October 29th, 2014

Gutenberg

The reformed grammar Nazi speaks

Language prescriptivism (or "grammar Nazism," as it's more commonly known) is one of my flash points. I do not for a moment believe that "kids these days" are ruining the language by their "lazy" texting, tweeting, and other shortcuts, and I rouse myself to the defense of both the kids and the language whenever my friends start grumbling in this fashion. But I wasn't always so enlightened.

I used to be a grammar Nazi/language bigot/whatever our term is, of the worst, snottiest kind. It was studying linguistics (ironically, some people would think, but not true linguists) that turned me around. So I bring it up to show that one can change!

I know grammar Nazism is based in a worry that people are losing the ability to use language in all its possible ways, or that the language is about to die of multiple stab wounds or something, but that just never, ever happens to languages. They don't die from being well used and experimented with. They only die from being *not* used. An adverb suffix or lack thereof, or "who" vs. "whom," is a tiny matter. And as for spelling, that isn't even really language; it's writing, which is a pale reflection of speech, which IS language.

As linguist Steven Pinker puts it, "In the heyday of telegraphy, when people paid by the word, they left out the prepositions and articles. It didn’t mean that the English language lost its prepositions and articles; it just meant that people used them in some media and not in others. And likewise, the prevalence of texting and tweeting does not mean that people magically lose the ability to communicate in every other conceivable way."

So don't worry about English, folks. She's survived lots worse.