Oct 02, 2012

Grammar Nazis, Hopeful Bears, and What One Has To Do with the Other

written by Jeanette Koenig

I recently saw a video on YouTube called “Grammar Nazis,” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N4vf8N6GpdM), in which an SS officer pays a visit to a Frenchman whom he suspects of hiding a Jew. The officer ends up interrogating the terrified man about his grammar. (Should you choose to view the video, be advised that the ending is somewhat graphic, when the officer is hoisted by his own petard.) Grammar Nazis (also called the grammar police or, more technically, prescriptive linguists) argue that good grammar is essential for clear communication , and besides, it’s the principle of the thing. Those who are less fastidious respond that as long as the message is understood, who cares about fussy rules?

As a Grammar Nazi myself, I have to admit that for me personally, it’s really about the principle—an obsessive-compulsive need for things to be “correct” as I see them. There may be some merit to the argument that poor grammar confuses communication, but from a linguistic perspective, “poor grammar” is really a misnomer. A native speaker of a given language may have a poor command of the official dialect, but he does not have poor grammar.

Modern day linguistic theory assumes that the capacity for language is something already hard-wired into the human brain. Grammar is a set of unconscious rules that describes a particular language. The process of acquiring your native language involves learning what those rules are. When you were a small child, you made choices, based on what you heard around you, between various parameters, e.g., whether your language has fixed or free word order; whether semantic roles of nouns are denoted by case endings or word order, etc. Languages and dialects vary in how these parameters are set.

Most (if not all) of the pet peeves of a Grammar Nazi have to do with dialectal variations:

• “Me and her buy milk at the same market” / “She and I buy milk at the same market” – At issue: English historically was a case language. Over time, nouns lost the ability to distinguish case, and pronouns are starting to follow suit.

• “Ten items or less” / “Ten items or fewer” – At issue: Officially, English uses “fewer” for countable nouns and “less” for uncountable nouns. However, this distinction has been ignored as early as the eighteenth century, given the line “we’ve no less days” from the hymn Amazing Grace.

• “Hopefully the bear will come back” / “It is hoped that the bear will come back” – At issue: there are certain adverbs that originally could modify only the predicate but that have now been reanalyzed in the grammar so that they can modify the entire sentence. Most people would interpret this sentence to mean that WE hope the bear will come back (so we can get a decent photo), but a more conservative interpretation is that the bear will come back in a hopeful manner (because of the promising odors around our campsite). These days, I would hardly expect anyone to hold to the more restricted usage of “hopefully,” but I recently heard someone say, “Prayerfully the fax machine won’t catch fire” and was genuinely confused for a moment about how a fax machine could be so devout.

• “The dog was laying on the couch” / “The dog was lying on the couch” – At issue: whether separate verbs are used to distinguish transitivity. I will maintain until the day I die that the dog was laying only if eggs were involved; most people assume the dog was lying only if he knowingly made a false claim. However, there are plenty of other verbs whose transitive or intransitive forms are the same: “The pool filled with water”; “The storm filled the pool with water.”

• “Who are you going with” / “With whom are you going” – At issue: whether sentences can end with a preposition. Years of conditioning by English teachers have made us feel guilty when we do this, but the form persists because this rule is an artificial one that was imposed on English by analogy with other languages. The Cambridge professor and writer CS Lewis remarked, “The silly ‘rule’ against it was invented by Dryden.  I think he disliked it only because you can’t do it in either French or Latin which he thought more ‘polite’ languages than English.” (“Letters to an American Lady,” quoted in https://mereinkling.wordpress.com/category/c-s-lewis-the-inklings/).

There are plenty of other examples – split infinitives, variations in subject-verb agreement, whether the word “data” should be treated as a singular or a plural noun, etc. The point is that language itself has the capacity for enormous variation. We accept these variations when we compare different languages. We can even accept them when we compare different dialects of the same language, as long as it isn’t our native one. But once we’re examining variations in our own language, it’s hard not to get prescriptive. German uses case for nouns and pronouns, but English has it for pronouns only. Yet these languages came from a common ancestor, which means that at some point, someone was screaming and pulling their hair out when an English noun failed to show the “proper” case.

What a Grammar Nazi is really demanding is not that English be spoken correctly, but that a specific dialect be used (the Master Dialect?). Is it appropriate to insist on a standard dialect? In a private conversation among friends, standard grammar is really no more important than standard (traditionally, mid-west) pronunciation. A nationally broadcast news story may be another matter. There, the chaos of competing dialects is perpetuated among millions of listeners.

The claim is that once all these other dialectal variations are accepted, the way is paved for the language to fragment into mutually unintelligible languages, as Latin did with Italian, French, and Spanish. Unfortunately, stopping language change by insisting on the correct use of “lie” and “lay” has about as much chance succeeding as stopping the dam from bursting by plugging the leak with your finger. I don’t know what I’m going to do when I run out of fingers.

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