How the Superheroes of Literature can save you from the Grammar Nazis

We’ve all met a Grammar Nazi: those people who think it is their iron-clad duty not to comment on the rhythm of your prose or the strength of your arguments, but on the fact that you missed an apostrophe in the second line of paragraph three. I’m not going to delve into the psychology of those who misguidedly think that language has rules and they alone know how to apply them, except to remark that I’ve always been persuaded that there’s a strong correlation between a person’s propensity to correct the grammar and spelling of others and the likelihood that this same person is into weird sex.

The problem with the Grammar Nazis is not only that having a scornful virtual finger pointed at your mistakes is about as pleasant as non-anaesthetized toenail extraction, it’s that even when they’re wrong, they’re right. Even if the ‘rule’ the Grammar Nazi is attempting to enforce is so dead the only examples are found stuffed in museums, all you will get for your attempts to persuade them is carpal tunnel syndrome and a tension headache. It’s at times like these you need a secret weapon: none other than the Superheroes of Literature, authors so mighty and famous that a mere mention of them will, like a well aimed laser beam, reduce a Grammar Nazi to a heap of ash.

#1 Splitting the Infinitive

Most languages don’t bother adding a participle to infinitive verbs, but for reasons of cussedness, English does. Before the 19th century, writers tended to keep participle and verb together; then usage started to change and, just in the way we have periodic frenzies over ‘txt spk’ rotting the brains of the young, letters started appearing in The Times claiming that splitting an infinitive was the shortest route to humankind moving out of tailored clothes and soft furnishings, and into caves and a set of skins.

Splitting an infinitive makes no difference to the meaning of a sentence and in some cases, it’s actually obligatory: incomes are expected to more than double in five years can’t be rearranged, meaning intact, with the infinitive (to double) unsplit (have a go and see).

Try telling that to the Grammar Nazis. Some people still waste perfectly good drinking time trying to argue that an infinite verb has a vestal purity which should never be sullied by the intrusion of an adverb. Don’t get sucked in. Simply call on your Literary Superhero. Like:

WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE, who in Coriolanus brutally violates an infinitive here:

'What ever have been thought on in this state / That could be brought to bodily act ere Rome / Had circumvention?'

And if that piece of verb-rape doesn’t do the trick, how about LORD BYRON in the poem Love and Death:

Thus much and more; and yet thou lovs't me not,
And never wilt! Love dwells not in our will
Nor can I blame thee, though it be my lot
To strongly, wrongly, vainly love thee still.

ZAP! POW! KABLOOEY!! With a flick of his superhero cape, Byron splits the trembling infinitive not with one, but with THREE muscular adverbs!!! TAKE THAT Grammar Nazi!!

#2 Ending a Sentence with a Preposition

Back in the 17th century the poet John Dryden published an essay saying he didn’t like prepositions at the end of a sentence. Because Dryden was at that time the Oprah of English language, what he intended as style advice quickly took on the status of Biblical commandment.

Never mind that every other Germanic language, alive or dead, happily allows sentence-final prepositions, Grammar Nazis still regularly unleash the attack hounds on any writer they catch attempting to place an ‘of’ or ‘about’ near a full stop, insisting that ‘where’s that strip joint you were talking about?’ sounds way more classy and accurate when recast as, ‘where is that strip joint of which you spoke?’

Enough! The Literary Superheroes have plenty of examples to blast your Grammar Nazi opponents to smithereens! Stand back and watch as BLAM! JAMES JOYCE swoops down and uses his special literary powers to create this line from The Dubliners: ‘He had enough money to settle down on.’

KAPOW! LEWIS CARROLL refuses to mess up Alice’s question with a clumsy reordering: ‘"And what are they made of?" Alice asked.’

SMASH! JOHN BUNYAN fearlessly strands a preposition in the Pilgrim’s Progress: “Now,” thought he, “I see the dangers that Mistrust and Timorous were driven back by.”

#3 Beginning a Sentence with a Conjunction

This is a rule that isn’t a rule anywhere in any grammar book ever written, but that doesn’t matter to the Grammar Nazi who will still object to any sentence beginning with the word ‘and’ or ‘but’ the way one of Pavlov’s dogs dribbled at the sight of the chow bucket. Arguing with them over this is as fruitful as arguing with one of the dogs, so instead of chasing your tail for hours, whistle up a Literary Superhero instead, because the list of big hitters ready to assist in this particular case is almost endless.

First to snap his panties over his tights is ANTHONY TROLLOPE: ‘I could not get across to San Francisco as I said I would and when I was there you had quarreled with your uncle and returned. And now I am here.’

Not to be outdone, VIRGINIA WOOLF takes aim with this little beauty: ‘She had a dull errand in the town; she had a letter or two to write; she would be ten minutes perhaps; she would put on her hat. And, with her basket and her parasol, there she was again, ten minutes later, giving out a sense of being ready…’ from Mrs Dalloway.

