When people learn I’m a professional technical writer/editor, as well as an aspiring creative writer/editor, they often expect me to be a Grammar Nazi who cackles as she scalps her friends, acquaintances, and random passers-by for every grammatical slip they make while talking, or for any typos in any form of written communication.
The truth is, first, I’m as guilty as anyone of improper English when speaking. I had a bad speech impediment for most of my adolescence and never built much confidence for speaking, and I just never had the motivation to practice grammatically perfect speech.
Second, outside of work, I do not ever make it my business to correct anyone else, unless they’re asking for my help or they’re a friend who I know wouldn’t want to present something with errors.
Because since grade school, I’ve had a bigger priority than zealously advocating for correct grammar in casual conversations around me, and that was making and keeping friends. Guess what: you can’t do both. And one of those pursuits is vastly more fulfilling than the other. Try having a birthday party with your grammar books and worksheets. Just try.
I’m not a Grammar Nazi. I’m a grammar nerd. I have a passion for linguistics and etymology. In elementary school, I got an unnatural joy out of diagramming sentences in English class. That joy hadn’t diminished when I took a copyediting class in college, where I had a great professor who presented all kinds of obscure terms and fun grammatical puzzles and quandaries (we were stumped when asked to identify the subject of “Why are there five owls attached to your head?” — as I recall, the subject turned out to be “there,” “are” the verb, and “five owls attached to your head” was some type of participle phrase modifier). I loved all of it. In my senior year, I asked to do an independent study on the History of English Language. If I’d done it a year earlier, I very well might have gone into graduate school after all, to pursue a master’s in linguistics (if I ever found a practical application for it).
Here are some of the best Grammar Nerd Life Lessons I’ve picked up. In celebration of my overall point of being chill about rules when your job doesn’t depend on it, I will audaciously leave uncapitalized the first letter of each bullet point.
- don’t be snobbish about grammar or “proper English,” whatever the hell that means. Sub-points:
a) in my History of English Language study, I learned that — surprise surprise — for centuries, from Jonathan Swift to George Orwell, it’s been in vogue for academics, intellectuals, and writers to bicker about current society’s decline of English and language, and the totally fucked-up things that assholes like Shakespeare are doing to our once-sacred tongue. See Cicero complaining in 43 B.C.: “Times are bad. Children no longer obey their parents and everyone is writing a book.”
b) the variations of English that occur regionally and culturally are goddamn jewels. I’ve grown especially appreciative since I learned how English spread around the world through British colonialism, and in certain places like Jamaica, the local population developed their own dialect (unintelligible to the British) as a method of protest against their colonizers. That’s awesome.
- just because something may be grammatically correct, does not always mean you ought to use it. Character voice aside, sometimes using the absolutely correct form is a distraction to the overall point of your writing.
- when you work all day on making everything you write typo-free, with the best and most efficient wording possible, it’s a relief to be more informal in other forums (I’ve gotten especially fond of the tumblr predilection for dropping punctuation — as one post said, it makes your sentences flow so smooth and free like a jungle river). It is already too fucking hard for me to turn off my own obsessive internal editor, no matter to whom I’m writing or what hour of the night it is. If I’m copy/pasting, for instance, a bunch of phone numbers to email to someone, I can’t hit Send until I’ve not only made all the fonts consistent, but presented the numbers the same way (whether separated by hyphens or periods, with the zip code in parentheses or not). And whether I’m reading something on-screen or on hard copy, I know when someone has two spaces instead of one between words or after a period. Cannot unsee it.
- ergo, if you correct my English when I’m off-duty (this blog counts as on-duty, by the way), you might find yourself slocked. [/OITNB nod]
- nevertheless, I habitually use proper capitalization, spelling, and punctuation in all my text messages, because I have standards, dammit.
- on that note, what I got most out of S1 of BBC’s Sherlock is that if anyone ever receives a text from me to the effect of “i dont feel so gr8, can u pick me up at 8th and lakeview,” you had better know I’ve been murdered and my killer is luring you in too.