I am an English teacher. I love my job, so it comes up often in conversations with people I have just met. Invariably, someone will say, “English teacher, eh? Oh no. I’ll try to watch my grammar around you.” In those moments, I feel a pang in my heart, for there begins a quake of guilt and embarrassment which ripples through my soul awakening both pity and frustration alike. Clutching my chest, like Fred Sanford calling for his deceased Elizabeth, I grimace and respond, “There is no need to watch what you say. Only a complete jerk would stop a good conversation to correct someone’s English.” Depending on the type of company, I may use a harsher word than “jerk.” My frustration lies with the fact that just such a jerk must have attacked this poor individual in the past, and as a result, he is now afraid to express himself, as valid as his points and ideas may be, in front of anyone else who may know a thing or two about the language. Unfortunately, these conversation-killing “grammar-correcting” jerks are everywhere. There seems to be one in every social setting, and the haughtiest among them proudly refer to themselves as “Grammar-Nazis.”
The label is fitting in a number of ways. The ubiquitous Grammar-Nazi gets a sort of Aryan feeling of superiority out of goose-stepping all over slang, colloquialisms, erroneously conjugated verbs, misplaced modifiers, clumsily placed prepositions, adjectives used as adverbs, mispronounced words, and split infinitives. When the Grammar-Nazi is most successful, he commits conversational genocide by capturing the topic at hand and sending it off to a concentration camp so the entire focus of the discussion can be turned toward his waving red flag of language skills. You’ve seen this happen before: In the normal course of conversation, in the flow of improvised ideas, someone will slip up and the Grammar-Nazi will swoop in and completely blitzkrieg all further communication by embarrassing the offending individual. The worst Grammar-Nazis tend to follow the attack by insulting the victim’s upbringing or education (“Is that how they talk down there in Texas?”). The conversation fully invaded, the Grammar-Nazi looms over his victim looking as smug as can be… like Colonel Klink adjusting his monocle.
My biggest problem with the Grammar-Nazi is not his tendency to disrupt friendly conversation. It’s his desire to feign mastery of the language. There is, however, plenty that the Grammar-Nazi does not know: Does any Grammar-Nazi fully appreciate the versatility, and mutability of the language? Is the Grammar-Nazi aware that English is an untamable chimera of a language that was born out of so many others, and that it continues to absorb into itself any foreign word or idea it wants to keep? Is the Grammar-Nazi aware that English cannot conform to the rules of Latin or any other language? Does the Grammar-Nazi know that the power of English is in its diversity rather than its ostensible purity? I would guess the answer is “no,” because while the Grammar-Nazi is marching around on patrol, the real masters of the language are running, like Jesse Owens, in circles all around him. Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, William Faulkner, James Joyce, Herman Melville, Allen Ginsberg, William Shakespeare, and even Bob Dylan created some of our most enduring ideas, and they did it in language that perhaps no Grammar-Nazi would tolerate.
As an English teacher, I get no pleasure out of showing off my language skills at the expense of someone else. There is a time and place for proofreading or for refining one’s speaking skills, and it’s not during friendly communication. I think it’s time for the Grammar-Nazi to retire his arm band, pick up a book from the “burn pile” and read with liberated eyes… and after a few days of that, maybe he’ll be ready to participate in a conversation without trying to rid the world of language that doesn’t meet his personal standard.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: If the reader is concerned about the shamelessness with which I took advantage of the Nazi metaphor in the second and third paragraph, I would redirect the reader to worry more about the two TV sit-com allusions instead.