And finally, F SCOTT FITZGERALD annihilates any Grammar Nazi not yet cowering in a foxhole with this: ‘But above the grey land and the spasms of bleak dust which drift endlessly over it, you perceive after a moment, the eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg.’ The Great Gatsby.

SMASH! CRASH! KABLAM! Once again, the Grammar Nazis will be laid waste by the all-persuasive power of the fact that the literary greats did not give a flying conjunction about this so-called ‘rule’.

#4 Singular ‘they’

Despite what know-alls on the web might claim, singular ‘they’ is no new-fangled invention designed to erode the nobility of the English tongue. This usage appears in written documents from the 13th century onwards, including the Bible and many official documents. Offering this to the Grammar Nazis won’t get you anywhere— they aren’t interested in lineage. The Grammar Nazis (most of whom I’m guessing possess a penis) want all singular pronouns to be gendered. They think this:

‘Everyone will be able to decide for himself whether or not to have an abortion’ (Albert Bleumenthal, New York State Assembly) a perfectly reasonable thing to say.

KABLAMMO! It seems only right to turn this one over to the ladies. Like...

EDITH WHARTON, Victorian super-novelist extraordinaire who mashes the Grammar Nazis to a pulp with: ‘Who ever thought of sparing their grandmother worry?’ in The Age of Innocence.

Or the otherwise prim and proper LUCY MAUD MONTGOMERY, author of Anne of Green Gables who hitches up her crinoline and lets fly with ‘Mrs Lynde says she always feels shocked when she hears of anyone ever having been naughty, no matter how small they were.’

And although women need no help pulverizing the opposition, let’s allow OSCAR WILDE the status of honorary female, because this quote is just too Nazi-killing-good to ignore: ‘Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes.’

Next time the Grammar Nazis try to push a ‘s/he’ on you, just deliver Oscar’s line to them and watch them disappear in a puff of smoke.

#5 The Passive

If the passive voice were an animal, the Grammar Nazis would make it their duty to render it extinct. In critiques and on forums, there’s a presumption in favor of the active which borders on the obsessive. Once again, masculinity seems to be at the root of the trouble. The passive voice is generally thought of as weak: a puling milksop compared to its sturdy bigger brother, the active voice. According to the Grammar Nazis, anyone who uses the passive is secretly a Barbie girl at heart who had better give up and leave writing to the Real Men, before they break a fingernail on that nasty rough keyboard.

Oh really? Better not let ERNEST HEMINGWAY hear you say that, Grammar Nazis. Famously masculine, he would break you over his not-very-ladylike knee with a resounding SPLAT! Here’s an example of one of his ‘feminine’ sentences in The Sun Also Rises: ‘The green plain stretched off. It was cut by fences and the white of the road showed through the trunks of a double line of trees that crossed the plain toward the north.’

WINSTON CHURCHILL* can also BLAM! his way to the rescue with this passage from The River War: ‘The cavalry, the Camel Corps, and the five batteries had overtaken the infantry, so that the whole attacking force was concentrated.’

Does the passive make it sound as though the Camel Corps spent the battle worrying whether their uniforms color coordinated? KAPOW! No, it does not.

Finally, why not render the Grammar Nazis thankfully speechless with the help of one of the most powerful literary superheroes of them all. JANE AUSTEN not only wrote one of the most famous opening lines in history, but – POW! – did it with a passive.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.’ Pride and Prejudice

So the next time a Grammar Nazi attempts to leave the print of their jackboot on your prose, make the world a safer place and use a Literary Superhero to blast them all the way back to Krypton where they belong.

*A little bonus blag fact for you.

Winston Churchill is often attributed with this quote ridiculing the ‘rule’ against sentence-final prepositions: ‘This is the sort of bloody nonsense up with which I will not put’.

Nice, except Churchill never said it. The quote actually comes from an article in the May 1942 edition of The Strand.

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Shelby Chant's picture
Shelby Chant February 22, 2013 - 1:36pm

Here and here.

David Monack's picture
David Monack February 22, 2013 - 1:57pm

That example by Churchill is not passive voice; it's the past perfect tense. A passive voice version would read, "The infantry had been overtaken by the cavalry, the Camel Corps, and the five batteries."

Paul D. Brazill's picture
Paul D. Brazill from Hartlepool, England. is reading The Posthumous Man by Jake Hinkson. February 22, 2013 - 1:58pm

Good post. A lot of these myths were apparently propagated by provincial post war English teachers who assumed that shoe-horning the rules of Latin grammar onto the English language would make them seem to be mystically knowledgeable.

Another cringe- worth correction is when the plural of octopus is 'corrected' to 'octopi,' although Octopus is of Greek origin, so 'octoped' would be more in keeping with the word's root.

As most critics are just air-guitarists at rock gigs, grammar Nazis are air- guitarists that can't tune their own instruments.

Oh, and the passive is the verb 'be' (or 'to be' without the infinitive) plus past participle. It isn't a tense.

Past perfect is 'had' plus the past participle. Present perfect is have/ has and the same carryings on.

postpomo's picture
postpomo from Canada is reading words words words February 22, 2013 - 1:53pm

“This is the sort of bloody nonsense up with which I will not put.”

