Grammar Nazis Don’t Understand Language

There’s this position some people take called Linguistic Prescription or grammar Prescriptivism. It’s the philosophical notion that some uses of language are wrong are inherently worse than other variations. The grammar nazi embodies this philosophy. They point out errors in the communication they encounter, often in a rude and elitist manner. Ironically the idea of objective rules in language is extremely weak when put to the test.

Can grammar be wrong? Are there rules for communication that exist objectively absent of circumstances? When first posed with these questions most people might say yes. Schooling environments tend to give the limited perspective of prescriptivism. Misuse of language or breaking the rules is literally punished with low marks. We’re trained from a young age to see abuses of language and call them out. However consider the way language grows and evolves. There was once a time where show was spelled like shew and doubt was spelled like dout. Slang is being invented and remixed almost everyday. Literally literally means figuratively for example.

Language is spontaneous order

It’s a complete misunderstanding of the nature of communication to give into strict grammar rules. Language is what economics call spontaneous order. It’s a collection of norms not developed by some hierarchy but out the day to day incentives and uses. It’s not about how I speak in line with the true rules of language but instead how I do I communicate to meet my needs for this moment. We can imagine a scenario where there is a conflict in grammar assumptions. Say a posh academic attempting to speak with a low income street nomad. There is certainly barriers and they will have to find common ground but after the interaction should the nomad adopt the rules of his conversation partner. Should he return to his community of gypsies unable to communicate with them? Of-course not! We should embrace the language rules that convenient for task at hand. Flowing in and out of rules in order to more effective communicate.
This is not a unique position it seems the more serious a studier of linguistics is the more likely they are to reject objective rules. The webster dictionary and all of it’s language nerds in charge are well aware that their job is not to determine rules but to record how we use words in normal life. In 2015 the Oxford dictionary had “emoji” as it’s word of the year. A word that too many isn’t a formal part of the english language.

The grammar nazi will do good to study linguistics in a more serious sense. As you dive deeper into language you see it as an art not a science. Next time you think about correcting someone for misspelling “you’re” maybe consider the fact that you understood what they were saying already. If you understand the message could it really have been wrong?


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