Not everyone likes Grammar Nazis, and more accurately nobody likes Grammar Nazis. Not even Grammar Nazis like Grammar Nazis, and probably because Grammar Nazis don’t self-identify as Grammar Nazis, at least not many of them do. Maybe a handful or two, somewhere out there, marching the Web, cleansing forums, scolding your fellow allies, trying to take over the Internet, or whatever. But those Grammar Nazis, if they even exist, and they might if I’m honest, they’re too past jaded to care anymore no matter what you call them. Call them Nazis, and they’ll gladly prove you right if that helps them prove their point.
I don’t like Grammar Nazis, and mostly because they discourage appreciation for the English language, and because they start up unnecessary disputes with complete strangers unprovoked, so they’re kind of just assholes, not to mention they don’t know nearly as much as they think. I can’t understand why anyone with a genuine interest in grammar would ever try using that interest to try belittling others. Grammar has never exactly been something that’s considered “cool,” so the whole thing of it just baffles me, really. I blame Geek Chic, personally, but that’s a bit of a different story. Maybe things have just largely been done probably as cheep shots to discredit people on the Internet. For example, if someone can’t find an actual hole in some other person’s argument, they then resort to pointing out that person should have typed you’re, not your, and so now thus we have Grammar Nazis. But who knows.
And anyway, “Grammar Nazi” might have a nice ring to it, but it’s not entirely accurate. Not the Nazi part, that part’s accurate, but just as real Nazis, Grammar Nazis don’t hate only just one single thing, but hate many things. The Big Four as I’ll say of them are as follows, one of course is grammar, two is punctuation and typography, three is usage, and four is semantics. And do trust me when I say this, most Grammar Nazis don’t actually know that’s what they’re fighting for. A high-ranking Grammar Nazi might try arguing the Big Four all make for grammar, but he or she’d be wrong. So, if you do ever find yourself battling Grammar Nazis, the good news is you can easily defeat them.
I’ve not actually battled Grammar Nazis myself, but I have seen the battles play out before, scrolled through the written records, imagined myself in the boots of both armies, and all that kind of stuff, so yeah, defeating them is very doable I’d think. I mean, Grammar Nazis kind of always defeat themselves anyway, just by being assholes, but at least in this way it’s a defeat they’d be forced to appreciate. All you need doing is to use their weapons against them.
As I’ve said, Grammar Nazi weaponry most usually employs use of the Big Four. However, Grammar Nazi knowledge of these weapons is usually pretty shit. Understand the Big Four, a few simple facts, and one simple concept, and then just like that you’ll have the secret weapons to beating them at their own game. Better yet, you’ll not only have bested them, but be still able to write and speak in the way that you want and not be a hypocrite doing so.
The simple Concept – The Secret to the Secret Weapons
The English language is not prescriptive, meaning, the rules of the English language are not governed by one lone authority, but are guided by a huge number of different sources. Not too many Grammar Nazis I’d bet would even know that. So despite whatever a Grammar Nazi might insist, you can write in many different ways and still be proper. If a Grammar Nazi tries telling you that you can’t do a certain thing, just show them one acceptable source that says you can. You’ll need finding a reputable source, of course, but for the most part they’re pretty easy to find, and all of them carry much more clout than a Grammar Nazi.
Knowing this secret to the secret weapons, you may perhaps now be able to go off and go fight the Grammar Nazis all on your own. But if you’re not knowledgeable in the Big Four, you might want to keep reading. I’m going to catalog and explain each of the Big Four in sufficient detail, and even offer some of the secret weapons.
Big Four, one – Grammar – The Grammar Nazi’s claim to Fame
Perhaps more than anything else, what tends to get people the most riled up is poor grammar. But “poor grammar” doesn’t necessarily always mean bad grammar. Consider knowing some of these common weapons Grammar Nazis reach for without fail.
