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Sunday, September 11, 2011

Nazi-free zone

For 35 years, I was forced to be a grammar and spelling Nazi while assessing university essays, and I was pretty good at it. Being a literacy Nazi, that is.

  Sadly, I didn't need all that much persuading. God knows some students needed it, and it didn't hurt them to discover how bad their English was.

  Yet I've always maintained what is obvious to everyone who thinks about it - language changes with time, circumstances and use; and what's acceptable - even conventional - changes as well, and I think the pace of that change is accelerating.

  So... I am going to try not to get annoyed when someone writes that a person was decimated, when they mean annihilated (decimation being the act of reducing numbers to one in ten, although authorities don't even agree about that!)

  I'm not going to get hung up on whether someone uses it's when they should use its, and try not to groan when I see tomato's for sale - or tomartoe's, for that matter. I guess I'll even get used to singular criteria and phenomena. **Groan** We all have our pet hates when it comes to the Grammar Goosestep. (Goose step? Goose-step? Goostep?) STOP IT!!

  Any one of those would get the message across just as good well. Or as badly. **Sigh** I just can't quite help myself....

  I'm damned if I'm going to write “It is I,” when I would say, “It's me.”

  Or worry about whether the comma or full stop should be before or after the inverted commas. Or whether the Microsoft corporation demands that I consider whether I really want incomplete sentences like these.

  Stuff 'em I say.

  I'm going to declare language to be free, as long as it gets the intended message across without ambiguity. Mine, anyway.

  It's not the first time I've made such a declaration in this blog, by the way, but I've not always managed to keep the jackboots off. Frenzied self-kicking up the bum must look quite funny, especially when only one leg works properly.

  I've sworn off it before, but never quite got out of the nasty uniform.

  Still, I feel the need to place the following caveat at the end of each story. “I am very good at spelling and grammar and anything that doesn't look right is deliberate, so there.”

  Pathetic, hey?

  An absolutely brilliant and much more forceful declaration of this was made by Cambridge educated entertainer and scholar Stephen Fry, and you should have a look at it. It's wonderful, visually clever, and if it doesn't rip those swastika armbands off your pedantic sleeves, nuthin will.

Original source:

  I will, however, steer clear of clichéd expressions like the plague, and avoid at almost all costs text messaging shortcuts. I'll use 'however' when I please, even though I threatened immediate execution to any student using that graceless word in an essay. But the one I'll never use is gr8 for great, because it truly gr8s on me. 

  Lastly, I won't use <3 to signify love, or a heart. Sideways, it's quite cute really, but with my schoolboy mind, the only thing I can see in it is what used to be doodled all over the toilet cubicle walls in 1961 at Gladstone High.


  1. I'm not a grammar, spelling or soup Nazi, but I am an etymology pedant:

    "...(decimation being the act of reducing numbers to one in ten, although authorities don't even agree about that!)"

    It originally meant reducing numbers *by* one in ten:

    So I had to laugh back in 1996 when I heard our then Prime Minister state on TV that "we are reducing ATSIC's funding by 10%, we're not decimating it".

    My personal pet hate is when 'literally' is used to mean 'metaphorically', which is more or less its opposite. Viz. Chris Uhlmann stating on 7.30 last week:

    "Each day, the head of the United Nations literally confronts all the troubles in the world."

    Not unless he has a *very* fast jet, he doesn't.

  2. Thanks for the comment. Yes, I knew about the “decimation” 90% survival thing, but etymologically, how does that work, really, when you parse the word? Where's the clue in the etymology that settles it at "reduce by" instead of "reduce to"? It seems more logical to me that “decimate” should move the decimal point one place to the left, which means it becomes only 1/10th the size. I’m open to persuasion! :)

    As to “literally”, I blame chef Jamie Oliver, who was always doing things “lit’r’lly”! I forgive him on the grounds that he's trying hard to stop kids eating muck. Lit'r'lly! And if Santa can cover the entire Christian world in one night, maybe it’s not beyond the capability of Ban Ki Moon.... a challenge, I grant you!

    Anyone else got a personal top hate word or term? I do think mine must be when someone talks about “this criteria” – or decides to add to the carnage in pluralising it by using “these criterion.”

    This is dangerous. My grammar Nazism is lurking all too close to the surface.

  3. My pet hate is the term 'a number' - as in television reporting - when a journalist looks earnestly into the camera and with heavy emphasis says: "There were a number of incidents in which a number of people were injured."

    Why should they not give some indication of how many? 'A number' can range from one to infinity. 'A number' is an excuse for sloppy research or downright laziness.

    Language legitimately changes but I feel the place of older 'language Nazis' is to slow down the rate of that change, to give everyone pause to consider and to prevent complete chaos. What starts as a seemingly reasonable relaxation may all too soon cause language to become incomprehensible.

    God knows, communication between humans is difficult enough, so we should try and keep some sort of uniformity in how we express ourselves.

    I am always reluctant to enter into any debate on language - I am not literate enough myself to presume to lay down the law for others but, before I retired from newspapers, I found a handful of sub-editors worked ceaselessly to make sense of the work of young, university-trained reporters in the field.

    "Language is not important, one told me" (after I had red-pencilled 40 spelling and grammatical errors in one of his news stories). "Does spelling or grammar matter as long as the meaning is clear?"

    Alas, due to the havoc he had wrought on the English language, the meaning was far from clear.

    And if we want to look at the potential of this downhill slide, just follow the comments of our grandchildren and their friends on Facebook - that is, if you can.

  4. As for ending a sentence with a preposition, well, "That is the sort of thing up with which I will not put!"

  5. Bob: Very interesting comments - thank you so much. I'm writing something on this as a response that starts with, 'I take your point...." Sounds ominous but it's not! Just hang on - you too, Watto, should you read this.... I've hit the brainfuzz wall after writing 500 words on the topic. Must sleep... Wednesday, 14 September 2011 11:45 AM. #Out


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