War of Words

The grammar nerds are getting nasty

Lee Dickinson Word Wise copywriting

By Lee Dickinson

Sharing a language has never been so divisive.

Social media grammar police are being forced alongside followers of a new form of words they’re programmed to hate.

It’s like internet ‘kettling’; a cross-section confined by shared use of a platform and an anger stoked by proximity. Fiction writers have a phrase for such close-quarters conflict – the crucible. Whatever you call it, it’s an explosive melting pot.

You can see the result every rant-filled day on the web, where hell has no fury like a word nerd scorned. Grammar pedants would normally be the sort of bespectacled, elbow-patched foe worthy only of pity, but invade their word-based territory and watch a screaming, downhill charge of revenge. They feel threatened. A lifetime’s learning could be wasted. They’re correcting to defend centuries of tradition. 

Part of me’s with these keypad warriors as they try to protect our precious language, but I join their ranks rarely. Watching their skirmishes from the peaceful slopes of caution is safer and saves time, but I urge them on with a feeling of guilt. “You should be down there, fighting with them,” part of me screams. 

Such restraint as the keyboard-to-keyboard combat rages is partly down to our amazing language and its flexibility. Its ‘rules’ are often guidelines. Controversial for a copywriter and proofreader, that, but authorities such as Fowler and his Dictionary of Modern English Usage confirm it. Read any page of that pedants’ bible and see how our words have gone beyond evolving and into the realms of transformation. Start with its front page, if you like, and the title with that ‘Modern’. If the English language was static, the word would be surplus. 

There are some hard-and-fasts, but the pace of our vocabulary’s evolution makes following the developments confusing. When ‘change’ itself is changing, surely we have to at least try to adapt? The alternative is to peddle an alien concept to people almost literally speaking another language, and that’s as doomed to failure as the grammar police adopting textspeak.

Word Matters, the blog, is here.

Some things never change, though. One of them has been agreed on for centuries like those controversial ‘rules’ of grammar. It’s one thing even the nerds and their enemies unite on: no-one likes a smart-arse.

There are plenty of those on the internet, with ‘Grammar Police’ on Twitter one of the best examples. Read any of the 13,500 tweets and you’ll soon get the belittling flavour. The description says it all: “I correct grammar because it p***es people off”. Yes, that’s their goal in life…

For other purists with helpful, informative aims, the approach must be more considered. Social media has cheapened language, made it disposable in an age when everyone’s their own editor. Mistakes are inevitable, and seizing on them from any source smacks of gloating.

We must choose our targets. For people in positions of power, their mistakes can set a trend we have a duty to challenge.

US President Donald Trump’s error-strewn tweets are a prime example. Coming from someone in charge of a superpower’s education system, such mistakes threaten our language. Challenging them stems from the same love of words as the ‘grammar Nazis’, but you’ll have to prise my keyboard from my cold, dead hands before I join them.

Lee Dickinson is an advanced professional member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP, formerly SfEP). He’s a former journalist who now works as a copywriter and editor. You can contact him here, at CIEP, by email via editor@bookediting.co.uk or through the platforms below.

Copyright © 2020, Lee Dickinson, Word Wise Web Ltd. All rights reserved.