The Cold-Blooded Murder of the English Tongue
I firmly expect Gaudere's Law to strike this post
Do you have a great deal of time on your hands? Are you willing to fight nobly for an oft-disrespected cause? Are you a pretentious git? Welcome, then, to the ranks of grammatical snobbery! It's an important job, because there are vast, unwashed, and terrible hordes out there who do not understand the need for rigorous, unflinching dedication to a cause nobody else cares about.

It's they we must be ready to bravely fight against.
It's they against which we must be ready to bravely fight.
It is they against with we must be ready to fight bravely.
It's they we must be ready to fight bravely.
Kill the bastards.

Grammar snobs are like trekkies with worse social skills, and I find myself in a somewhat difficult position with regards to the concept, if for no reason other than because I'm a trekkie with terrible social skills.

No, no. Actually the problem is somewhat more complex.

As you may or may not know, and probably do not care, there are essentially two schools of grammar. The prescriptivist school is what most of us think of when we think of "grammar class"—a teacher telling us how we should order our sentences. Prescriptivist grammar tells you how you should speak. The descriptivist school holds that a "grammar" is useful not as an instructive text, but as one that simply indexes how people actually do speak.

Also, I'm going to (improperly) use "grammar" as a catchall term for orthography, phonology, syntax, diction, and so on. This is to avoid making a comment about phonology (which I'm about to do) and having somebody in the comments section bitch about how that's not really grammar. Suck it up, bub.


When I was in college, before I settled into the more fiscally responsible career track of anthropology and history, I was first a student of linguistics. And, as a postmodern scholar of language, I was raised firmly into the descriptivist camp. After all, why should we disdain people who pronounce "ask" as æks rather than æsk? This process of metathesis is identical to the one that converted the low German waefs first into "wæps" and then into "wasp," but you would never scorn someone for calling the bug a "wasp," now would you? The only advantage that people who mispronounce "wæps" as "wasp" have is that this transformation occurred seven hundred years ago.

(Actually, a clearer example comes from looking at the derivation of our word for Trigger's species. Long ago this word was "hros"—you can see the original form preserved in the Dutch ros or German Ross, or for that matter in the Ross region of Scotland, quite possibly an adaptation of the Norse "Hrossay" ('horse island') for the Orkneys. "Hros" being impossible to say, the 'r' and the 'o' were quickly inverted to become "hors," no later than the 8th century)

Similarly, Churchill is popularly (though incorrectly) said to have declared that a blanket rejection of terminal prepositions was the sort of nonsense "up with which I will not put," skewering the notion that strict prescriptivism is the path to our salvation. Indeed I am inclined to view the "grammar nazi" as a bastion of arrant and unmitigated pretension.


I love grammar. I love all aspects of the English language. I love finding new words for things, and then employing these words. I would say that there are probably few things I love more than English. Possibly a Sonic hamburger, but only if it's late at night and I am very hungry.

Occasionally my love of English is my undoing; my writing is discursive and inaccessible on the best of days, and my editors are constantly stripping me of my beloved words, chopping my sentences to bits, and questioning my wanton (if, strictly speaking, accurate) use of esoteric words and terminology. But then, I love esoteric terminology and concepts as well.

For instance, I find old navigation practises very fun, particularly when it comes to direction-finding, to the degree (ha!) that I made them a plot point in my novella The Surly Bonds of Earth:

It was a simple navigation error, he realised, looking over his maps. The rhumb line that linked Cape Tarenga and Ituskva, which he had taken from a sailing chart, implied that one had first gained Point Australis at the tip of the cape. They had, by virtue of flight, skipped such a step entirely, and had been travelling due west when an accurate course--how accurate, he wasn't sure; the maps were only as good as the cartographers--would have had them tack slightly south as well.

However, if you do not know that a rhumb line is the constant-bearing course to go in a particular direction (as opposed to one that takes the curvature of the Earth into account) then you would find this meaningless, and possibly have to go to a dictionary. Apparently, I make people do that often. I apologise for my tendency to recondite my meaning in a world where hierophancy is frowned upon.

Well. No. No, I don't apologise at all.

Anyway, so I am torn between two poles. On the one hand, I want to respect the variable ways of employing and evolving the English language. On the other hand, I want people to be conversant (so to speak) with the many wonderful dimensions of English, too.

Also, I am irrationally irritable where typos are concerned. I don't know what I can, or should, do with that? Do I accept it on the grounds that English is flexible, or do I denounce the lazy fucks that can't be bothered to spell things properly? I'm inclined to put orthography and grammar in the same boat, witness horse/hros above, but... still.

I read stories and have frequent IM conversations in which people clearly cannot be bothered to proofread. For stories, this is simply bizarre. For IM conversations, the line of thinking, I believe, is that it's not as important to make sure that you're using the proper ðər or spelling out 'for' instead of just typing '4'.

Orthography, I think, along with syntax, can be classified by register. There are certain spelling and writing conventions that we use in certain circumstances—E-mails written to your boss look different from E-mails written to your friend.

Not bothering to use a spellcheck, therefore, probably signifies one of two things:

a) I don't respect you enough to take the time to check what I write,
b) We are so close that it doesn't matter if I don't do so

There are a few people that I am close enough to that it doesn't matter how they say something, I will still listen. Most people, by virtue of me not having really talked to them before, are not part of this group. Therefore I feel comfortable judging them, because they are, effectively, telling me that they don't respect me enough to make the effort when communicating.

At the moment I think this is how I intend to rationalise the paradox of appreciating descriptive grammar while still feeling very irritated by people who misspell things.

What does anyone else do? Do I have to be a strict prescriptivist? Because that would really cramp my style.
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