Is Being a "Grammar Snob" a Good or Bad Thing?

Chances are, the English language has changed since this edition was printed.
Chances are, the English language has changed since this edition was printed.

We live in a world where increasingly, people communicate through writing. This is interesting, because prior to our dependence on computers and the creation of online social networks, most folks probably didn't have to write very often. Unless a person was a student, a teacher or a journalist, or had a profession heavily dependent on being able to organize his thoughts and communicate them through writing, the average person probably didn't get a whole lot of regular practice with the written word. Nowadays, however, it seems almost everyone is on Facebook or other social networks, or at least occasionally has to send an email to someone. It would appear likely that most people would have good grammar skills since they get a lot of practice, but anyone who has spent time online knows that isn't the case.

Since online social networking sites often seem like they were designed to cause fights between people, it's no surprise that some disagree with how others communicate. We've probably all seen someone angrily criticize another person's writing, taking it upon himself to inform his foe of his or her terrible grammar skills.

Recently, a video began to make the rounds on social networking sites criticizing so-called "grammar snobs" for being "patronizing, pretentious, and just plain wrong." The video makes a case that grammar snobs are using an elite and increasingly outdated form of the English language, and that they shouldn't be proud of that fact.

The video makes a few good points — that strict adherence to grammar rules isn't always necessary for people to understand one another, and that a set of standard rules unifying our use of language is needed, while the people making such an argument conveniently ignore that the common standards they're talking about aren't common at all but just the rules they prefer. The video also points out that attacking someone's improper use of grammar is often just a way to silence a person one disagrees with — an especially crummy tactic.

Sometimes bad grammar can be funny.EXPAND
Sometimes bad grammar can be funny.

However, as with most things in life, there seems to be a lot of gray area between being a jerk who loves to point out other people's misuse of words and a person who thinks that people shouldn't care about proper grammar at all. No adult enjoys being corrected by another, especially if the "grammar hammer" is being wielded by someone trying to prove just how much smarter he or she is. Still, when I see adults who write frequently and at least graduated high school yet who can't seem to understand the difference between "to," "too" and "two" or "their," "there" and "they're," I wonder why it's so difficult for them to learn.

Of course, the English language also evolves over time. If it didn't, we'd still be talking the way English-speaking people did 150 years ago, and no one does that. Imagine a world in which articles appearing in your newsfeed were written the way people wrote 200 years ago. That would be pretty weird, wouldn't it? A few years ago, I had a boss who liked to chastise his employees whenever he could. He thought he was the smartest guy in the room, which wasn't the case, but one of his favorite tactics was to attack our use of language. His favorite strategy was to criticize someone's misuse of the words "literally" and "actually," two words people use incorrectly all the time, even though in most cases it's completely clear what they're trying to communicate. I found myself deciding that being a creep who would try to belittle others over the use of words commonly employed in ways that are technically wrong was way worse than just using "literally" wrong in conversation.

Of course, there's a a big difference between conversational use of words and situations where correct grammar needs to be strictly adhered to, such as professional writing. Anyone who wants to be taken seriously as a writer should probably try to stick to expected standards, or he or she probably won't get far. But when I see folks who like to point out gleefully or angrily some minor misuse of a word in most other situations, I have to wonder why that bothers them so much. Frankly, it's not realistic to expect everyone posting on Internet forums to write at a collegiate level. To expect that implies an assumption that everyone comes from the same educational background, and that's not going to be the case. Standards are good as a baseline for good communication skills, and encountering someone who ignores good grammar altogether can be a bewildering and unpleasant experience, but usually, correcting someone publicly who didn't ask for an editor is just going to make the "grammar snob" doing it look like a jerk.

I think there are a few things to take away from this issue. There's a balance at work, and language does change with time. Words that once had one meaning have come to be accepted to have others, at least in informal speech. People should try to learn the basic rules of grammar and writing, but people who get a lot of pleasure putting others down for misuse of a word probably should look in the mirror and question why they feel like doing that.


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