Columns > Published on July 10th, 2015

5 Things the Grammar Nazis Get Wrong

Every writer knows a Grammar Nazi. Maybe this person is a retired English teacher, a long-ago English major, your dear Aunt Eleanor, or even (lucky you!) one of your readers. Regardless, the Grammar Nazi's chief mission in life seems to be to point out all the many ways that you, the writer, have failed to master the English language.

To be fair, every writer is a bit of a Grammar Nazi at heart. We are a people deeply pained by unnecessary commas and apostrophes, misplaced modifiers and errant homonyms. But most of us understand that some of the rules that govern grammar and usage are more binding than others—and that the English language, like any other, is constantly in flux. Not so the Grammar Nazi.

Which is why, as a professional editor, I love nothing better than to be taken to task by such individuals on any of the following.

1. Singular Them

Old-school Grammar Nazis will tell you that the male pronouns (he, his, and him) are universal, and therefore should be used in any sentence in which the subject's gender is unspecified or unknown—as in, "Anyone seeking to improve his writing skills should read Strunk and White's Elements of Style." Younger Grammar Nazis will insist on the more inclusive he or she, his or hers, and him or her. But the former is (obviously) sexist, and the latter can result in sentences so convoluted even corporate executives would blush—as in: "Anyone seeking to improve his or her job prospects should take it upon his- or herself to improve his or her writing skills."

Most of us understand that some of the rules that govern grammar and usage are more binding than others—and that the English constantly in flux.

Clearly, we need a gender-neutral pronoun. We're working on that. But until we have it, there's singular them: as in, "Anyone seeking to improve their job prospects should take it upon themselves to improve their writing skills." It's not the worst fix, for the time being—and, as Ursula K. Le Guin points out, it has been in use since the time of Shakespeare

2. Ending with a Preposition

It used to be, you could not tell your friend about an author you'd heard of. You couldn't look around at the party for the person you'd come with. Nor could you point out which road to turn on. You could only tell your friend about an author of which you'd heard, look around at the party for the person with whom you'd come, or point out on which road to turn.

Of course, those recast sentences are all perfectly correct. But they're also far enough from conversational American English that if you use such constructions in your prose, you will affect a rather formal tone. That's appropriate for academic papers and business writing, but in fiction and creative nonfiction, where voice is king, such ultra "correct" constructions may simply sound wrong, and there's a very good chance they're unnecessary.

3. Beginning with a Conjunction

Many of us were taught in elementary school that it was incorrect to begin a sentence with a coordinating conjunction (and, but, for, nor, or, so, or yet). But like the rule about only wearing white between Memorial Day and Labor Day, this rule is now pretty seriously passé. Not only would you be hard-pressed these days to find a style guide that prohibits it, Grammarist points out that it's increasingly difficult to find writing of any sort, no matter how formal, that does not make use of such constructions. 

So go ahead, begin a sentence with a coordinating conjunction. And while you're at it, wear white on Easter, eat with your elbows on the table, and slurp your soup. It's freakin' 2015.

4. Sentence Fragments

The heat of the moment. The sparks in her eyes. He could feel it all, but he wasn't about to light himself on fire. This series of sentences is likely to be flagged by your Microsoft Word program, and not because it's bad writing but because it contains sentence fragments. Yet prose containing sentence fragments is perfectly acceptable to nearly any publisher of fiction or creative nonfiction these days. Why? Because fragments can create an artistic effect.

An artistic effect is generally frowned upon in more academic work, so whether you can make use of sentence fragments will depend largely on your genre. But if you're writing creative prose and an editor tries to recast the sort of example I supplied above as a single sentence, feel free to politely stand your ground. (But if they suggest using fewer cliches, I suggest you listen.)

5. Hyphenation, Spelling, or Really, Any Other Issue at All

Is it goodbye or good-bye? Okay or OK? The cat that ate the mouse or the cat which ate the mouse? The answers to these questions can depend on which dictionary and style guide you're using, or even which continent you happen to be standing on—a fact that many Grammar Nazis seem unaware of.

The bottom line here is that in many cases, there is not actually one correct way, only ways that are generally agreed on as correct by the people you're attempting to communicate with. Which is why it behooves you as a writer to understand the conventions of the genre you're writing in, along with its preferred style guide and dictionary. (For instance, Associated Press is the standard for journalism, while the Chicago Manual of Style is generally used for fiction and creative nonfiction.) Understand too that if you're doing creative work, you can generally bend the rules in ways that serve the story, as long as you're not introducing the potential for confusion. 

And if you encounter a Grammar Nazi who refuses to buy any of this, may I suggest the definitive takedown by David Foster Wallace, "Authority and American Usage."

You're welcome. :-)

About the author

An author, editor, and educator, Susan DeFreitas’s creative work has appeared in the Writer’s Chronicle, Story Magazine, the Huffington Post, Daily Science Fiction, and Southwestern American Literature, along with many other journals and anthologies. She is the author of the novel Hot Season, which won a Gold IPPY Award for Best Fiction of the Mountain West, and holds an MFA from Pacific University. She divides her time between Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Portland, Oregon, and has served as a freelance editor and book coach since 2010.

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