Stratton's picture
Stratton from Phoenix February 22, 2013 - 2:05pm

I bet Taylor Houston shakes her fist in the general direction of this article for coming out just two weeks prior to her grammar class.

Zach Wojtowicz's picture
Zach Wojtowicz February 22, 2013 - 2:31pm

David Monack's comment is correct - the bold verb in the Churchil quote is not passive. However, in the next portion of that sentence, "was concentrated" is passive, so the example retains its integrity.

More importantly, it should be noted that gramar nazis only dislike the use of passive verbs when used to connect direct and indirect objects. In both the Austen and Churchil quotes the passive verbs serve to describe the subject, not describe action. So, if Churchil had said: "... so that the whole force was concentrated by the enemy", he would have been better off saying "so that the enemy concentrated the whole force". Examples defending the use of the passive should have direct and indirect objects.

JEFFREY GRANT BARR from Central OR is reading Nothing but fucking Shakespeare, for the rest of my life February 22, 2013 - 2:35pm

misguidedly think that language has rules

Language most certainly has rules. Language is a system. Systems have rules. Rules, of course can--and should, when merited--be broken, but that doesn't negate the existence of those rules.


I’ve always been persuaded

Are you constantly in a state of being persuaded? Does it tickle?

Anyway, off to have weird sex.

Supi Ghansham's picture
Supi Ghansham February 22, 2013 - 3:35pm

You may call me the Grammar Nazi here, but 'and the five batteries had overtaken the infantry' is the Past Perfect Tense, and it is not in the passive voice. If it were, it would have read, 'and the five batteries had been overtaken'.

Frank Chapel's picture
Frank Chapel from California is reading Thomas Ligotti's works February 22, 2013 - 3:37pm

So, wait... What's more socially acceptable, weird sex, or grammar policing?

Lex Pistols's picture
Lex Pistols February 22, 2013 - 4:46pm

Hmmm seems like my own brain expelling thoughts through writing.... Thanks! :D I like!

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated February 22, 2013 - 10:12pm

I'm always amazed at the number of folk who feel the need to 'correct' my accent in real life. This seems the same, except on paper.

Cath Murphy's picture
Cath Murphy from UK is reading Find out on the Unpr!ntable podcast February 24, 2013 - 12:37am

Mistaken emboldment - Winston's passive is indeed at the end of the sentence.

But this post is a waste of time because Supi, Zach,Jeffrey and David are too busy having weird sex with octopi to bother reading it.


bmartin2009's picture
bmartin2009 from St. Paul, Minnesota is reading Dune February 25, 2013 - 8:28am

There's really only one immutable law of English, and that's that English is and has always been a mutable, unregulated language.

That said, if you're going to break the rules, you're a lot better off doing it deliberately and with good reason.  And some violations are pretty much always born out of ignorance/sloppiness.  But you'll often find that a "wrong" sentence reads a lot better than the same sentence written correctly.  It's just an added bonus to imagine the grammar hipsters tearing their hair out over it. :)

Matt Butts's picture
Matt Butts February 25, 2013 - 8:36am

My answer to grammar nazis was to make my main character one. In one of my stories he's falsely accused of a crime, and insists to the detective that he is being framed. When the detective asks him "by who?" he replies, as deadpan as you please, "by whom?"

cle001's picture
cle001 February 26, 2013 - 7:19am

#2:  Somehow - "To boldly go where no one has gone before" anyone got there in the first place - just loses it's mystique.

Good post!

Chris Johnson's picture
Chris Johnson from Burlington NC is reading The Proud Highway March 15, 2013 - 10:30pm

Screw the Grammar Nazis. I say if you're writing the way you're supposed to, which means first draft, then first rewrite where you read aloud, then second rewrite for errors (it's just the way that works for me), you should be fine. Because if it sounds okay to the ear, it will read fine. Much better than anything a buttaching obsessive compulsive editor could create.

Chris Johnson's picture
Chris Johnson from Burlington NC is reading The Proud Highway March 15, 2013 - 10:30pm

Screw the Grammar Nazis. I say if you're writing the way you're supposed to, which means first draft, then first rewrite where you read aloud, then second rewrite for errors (it's just the way that works for me), you should be fine. Because if it sounds okay to the ear, it will read fine. Much better than anything a buttaching obsessive compulsive editor could create.

Joseph Kan's picture
Joseph Kan June 30, 2014 - 4:11pm

The first, second, and fourth point of this article is irrelevant due to the fact that the author uses examples from famous writers. If there is an error in a book or poem, it doesnt mean English's rules are suddenly changed. The third point is invalid solely due to the fact that the placing of a conjunction at the beginning of a sentance isn't a rule that rreal grammar nazis use. As for the fifth point,  ' ‘The cavalry, the Camel Corps, and the five batteries had overtaken the infantry, so that the whole attacking force was concentrated.’ ' that is not passive that is past perfect.