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Meeting in the middle

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NOVEMBER 08, 2013

It’s usually best to avoid extremes.

Simply and bluntly stated, there are people who couldn’t possibly care less about grammar. There are also people who care an incredible amount and look down on those who don’t. So which group constitutes the lesser of two evils?

I’ll give you a hint. It’s neither.

First things first: “Grammar Nazi” is a repulsive term. I have a high tolerance for distasteful humor and strange colloquialisms — and I readily acknowledge there are individuals who can’t understand why some of us care so much about grammar and teaching it to others — but it is absolutely not OK to equate people who perpetuate knowledge with people who contributed to something as atrocious as genocide. Those who truly believe good grammar is expendable have no business degrading those who think differently. Understanding and valuing a strong command of language does not make you a horrible person.

On the other hand, deliberate judgment and condescension might have that effect.

Admittedly, my friends and I take a strange approach to explaining common grammar and usage errors. On this blog, at least, we exaggerate the struggles of dealing with peers who misuse certain elements of the English language, and we willfully misinterpret others’ mispunctuated sentences. Naturally, this primarily results in disturbing humor and deeply sarcastic examples. All jokes aside, however, I insist that there remains a huge distinction between valuing sound grammar and blatantly displaying what another blogger calls “grammarrogance,” or “thinking you know more about grammar than you actually do.” Caring about grammar is fine; assuming you know everything about it and judging others’ worth based on that assumption is not. Understanding parts of speech doesn’t give anyone the right to call you a Nazi, but it also doesn’t make you invincible. Find a compromise. Find a happy medium.

In case you didn’t know, nobody is perfect. I know people — copy editors, actually — who have misused “I” and “me” or confused the meanings of similar words. In fact, just a few months ago, a fellow editor posted a quote on the office wall in which I personally admit that I “don’t know anything about grammar.”

This is obviously an exaggeration. I know plenty of things about grammar. I know the difference between “who” and “whom,” and I have a lot of feelings about commas. I even cringe when I hear the phrase “is comprised of.” At the same time, however, I ridicule instances of my own failure to recognize subject-verb inconsistencies, and I had no idea what “preterite” and “imperfect” even meant with respect to grammar until my second year of college, when my Spanish teacher illustrated the relationship between the concepts using the metaphor of a loaf of bread (don’t ask).

What I’m saying is as much as I value understanding language, I acknowledge that doing so involves an ongoing learning experience. What I’m saying is I can’t “teach” a news editor all about grammar as if it were something one either knows entirely or does not know at all. What I’m saying is the supposed binary between the educated and uneducated is a false dichotomy that would more accurately be described as a continuum. What terrifies me is that there are individuals who don’t seem to realize this. I have friends who express pure disdain when others make mistakes but don’t seem to acknowledge that it’s highly unlikely their own grammar is flawless — exemplifying a form of selective criticism that does absolutely nothing for the learning process. In a stunning example, a Facebook status that went viral reads, “There, their, and they’re. Get it right your in college.” Well, kind sir, I guess your idea of good grammar comprises a thorough mastery of certain homonyms but not a similar understanding of what constitutes a sentence or when to use “you’re.”

That wasn’t quite the compromise I was looking for.

Contact Nada Rendradjaja at 


NOVEMBER 11, 2013