Mighty Red Pen

February 5, 2009

Sticklers of the world, chillax

Filed under: Grammar goddess,Pet peeves,Uncategorized — mighty red pen @ 8:47 pm
Tags: , ,

Lately, I just want to tell grammar sticklers of the world to chillax. Yes, I said chillax.

It seems that the hand wringing and hair pulling and the bemoaning the fate of mankind in the face of the rapidly approaching Four Grammarians of the Apostrophocalypse is getting worse as the days go by. But maybe it’s just me.

And although (well-documented) MRP is right there with those who believe that good grammar, spelling, and punctuation are important (well, I make a living at enforcing that belief and I do read usage guides for fun), I’ve been wondering if the “grammar nazi” approach—full frontal attacks against those who seemingly can’t figure out the rules of grammar—is really helping the cause.

I’m not talking about where we do it in the safety of our own blogs or in our jobs as copy editors, writers, or teachers. I’m talking about correcting your mom’s grammar over Sunday dinner. In “Correctiquette: Ready to Improve Someone’s Language? Hold On,” Erin McKean takes on the rising propensity among us word nerds for self-righteous indignation and self-appointed grammar policing:

Nowhere is the urge to be right more powerful, it seems, than when it involves other people’s language.

We’ve all encountered it, and we’ve all felt the compulsion to perform it – the quick aside (“Um, don’t you mean infer?”), the snarky online comment that ignores the substance of an argument in favor of pointing out a misused “that” or “which.” Some people proudly travel the country “correcting” road signs and billboards.

If you judge these correctors by their presumed intent—a helpful and permanent improvement in another person’s language—then most fail miserably. Why, then, do we do it? And when should we, if ever?

Maybe  the problem is that I’m reading too many blogs and message boards where commenters use pointing out grammatical or spelling errors (heaven forfend you should leave out an apostrophe!) to put others down. Check out Danny Brown‘s discussion about blog comments. McKean talks about online comments, too:

Online, of course, the urge to correct someone is magnified: The intermediaries of keyboard and screen seem to lend correctors a bravado they might lack in real life. So ask yourself: will posting a comment just to tell someone they misspelled “contiguous” really win anyone over? If you are correcting someone else just to prove yourself the smartest guy in the room, that automatically disqualifies you from the contest. Most annoying guy, maybe.

Along this vein, I read the article, “Fastidious Spelling Snobs Pushed Over the Edge: Books, Blogs and Obsessiveness Mark a Brand-New War of the Words,” with some interest (hat tip to Kasey). (Featured are two words nerds we admire here at MRP: Martha Brockenbrough of SPOGG and Mignon Fogerty of Grammar Girl.)

The general thesis of writer Diane Mapes is that today’s stressful climate is causing peevologists to step up their game somewhat:

Stress can affect how forgiving people are of spelling and punctuation errors, says Pauline Wallin, a clinical psychologist from Camp Hill, Pa.

“When people are under stress, they have less tolerance for minor frustrations,” she says. “Think of the harried mother rushing around trying to get her kids ready for school who loses it when one of them can’t find his homework. Spelling is something concrete and has a definite right answer so it does make you feel temporarily in control.”

But there are plenty of other principles at play as well.

An obsession with proper usage may be related to some kind of perfectionist streak, she says, or it could have to do with childhood patterns of wanting to please adults or teachers by doing things right. Putting somebody down by pointing out their bad spelling also could be a power thing. Or it could simply be part of the brain’s natural function.

The comments section of this article was a perfect example of how quickly the usefulness of a conversation around language can devolve.  In one hypercorrective comment after another, commenters delighted put each other down for typos and punctuation errors. They railed against friends, family members, and coworkers who constantly disappointed them, both in making mistakes and then not showing gratitude for being corrected. Where’s the dialogue in that?

To me, talking about language is fun. That’s why I write this blog, enjoy your comments, and read other word nerd blogs as often as I can. Spotting a usage error is amusing, reading an article about language is informative. But does it serve any purpose to personally go to town on people who have made a mistake? Instill fear in others that the grammar police have come to town every time you walk into a room?



  1. Hi Mighty Red Pen,
    I like your blog. Grammar is important, but I wish more sticklers out there would realize there are times when breaking the rules is OK! I’m a word nerd too, but I’m a little new to the blog world. And I talk about sports more than grammar. But I like both. Mind if I link to you?
    The Duchess of Deadline (Stacey Dickens)

    Comment by staceydickens — February 6, 2009 @ 6:26 am | Reply

  2. By all means … and welcome!

    Comment by mighty red pen — February 6, 2009 @ 8:51 am | Reply

  3. Four Grammarians of the Apostrophocalypse

    For quite some time now, “rutabaga” has been my favorite word in the whole wide world. Until today. All hail “Apostraphocalypse”!

    The King is Dead — Long Live the King 🙂

    As for the rest of your post, all I can say is “Yesssssss!” As a fellow lover of all things grammatical & punctuational, I deplore the means with which some folks wield their “mastery” of those all-important rules for readin’ & writin’.

    Grammar, I believe, exists to facilitate effective communication — but humility, compassion, and a willingness/desire to actually connect with another human being are also essential components of that wondrous exchange. Seizing upon misplaced modifiers or (gasp!) improperly deployed apostrophes is anathema to effective communication — indeed, it is little more than an attempt to devalue a person’s entire argument (and, by extension, the person him/herself) under the guise of correctness.

    And as a former teacher & longtime human being, if there’s one thing I know for sure, it’s that nothing resembling an enlightening exchange of ideas has ever followed the utterance “you know, you’re a moron, and here’s why …”

    In other words, I’m with you, MRP!

    Comment by hugh.c.mcbride — February 6, 2009 @ 3:08 pm | Reply

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