Grammar Snobs

I’ve had acquaintances confess they fear writing to me because they worry I’ll be like this:

But I’m not. As a long-time college writing instructor and occasional professional editor (and occasional maker of mistakes myself), I assure my friends that I never correct one’s grammar unless they’re paying me. Because I refuse to be a Grammar Snob.

grammar

I’m not.
I promise.

Oh, I’m so glad you asked what a Grammar Snob is!

First, a disclaimer: as a teacher I will point out every last error I see in a paper, and will even lecture on the finer points of language usage.

But as a friend I would never correct another person outright or even in my mind, because if I did, that would turn me into the most wretched of self-righteous creatures, the Grammar Snob (or grammatical superbia).
(Did you see the snobby thing I just did there? Converted it into Latin? With the help of a website. Because I’m just faking a knowledge of Latin here.)

Grammar Snobs hunt for errors like a vulture for a corpse. When a friend emails about the heartache of discovering her husband has been cheating on her, Grammar Snobs can’t help but snigger that she wrote “udderly devastated.”

When a young couple continually writes “Greatful” in their blog about how wonderful the hospital care was for their infant with RSV, Grammar Snobs roll their eyes and mentally cross out all occurrences of the offensive mistake.

Discworld Quote by Sir Terry Pratchett. By Kim White.

Thank you, Terry Pratchett

When a teenager gushes about her acceptance into highly selective college, Grammar Snobs chuckle mirthlessly at her usage of more exclamation marks than should be allowed on one Facebook page.

Now, I may be taking things a bit far here, but I happen to know of some colleagues who fit this behavior, and I worry that our linguistical superiority is turning us into heartless buffoons.

We cringe when others with sense of heightened knowledge and a desire to demonstrate said knowledge barge into our personal spheres. Think about the fashion aficionado who gives your outfit the once over, then the twice over, then the long drawn-out sigh.

Or the neighbor with the personal gym in his garage who eyes you as you mow your lawn and shakes his head in time with your belly.

Or the political pundit who expresses outrage–yes, outrage!–that you have no idea what bill Congress is threatening to pass.

Don’t we hate all those people who point out we’re not on the same level as them?

Yet somehow Grammar Snobs don’t see themselves in that category. Perhaps it’s because many of us have appointed ourselves Champions of the English Language (or vindicem linguae anglicus—that Google translate is the bomb, baby). And in an attempt to preserve her purity, we feel the duty to point out when anyone attempts to heinously ravish our beloved mother tongue. 

But I think it’s something a bit less noble than that.

I think we simply like believing we know something more than the next guy, and we want to prove it.

In my undergrad work I had a professor who told our language usage class that he went to college as an eighteen-year-old full of ambition and promise, and was mortified to realize just how deplorable his command of the English language was. He spoke like the rest of his family—Idaho potato farmers—and quickly discovered the definition of the word “hick.”

Because he had dreams of becoming a university professor, he set out to improve his pronunciation and grammar. When he went home at Christmas he promptly showed off his new knowledge by correcting all of his family members, beginning with their ubiquitous “we was.”

The visit did not go well, as you can imagine.

Shortly before he was to head back to the big city, his grandfather pulled him aside and said, “You may know how to talk good, but you shore don’t know how to make people feel good. That’s more important.”

My professor told us that over the next few years he learned how to cultivate his “university tongue” but also easily reverted back to “farmer tongue” whenever he went home to visit. He could mangle verb tenses and drop incomplete sentences as easily as his uncles.

Now, correct grammar certainly has its place: in correspondence with those you don’t know, in formal situations, and in emails to those who have position over you.

(Note to parents of future college students: Please tell your children that sending an email to their professors with language such as “so umm like i was wundering if this is gonna be like a hard class or not lol?” is NOT the way to make a good first impression. Such emails violate all three of the above rules, and instructors remember these students. Oh, do we remember these students . . .) So true.

And yes, there are times to correct others in their grammatical missteps, but it really should be in private.

I know a woman who takes perverse delight in correcting her husband’s slight mispronunciations in public. She may think she comes across as educated, but what we’re all thinking is, “The poor guy. If that witch treats him this badly in public, what’s she doing to him in private?” My insides squirm whenever I see this couple approaching, and over the years I’ve noticed he says less and less, which is unfortunate because he usually had wonderful things to say. Even more unfortunately, his wife now gabbles endlessly, proving that she’s not nearly as educated as she pretends to be.

I’ve learned to train myself to not be hypersensitive to the tiny errors—and really, mixing up there/they’re/there are minor errors—when I read my friends’ posts and blogs. If I’m too fixated on their mistakes (which fixation is my problem, not theirs) then I miss the message they’re trying to communicate. Well, that's one way around the problem.