Common weapon of Nazi Grammar: “And’ and ‘But’ cannot begin sentences”
But they can. And I do so often. It’s a common misconception that you can’t begin a sentence with these conjunctions. But starting a sentence with either is pretty easy. And although doing so may be “taking the easy way out,” so to speak, it’s not prohibited by anyone.
Common weapon of Nazi Grammar: “You can’t use double negatives”
“A substance almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea.” Douglas Adams used double negatives, and so can you.
Common weapon of Nazi Grammar: “Never end a sentence with a preposition”
Prepositions are words that create relationships between other words. “Above,” “by,” “after,” “for,” “up,” “at,” and “since” are a few common examples of prepositions.
Grammar Nazis probably salivate any time they see prepositions sitting before dots, but despite what they might like believing, you can indeed end sentences with prepositions.
According to Grammar Girl, who does know her shit quite well by the way, “nearly all grammarians disagree, at least in some cases,” that you never should end sentences with prepositions. The only instances in which you should not end sentences with prepositions are when the final preposition makes no difference to the meaning of your sentence. For example, “where are you at?’ is wrong because ‘where are you?’ means the same thing,” says Grammar Girl. But many sentences she says are only best ended with a preposition. “I’m going to throw up,” “Let’s kiss and make up,” and “What are you waiting for?” are just a few examples she offers.
Common weapon of Nazi Grammar: “The passive voice is never correct”
George Orwell said, “Never use the passive where you can use the active,” but that doesn’t mean using the passive makes you wrong.
Common weapon of Nazi Grammar: “Never split infinitives”
To understand split infinitives you must first understand full infinitives, and to understand full infinitives you must also understand bare infinitives.
Consider bare infinitives in a sense as naked verbs, and full infinitives as clothed forms of those verbs, and the word “to” as the clothing on full infinitives. So, the verb “go” is naked, and therefore is a bare infinitive. To make the verb “go” not be naked, just dress it with the word “to,” making it “to go,” and therefore a full infinitive.
“to” + bare infinitive = full infinitive
Consider split infinitives in a sense as underwear for full infinitives, and consider that underwear be an adverb. Our full infinitive “to go” is already clothed, but it’s rocking commando, so nix that and dress it with some underwear. “Boldly” is an adverb and will due just fine as underwear. “To boldly go” is a split infinitive, and perfectly legit as well.
full infinitive ÷ adverb = split infinitive = “to” + “boldly” + “go”
Grammar Nazis don’t like underwear, but fortunately for everyone else not wearing underwear’s not a rule. Split infinitives are fine.
Common weapon of Nazi Grammar: “Use ‘A’ with words that start with consonants and use ‘An’ with words that start with vowels”
Joey hopes to one day be an NBA player, not a NBA player. Always sound things out, what sound right, is right. If a word’s start sounds vowel-ish use “an,” if otherwise use “a.”
Big Four, two – Punctuation and Typography – My inner Nazi
Typography is pretty simple and basic, very easy for anyone to understand, and the rules are merely disputable, and are so in black and white terms at that. Depending on what you’re writing, different rules must then be followed, but there are no one set of rules to define for all different writings. If a Grammar Nazi tries claiming otherwise, you’re in for a short battle.
Punctuation, though, is a somewhat different story. Punctuation for many can be hard to master. I myself have struggled much. Semicolons for example, are for whatever reasons something that I’ve struggled with for a long time. I don’t consider myself as having mastered punctuation, and I’m not sure that I ever will “master” punctuation, but I’m far beyond good enough to not be attacked for it, as are most literate people. Punctuation is really more nuanced than one might think. Punctuation is critical in helping to breathe life in actual literal words; it registers the flow of your writing. But at its most basic level of any real importance, punctuation is what makes writing readable. If I could offer any one piece of universal advice about punctuation it’s be consistent. If there’s a certain thing you like doing in a certain way, make sure then you always do it in that certain way. Don’t switch off between convention and invention, just choose one and stick with it. And always listen to your do-as-I-sayer, of course.
