people I know care less about the subject than I do. These points must all be true in some respect.

I know people see my criticism as a personal attack, that they feel as if I am calling them stupid, rather than exhorting them to try harder. (Actually, some people I am just calling stupid. You know who you are.) I know some people just plain do not care. But knowing does not help me avoid the shudder every time I see those greengrocer’s apostrophes. The epidemic shows no sign of abating, so for now my plan involves cursing at my computer screen and the occasional sarcastic or corrective Facebook comment. If you are a victim of such, don’t think too badly of me. Or at least, don’t compare me to a racist, genocidal maniac.

p.s. there will probably be some errors in this very blog. For these, I apologise unreservedly, and blame Word’s autocorrect function.

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