Grading freshman essays for twenty years has taught to me to focus on the ideas, not on the surface errors. That’s something graduate schools try to teach their composition TAs: surface errors shouldn’t account for more than 10% of an essay’s grade. More important are the deeper issues: organization, thesis, development of thought, logical fallacies, etc. In my grad school days there were a handful of TAs that would have red-inked an otherwise excellent paper into the depths of F-dom merely because the students struggled with then/than.

Grammar Snobs seem far more interested in demonstrating their grasp of linguistic trivia (or linguae minutiis; Google translate—where have you been all my life?) rather than trying to understand what’s being communicated. Just read the comments on posts to Grammarly.com’s Facebook page to see the Battle of the Grammar Snobs.
It’s embarrassing, it really is.
I put a wince on my face before I even start reading, just to save time.

So Grammar Snobs, may I issue this injunction: Be kind to your friends, your family, your social networks. Don’t miss the message because the writer doesn’t understand the importance of the Oxford comma.

When we obsess over the minutiae, we may miss the marvelous.
(Ooh—quick; someone make that a meme, will you? Nam cum obsiderent minutias super nos mira careat—It even looks good in Latin.)

Because the only thing more uncomfortable than a Grammar Snob is a Latin Wanna-be Snob. (Finite Incantatem.)

Punctuation

The Economy of Enough

I’m writing this blog in an attempt to exorcise my desire for an IKEA kitchen.

ikea kitchen

Yep. Just like this one. Sigh.

Mahrree squirmed.
To find herself so immediately gripped with envy and desire surprised her.                  ~ Soldier at the Door

I suffer from this desire every few months, and I don’t even watch HGTV anymore—the channel that usually made me unsatisfied with everything in my house. I let my subscription to “Better Homes and Gardens” expire because I didn’t need to see any more examples of rooms I’d never have.

Because I’m satisfied with what I have.
(Let me chant that to myself a few more times . . .)

This is my current kitchen, exactly how I saw it when the realtor showed it to us over five years ago. A bit outdated, the appliances are 15 years old, but it’s functional.

IMG_3502

(I went so far back in time, because only under the previous owners was the kitchen ever so clean. And I haven’t been able to update anything anyway.)

The kitchen’s small.
Really small.
Especially for a family of 10.
But it was all we could afford, in a nice neighborhood, and so I just sighed sadly and decided, “I’ll make it do.”

And I have, for five years, but still I’m plagued by daydreams of IKEA kitchens.

“This is hardly the way to impress others.”

Mahrree shrugged, never having been much concerned about Mrs. Hili’s opinions. “I’m not worried about impressing others. I don’t even know who I should worry about.” ~Soldier at the Door

virginia house

Cute, in the right light, and from the right distance.
(We won’t discuss the ever-present smell of decay, though. Or the smell of skunks, who lived in the crawl space.)

But here’s the thing: I had vowed back in 2001 that I would ALWAYS be happy with a modern kitchen–no matter its size–because for five months I didn’t have one. When we first moved to Virginia we lived in a house condemned to be demolished. When it rained, the water poured in from a dozen points. There were vines growing on the inside of the house, and the kitchen—

Ugh, the kitchen.
One sink, with no hot water.
One cabinet, no drawers.
Old stove/oven which had two temperatures—off and broil.
The fridge was less than 15 years old, but the carpet had been put in decades before. (Yes, very old carpet in the kitchen. You can smell it, can’t you?)
There was a pantry, along with several mouse traps.
Of course there wasn’t a dishwasher, we supplied our own microwave, along with a dresser drawer for utensils and a small table to act as a counter.

virginia kitchen

Bottom right corner you can see the edge of the stove/incinerator, and behind me is the fridge. And that’s everything. Really.

And I made that work, for five months, for a family of eight. That autumn we moved into a brand new house with beautiful oak cabinets and 150 square feet for the kitchen–and enjoyed it for almost six years–but I remembered the condemned house and realized I could deal with just about anything.

So why do I keep forgetting that when I look at my current kitchen?

“Does this mean you’re no longer satisfied with what the Creator has chosen to bless us with?”  ~Soldier at the Door

Why can’t I look at what I’ve made functional for five years and realize I don’t need any more?

“But if we don’t need more—”
“Everybody needs more, Mrs. Shin!”  ~Soldier at the Door

Maybe it’s just human nature, to look upon something and want to improve it.

Or maybe it’s just plain selfishness, wanting to pamper ourselves. I still can’t figure out why it’s so darn hard to buy into Alina Adams‘s philosophy, a Ukrainian immigrant and now a columnist about frugality in New York:

Coming from childhood poverty and a one-room apartment where she only had one dress to wear affects how she views her budget and what she actually needs.
“When you realize how little you need,” she said, “it is difficult to spend money on things you know you can do without.”

