Sunday, March 14, 2010

Confessions of a reformed grammar Nazi

I love words. I love grammar. It's sad for me, but I love knowing exactly where any bit of punctuation should be placed in relation to quotation marks in both American and British English. And for me, the thrill of finishing a New York Times crossword puzzle is nearly a religious experience.

Once, I was so proud of my sweet English skills that I proudly called myself a grammar Nazi. I'm not sure what about the word "Nazi" didn't send up red flags telling me "Hey, it's not OK to view any group of people - including those with bad grammar - as if they don't deserve to exist." And for all my fancy vocabulary skills, I somehow never realized that my constant assertion that "stupid people shouldn't breed" was a perfect example of eugenic philosophy.

The thing is, the English language is beautiful and amazing, and its imperfections are what make it so. In Chaucer's day, people considered English a vulgar bastard of a language, and thought Chaucer a rube for writing in the vernacular, rather than "high" languages like Latin or French.
This graceless mutt was a distant descendant of German, Latin, and Godknowswhatall. Its nouns had no gender, its verbs had no conjugation, and its speakers had no education. English was, and is, sloppy, haphazard, and spelled really, really nonsensically.

I used to complain bitterly over simplified spellings like "lite" and "donut." But what language in its right mind would include two silent letters in a one-syllable word? It makes no sense, especially considering the perfectly rational way in which we spell "kite" and "trite." And why would a word containing only three consonant sounds contain five consonants? It's madness, really. And folks like Ben Franklin, Mark Twain, and even Webster himself thought the same.

Similarly, I used to throw a fit when a newspaper article had the gall to put a preposition at the end of a sentence when really, that rule makes no earthly sense whatsoever. If I ask you what you're capable of, will you honestly not know that I want to know of what you're capable? The rule is left over from Latin, and Latin's dead, so I guess it wasn't so smart after all.

Every time a new word like "ginormous" finds its way into a dictionary, grammar Nazis all over the world work themselves into fits over the bastardization of the language, but our great Shakespeare (who rarely even spelled his name the same way twice, by the way) used thousands of words that had never appeared in any dictionary - a feat that would have been considered obscene, except the intellectual elite at that time would never have used that word, since Shakespeare is the one who coined it.

I still love English, nonsensical spelling, arbitrary punctuation, absurd grammar and all. And old habits die hard - my heart still dies a little when I see the word "light" spelled l-i-t-e. I'm just saying that I think the language would be significantly poorer if Lewis Carrol had written about "the big frightening dragon-like creature"; if the rolling stones had complained "I am unsatisfied"; if the Temptations had sung "I am not above begging"; if cats simply said "May I please have a cheeseburger?"

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