Common weapon of Nazi Typography: “Indent every paragraph”
Not unless your boss says so, and you even have a boss that is, or teacher, or professor, or other equivalent do-as-I-sayer.
Common weapon of Nazi Punctuation: “Precede all lists with a colon”
Colons always introduce something any time you use one, and people do use colons for more than just only lists. If you’re writing a list, whether it’s a vertical list or list in a sentence, using a colon is entirely up to you.
Common weapon of Nazi Punctuation: “Do not use semicolons with conjunctions”
Semicolons seem to trip up more people than any other mark of punctuation. The Oatmeal claims never use semicolons with conjunctions. But pretty much all of my favorite authors beg to differ.
Common weapon of Punctuation: “Use single quotations for words, terms, and expressions, and use double quotations for true quotations”
I use single quotations usually only for one purpose: when marking things set between double quotations.
Common weapon of Nazi Typography: “Separate each sentence using two spaces”
Most style guides this century recommend single spaces between sentences, but again, always honor whatever your do-as-I-sayer tells you.
Big Four, three – Usage – Why I help in the fight against Nazis
At the end of the day, whether you like it or not, whether it’s disputed or not, formal or informal, accepted or Interneted, right or wrong or in-between, semi or quasi or full and complete, I’m just a big huge fan of using contractions! Seriously! I say this with like 3% of my full heart. That’s like a shit ton of my heart for only just that I’d think. Who’re—that’s a fun one right there.
Common weapon of Nazi Usage: “Contractions may not be used in proper English”
As I’ve said, I fucking love contractions. So I could care less no matter who says I can’t use them. And anyway, it’s a myth that using them isn’t acceptable in formal writing. You can use them. Unless your do-as-I-sayer tells you otherwise.
Common weapon of Nazi Usage: “Paragraphs require three sentences minimum”
Paragraphs can be as short as one word if you have a good reason. Even in professional writing some journalistic styles readily accept paragraphs as just one sentence long.
Big Four, four – Semantics – Usually too reasonable for Grammar Nazis
Semantics is, in the broadest sense the study of meaning. Semantics, as a tree has many branches, and the branch I’m concerned with here is the branch of linguistic semantics, the study of meaning in its application and use for understanding human expression through language. These secret weapons here merely are doors to more doors, you can seriously fuck up a Grammar Nazi’s day using semantics.
Common weapon of Nazi Semantics: “People may be ‘healthy,’ but vegetables may only be ‘healthful”’
The English language seems as in constant change; what’s correct today may become wrong tonight, so don’t ever let the hyper-correct blow their snot all over you, remind them to tip down their chins from time to time if you must.
What makes a word right is the number, of the people who actually use it. “Part of a healthy breakfast” might be a big part of why hearing “part of a healthful breakfast” should make you at least scratch your head.
Common weapon of Nazi Semantics: “Slang and colloquial words are not real words”
All words in English start from somewhere. Many words deemed as incorrect are still real words even if they’re not acceptable in formal writing, or chosen in formal speech. The word “irregardless,” for example, is seldom if ever used in formal contexts, and maybe why that’s so is because nobody wants coming off as not knowing better. But irregardless, it’s still a word.
Common weapon of Nazi Semantics: “Inflammable’ means not burnable”
Inflammable means flammable, but because so many people seem to misunderstand that, safety labels always mark items only as flammable, says Paul Brians.
Common weapon of Nazi Semantics: “Couldn’t Care Less, not Could Care Less”
The phrase “I couldn’t care less” originated in Britain, and came to the US some time in the 1950’s. Somewhere along the way it’s become “I could care less,” which, logically, doesn’t mean what one means when one says it. But Stephen Pinker is a pretty smart guy, especially on this sort of topic, and he argues that people mean saying it just as how they say it, and reasons that what matters is the way people say it, not the words said in saying it. So it’s really a matter of emphasis, and the expression is most often meant as being ironic or sarcastic. And as someone who uses it, I agree, because he’s right, kind of.
The Secret Grammar Police