I Am Not A Grammar Nazi!

I’ll take Grammar Geek. I’ll take Grammar Mistress. Heck, I’ll even accept Grammar Dominatrix if you’re feeling saucy. I’ll be the Sheriff of Grammartown, flashing my badge as a card-carrying member of the Grammar Police. But please, can we possibly stop comparing people who prefer that you choose the correct form of “there”, “their”, or “they’re” with genocidal maniacs who tried to wipe an entire race of people, along with several other groups, off the face of the Earth?

Conflating the desire to help other people communicate clearly by advising them on how to improve their clarity by using correct English with the hideous, world-changing crimes of Hitler and his ilk has got to be the worst – and sadly, most common – application of Godwin’s law on the internet. Offer one grammar suggestion in the course of an internet conversation and suddenly highly intelligent people, who were just moments before bemoaning the dumbing down of society, are ready to compare you to the perpetrators of some of the most heinous war crimes in recent history.

Needless to say (but I’m going to say it anyway), equating the desire to see good grammar with genocidal mania is a bit of a false equivalency. In fact, as an English teacher, I would venture so far as to say that, on the rare occasion, good grammar can be, not just NOT genocidal, but actually life-saving. Good grammar is, after all, the fastest, simplest way to ensure clarity of communication. If we all follow a standard set of rules, then everyone who uses the language can be assured of comprehensibility.

Let’s put it another way; one that’s really, really geeky. Back when I was in elementary school, we all learned this computer language. You might remember it: it was called BASIC. Now, BASIC was the language that you used to tell the computer what to do. In my prehistoric, Commodore-based world, that usually meant having it solve some simple math problem or change the screen color. However, if you didn’t write the lines of command language just right, the computer either didn’t do anything at all, or it got stuck in some endless loop of trying to do what you told it to, but failing because your instructions weren’t clear.

English has become the BASIC of the world. Almost all international business is conducted in English. It is even the basis of most computer programming languages (seriously, hit “view code” on an international web site sometime). Children all over the world begin learning English at a very young age; their countries consider it vital to remaining internationally relevant and competitive. And those children all learn the same set of grammar rules. So, standard grammar is kind of like a Babel Fish for English: stick it in your writing and anyone who had ever learned the English language will be able to understand what you have to say.

So, how can we as Geek moms and the moms of Geeks, lay the idea of Grammar-as-Fascism to rest and raise our little Geeks to be people whose brilliant contributions to the world are not compromised by their inability and/or refusal to communicate them clearly? The obvious and overused answer is to insist that our darling geeklets use, if not “proper” grammar, then at least standard English in their communications with us. That’s great, of course, but what it does is create kids who get out into the world and roll their eyes and remark on how “my mom makes us use good grammar at home”, while mangling the English language on purpose. Kids are, after all, rebellious like that.

What we can do, though, is teach our kids about “code-switching”. Isn’t that a wonderfully geeky sounding term? Code-switching is, simply put, the way that we change our style of communication based on situation. For example, those of us that work all have a “language” at our jobs that we and our coworkers understand, but the general public may not.  So, while we are at work, we switch “codes” to include the grammar and vocabulary of our specific jobs. Our kids do the same thing at school. Each school has its own codes: one school’s “halls” is another school’s “corridors”, for example.

Encourage your children to notice the act of code-switching as it goes on every day. In particular, point out those instances where people switch codes in order to make themselves more understandable, like when an adult simplifies his or her vocabulary and grammar to communicate clearly with a child or an individual who doesn’t speak much English. Try also to find examples of inappropriate code-switching and discuss with your child the importance of using the right code at the right time. A good example (and a fun one, too) is the conversion of the teens into monsters in Scooby Doo. When the monsters try to blend in with other teenagers, they use inappropriate slang. In other words, they use the wrong “code” for their audience.

The idea of code-switching allows you to eliminate the right/wrong dichotomy that so many kids hate about English. Grammar and vocabulary then become situational: we use one style for communicating with peers at the skate park, one for communicating with Halo team members on the PS3, and another for writing that report in World Geography class. It also creates for kids a way to think about language as they use it. Effective code-switchers, after all, pay attention to the language of the conversation prior to their contribution and adjust their language use to match the conversation. They consider their audience first.

Try to remember then, the next time you run into a “Grammar Stickler” online or out there in the world, that all we really want is for everyone to understand each other better! And, I don’t know about you, but I really don’t think greater understanding of diverse people was one of the goals Adolph outlined in Mein Kampf.

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