Sunday, October 11, 2015

Confessions of a Former Grammar Nazi

by Dave

“Thank you for calling Merchant Services, my name is Dave, WITH WHOM do I have the pleasure of speaking?” I could, and probably do, chant this introduction in my sleep. For 2+ years I answered hundreds and thousands of tech support calls in the windowless Louisville call center for Bank of America Merchant Services. In my final six months I spent little time taking calls and a LOT of time listening to calls, as I became a part of the Quality Assurance Team. I awarded and deducted points from my co-workers’ scores based on their tone, technical prowess and adherence to the guidelines. One thing that I was not allowed to consider when scoring a call was grammar. But, oh did I want to. Every time I heard, “who do I have the pleasure of speaking with” or worse yet, “WITH WHOM do I have the pleasure of speaking WITH” a little part of my brain died. That is right, I am a recovering grammar nazi.

You see the form of the word “who” is in the subjective case, that is, to be used as a subject. For the objective case (including the object of prepositions) we would use “whom.” Also, we are never to use a preposition at the end of a sentence. Thus, “with whom” should come at the beginning of the BAMS introduction phrase. At least that is what they say. Who are they you may be wondering? You guessed it! Other grammar nazis. 

So what has brought about my change of heart? Was it perhaps a fear of online bullying? All of the Facebook posts decrying armchair copy editors? No, though I admit that does scare me a bit. What has changed me is that I am quickly approaching the date where I will be called upon to write a grammar for a language called Kwakum. So, right now I have to do a lot of research. I will hear a word in one place, then check it against a speaker in another village. And I am often told that there are two Kwakums: 1)the Kwakum spoken in everyday life (Kwakum leger) and 2) the REAL Kwakum. Many of the older people want to teach me the “real” Kwakum and I will walk away with vocabulary to try on my neighbors. And guess what happens? They have no idea what I am saying. In other words, these older speakers are actually Kwakum grammar nazis.

What is a Grammar Nazi? 
A grammar nazi is someone who chooses a “proper” form of their language and then seeks to impose this form on the rest of the world, usually in ways that make others look stupid. You know them, you hate them. They correct your Facebook posts, declaring your ideas invalid because of a misplaced comma or split infinitive. Some are English teachers, but most were just the teacher’s pet (like me). There is actually a Commission Générale de Terminologie et de Néologisme (“Grammar Nazi Police” - loose translation) in France that was created to safeguard the integrity of the French language. One of their recent decisions was to forbid the use of the word “hashtag” to favor “mot-dièse” because they want to avoid borrowed words. The English language’s “police force” is much more informal, and we call them grammar nazis. The idea is that there is one proper way of speaking English (or French/Kwakum/etc.) and therefore when people violate the rules of Proper English, they need to be corrected. 

What is the Problem?
Put simply, there is no Proper English. There is not “one correct way” to speak or write English. I am sure that people in England are amused when Americans demand that “proper English” be spoken/written. When people ask “What is your favorite color?” should we correct them “colour”? Of course not, Americans spell it and say it “color.” There is no reason to try to force them to use their own language in a way that they have never used it. Ought we really demand that people restart the old practice of using the present tense of the verb “to wend” ? After all, we do use its past tense form when we say we “went” somewhere. The answer is “no.” Cameroonian English is different from British English which is different from American English. And within these sub-categories there accents and dialects and personal idiosyncrasies. An English speaker has to adapt or be misunderstood. When I told a man on the anglophone side of Cameroon that I liked his “pants,” I rightfully got a puzzled look. “Pants” means underwear here.

What I have discovered is that grammar is by nature descriptive, not prescriptive. We write grammar rules based on how people actually speak the language. It would be silly for us to write our grammar based on the way that people USED to speak Kwakum. That information is vital for the study of the language, but when we get to the translation phase of our ministry, we are not going to translate the Bible into “real Kwakum.” Why? Because we want people to understand it. There is a reason that we have updated the language from the KJV. One could learn the “thees” and “thous”, but they would have nothing to do with the way we speak English today. It is the right thing to do because language evolves, it changes. And the point of language is to be understood. So, if your “proper English” is so proper no one understands you, you are failing language.

What Should We Do?
As much as we believers in objective truth do not like it, language is very subjective. This does not mean, however, that we can just go willy-nilly and do whatever we want. If the purpose of language is understanding, we must speak in a way so as to be understood. This means that in English we almost always place our subject before the verb (Dave went to school).* We do this not because it is “proper” English, but because “Went Dave to school” does not make sense. This means that there are rules to the language. However, these rules do change and differ depending on where you are geographically. In modern English “whom” is going the way of “wending.” And I call all of the grammar nazis reading this to embrace this change. There is nothing wrong with wanting “to boldly go where no one has gone before.” Further, “I have some things to think about” sounds much better than “I have things about which to think.” We say phrases like this, we are understood, and no one got hurt. 

So, for my fellow grammar nazis I am offering the following flowchart for conversations online/offline. This should be a good guide as to whether or not to indulge in your grammar nazi tendencies.

*I did use an exception to this rule once in this post. Can you find it?