Beware, There be grammarians in these waters

Yesterday afternoon, Yufang and I listened to Terry Gross interview the linguist Geoff Nunberg on NPR’s Fresh Air about his latest book, The Years of Talking Dangerously (for more info on his book, go here). It was a good interview, but I was particularly interested in what Nunberg had to say toward the end of the segment.  He began talking about the Internet and how it is a linguistic paradise for observing the use (and shifts) of language, especially of younger people.  This led him to talk about folks who make a point to comment on forums and blogs, not about the ideas a post author makes, but about the grammatical errors that one makes.  Without using the word, Nunberg is referring to one form of trollish behavior, and it is a form of trolling that I have encountered on DynamicSubspace.net.  What was interesting about him bringing this up in his conversation with Terry Gross is that he said in effect that grammar trolls have not yet moved beyond 7th grade grammar.  Essentially, they are trapped in that mode of thinking, and they have not yet realized that language changes and that grammar rules may be bent, broken, or nuanced in ways that 7th grade grammar doesn’t allow for.  And, it is an assertion of power by these self-proclaimed grammar police to snidely attack other folks’ grammar use, or occasionally attack the very ideas someone has on the false grounds that bad grammar erases meaning.  On DynamicSubspace.net, I’ve always said that it is a blog where I shoot from the hip, which gives me accurate enough results.  However, I acknowledge that my ideas and the way I write my ideas are not as on the target as a sniper rifle.  But the point is that this space that I own and administer is used as a beginning of sorts for the presentation and circulation of ideas, and it is not meant to be an end product that is given the spit-and-polish of a publication-worthy piece.  Obviously, grammar is a good thing, but it is possible to follow a writer’s logic and get at their ideas even if the grammatical presentation of those ideas is the worse for wear.  Finally, I should point out that this post isn’t an apology–it is a qualification for 7th grade grammarians.

You can listen to Nunberg’s interview on the NPR website here.