You know who we are, or at least you might think you do. We are the ones just waiting to pounce on any mistake, however minor, that we find in your Facebook posts or tweets on Twitter. We do it to prove our intellectual superiority over the rest of the people whom we disdain. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.
Writing, at least good writing, is as much of a craft as it is a talent. Imagine you are building a wall. If words are your bricks, then good grammar and correct punctuation are the mortar that holds your wall, or your article together. All writers, whether good or bad, should care about writing well. You can break the rules when necessary, but only if you know them first.
The first time I heard the term “grammar Nazi”, especially when applied to me, was when I offered to help edit a 270-page history of my church. The term was used fondly then and I still consider it a term of endearment. Even
Grammar Nazis are needed now, more than ever. The educational system is failing our children and has been doing so for quite some time now. Back in the year 2000, I was asked to develop a style manual and grammar aid for some 70 professional, science-trained representatives of a pharmaceutical company. Some of these people held doctorates but could not write a complete sentence. I immediately placed an order for 100 copies of “The Elements of Style” by William Strunk and E.B. White. There has never been a better guide for writing that this one slim volume. E.B. White, in case you didn’t know, was also the author of the popular children’s book “Charlotte’s Web.” If you go back and re-read it, you will find that it is actually an allegory of the importance of writing.
Anyone with a passion for writing hates to see the English language mangled and misused. Some mistakes are minor, but others can entirely change the meaning of what the author is trying to say. An English professor at a university once asked his students to punctuate the following sentence:
A woman without her man is nothing.
Now if you are a guy, you might not see anything wrong with this sentence. But see how differently it reads when punctuation is added.
A woman: without her, man is nothing.
Or how about “Let’s eat grandma” instead of “Let’s eat, grandma.”
Your choice of words to use is also important. One of the primary rules of writing is: know your audience. If you are writing a technical paper for technical people, then you can get away with using jargon (generally frowned upon) and acronyms (which should always be spelled out the first time they are used).
Recently, Senator John McCain was criticized for using the word “spurious” in the acceptance speech he gave upon receiving the Liberty Medal. In fact, the phrase he used was “half-baked, spurious nationalism.” The Merriam-Webster Dictionary reported it was the most researched word for the day. And that is a good thing. Thousands of people added a new word to their vocabulary. But in Senator McCain’s defense, the audience he was addressing most likely knew the meaning of the word “spurious” even if millions of people on social media did not. He did know his audience and addressed them appropriately.
When I was growing up, I faithfully read William F. Buckley’s column in the newspaper. Buckley was never afraid to use one word, even if it’s meaning was not readily apparent, instead of two easier words. There was never a column he wrote that did not send me to the dictionary to discover the meaning of at least one word he had written.
And then there is the Oxford comma. What, you ask, is the Oxford comma and why should I care? The Oxford comma is used before the word “and” when listing three or more items in a sentence. Why does it make a difference. Again, here is an example of a sentence without the Oxford comma:
Her favorite people were her parents, Superman and Wonder Woman. Instead of – Her favorite people were her parents, Superman, and Wonder Woman. While some style guides say you don’t always need to use the Oxford comma (which is true) you can never go wrong by always using it.
On a day when the hashtag WhyIWrite is trending on Twitter, I wanted to say that I write because I was given a love of the English language by my parents and it pleases me to be able to set down my thoughts on any number of topics clearly and cogently. When I was growing up, on long road trips we didn’t count the number of red cars we passed – we were given words to define.
Being a grammar Nazi doesn’t mean you need to point out people’s mistakes to them. Lead by example. I once had the privilege of working for a doctor from Belgium who English was quite good, except for his pronunciation of certain words. We had an unwritten agreement between us. If I heard him mispronounce a word, I never pointed it out. But I tried to pronounce that word correctly later on in our conversation. No feelings were hurt. No fingers were pointed.
And in honor of all grammar Nazis on this day, I present to you the following video “Grammar Nazis” – based on the movie “Inglorious Basterds.” Well worth your time to watch.