Nobody Likes a Grammatical Snob

Be careful when asking for writing advice. Some people want to do it right – define what you want to say and to whom, and help you with it. But some just want to bring you in line with their idea of ​​”correct” writing. They are pedants who think there is only one correct way to express themselves, and like all pedants, they prefer to be right than smart. They are neither one nor the other.

In every field of knowledge there are pedants: people who guard the gates, hiding behind the enlightenment of others. But they often and clearly arise in the field of language, where everyone has experience, so that anyone can pretend to be an expert. And editor Pippa Bailey roasts them in an essay on the evolution of language .

Unwavering pedantry is not a love of language, but something uglier: the desire to always be right and humiliate others. He is supreme and elite; language not as a means of communication, but as a means of status.

The pedant thinks that their language in its current form is transmitted from top to bottom. They ignore all the changes that shaped the language when they speak it and condemn every change since then. They think that language is fixed, like the law of physics. It’s like thinking a dollar is worth a dollar because of the value of green ink. This is Steve Martin’s joke about visiting France: “These people, it’s like they have another word for everything!”

Pedants do not understand that language is always imperfect, that it does not exist outside the people who use it, that all this is literally invented. Even in Genesis it says that God took all the animals and “brought them to Adam to see what he would call them. And no matter how Adam called every living being, that was his name. ” The second chapter of the last book of prescriptivism, which specifically states that God did not give names to animals, but waited to see how people would name them .

Likewise, you can disassemble any form of pedantry in any area of ​​expertise. But it’s especially easy to recognize in a language because we all use the language all the time every day, ignoring the “rules” and letting the language evolve. Everywhere you’ll see good writing that breaks infinitives or starts with conjunctions or uses too many words, good speech that stutters and skips, fades and interrupts. You will see bad writing and bad speech, which, for better or worse, will also change our overall understanding of what is right.

There are many rules for this whole language. For example, it helps you write words just like everyone else, or use them only with meanings that your audience already accepts or might temporarily free up space. But each particular rule of the language is flexible, and some letters can break many of them at once and still succeed. In the English language, our most respected writer is Shakespeare, who introduced 422 words into the language; you can see them all here . He worked at a time when the English language was changing rapidly. Thanks to the Internet, we are living in another time of rapid change.

The pedant yells, “If you don’t follow my rules, then you won’t have rules!” This is simply not true. Among English speakers alone, millions of people switch the code every day, talking with friends in one language, family in another, colleagues in another. They follow not one set of rules, but several overlapping sets. And they have their own personal linguistic habits, favorite phrases, words they avoid without expecting everyone else to share their preferences. The pedant sees someone else’s dialect and lacks the imagination to recognize it as a dialect.

It is no coincidence that pedants support the language of those in power, and the language of the powerless is insulted like no language. Pedantry is political. Pedants will defend themselves by pointing to other political uses of the language – for example, avoiding words that stigmatize or using gender-neutral pronouns – and arguing that this is the same as pedantry. But they are the other way around. These “rules” force our language to include more people, while pedantry excludes people. This is the essence of this war.

The good news is, pedants are failing, already failing. The bright lights of linguistics are people like Gretchen McCulloch , whose book Because the Internet celebrates the recent evolution of language as part of an ancient and never-ending process. Editors like Pippa Bailey profess and shy away from pedantry in their work, even in the most popular publications. People follow the New York Times Twitter account to cheer every time a boring newspaper tries a word for the first time. Dictionary makers through gaming social media accounts use their own cultural authority to undermine themselves. They are smart rather than right. They are both.


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