Years ago I read about a movement in Japan where people became minimalists, possessing only the barest of essentials. For one chef, that meant she gave up her rice cooker (shocking her neighbors) because she already had one pot. She eventually downsized so much that all she owned could be packed into the back of her Toyota.

But maybe it’s something else.

“What I’m trying to get at,” Mahrree tried to explain, “is that we’re simply not worried about impressing people. We’re more concerned about what the Creator thinks of us.”

Mrs. Hili shifted her gaze to Mahrree’s deliberately sweet expression.“Yes, yes of course. Although I think you’re completely wrong, Miss Mahrree. I mean yes, we worry about the Creator’s opinion, but we live in the world. We have to impress the world.”

“Why?” Mahrree genuinely wanted to know. 

Perhaps that’s still the root of my obsession with an IKEA kitchen. The few times neighbors have come into my house, I’m genuinely anxious that they’ll see my kitchen, and then . . . what will they think?

But that’s just vanity, I know. Years ago I thought I eradicated that fear of “What will others think?” I’ve done quite well in many aspects, but when it comes to my kitchen? Sigh.

Maybe it’s bigger than that, though. Our very economy is based on the premise that we’re never satisfied, that the notion of “enough” means, What I have, plus a little bit more, ensuring that we continue to be obsessed with getting more and spending more, and never reaching that elusive state of satisfaction.

Now, I don’t have thousands of dollars to throw on luxury, but daggumit, I want to make something beautiful! I want to add color! A new design! Improvement to my environment!

So despite all I’ve just written, I’ve decided I’m going to spend money on my kitchen, because my soul is hankering for something just for me!

I’m going to make a drastic change to my kitchen, and it will cost around $5.
I’m going to put up a photo–just one photo: the picture above of my daughter standing in the kitchen of the condemned house in Virginia.
Now every time I’m plagued with fantasies of IKEA kitchens, I’m going to stare at that picture.
Then, when I look at my current kitchen, in comparison it’ll be fantastic!
Because it truly is enough, and I will choose to be satisfied.

(Especially since I won’t let in the neighbors anymore.)

Don’t Play the World’s Games

Perrin didn’t feel like playing any games tonight, and he wasn’t interested in establishing himself in the colonel pecking order. He never was one for my-brass-is-shinier-than-your-brass. 
~Mansions of Idumea, 
Book Three: Forest at the Edge Series

I’m not a gamer.
Some games I really despise, like Monopoly. 
I HATE Monopoly.

Maybe it’s because I inherently detest spending money, real or otherwise, but something about that game brings out the worst in me, and so whenever the board comes out, I walk away.
Instead I’ll read a book or even clean the bathroom, but I’ll refuse to get involved in something that I know will make me clench my fists.

I Don’t Play the Game.

Years ago I realized I could walk away from any “Game” that makes me less than I what I really want to be. I no longer make New Year’s Resolutions (another annoying Game), but instead I remind myself what Games I will stay away from.

For example, at Christmas I won’t play the Family Letter Game called “No One’s Year Was Busier or Harder Than Mine Was, and Here’s the Evidence” followed by paragraphs of perfectly mundane things that everyone goes through but apparently seems to overwhelm the writer. I do send out Christmas letters, but make sure all of us come off sounding slightly stupid (not too hard to pull off) because I don’t want anyone to feel like we’re playing the “Don’t We Sound More Amazing/Challenged Than Your Family?” Game. 

Years ago I also quit the Home Decorating Game because after hours of watching HGTV and reading Better Homes and Gardens I decided my home and garden were definitely not better, far too shabby, and not anywhere chic. My normally satisfied disposition became quite disenchanted with all I had been blessed with. Giving up my so-called “hobby” of home decorating (which was becoming an unhealthy and self-serving obsession) made me happier than if I’d won any Best of Home Sweepstakes.

When I quit playing those Games, life became better.

And I’m not the only one. I’ve heard of lots of ways people Don’t Play The Game (DPTG), whatever Game it is that riles them. For example,

–One man quit listening to talk radio because that Game caused him to growl like a rabid bear whenever he drove home, and his nerves were frayed by the time he walked in the door to greet his children.

–One woman refuses to sign up for Facebook not because she doesn’t have anyone she wants to catch up with, but because she knows that Game would draw her too far into the gossip, the self-righteous selfies (her words, which I love) and the need to know everything about everyone.

–Another friend refused to go on to Pinterest, because that Game will only increase her hobby addictions, not restrain them.

–And another friend deleted his “commenting accounts,” as he referred to them, because that Game of “Making The Most Voted-On Comment” in three different newspapers took up to five hours a day, just to feed his ego.

Not Playing that Game—whatever Game it is—will change your life, I promise. When you see a trigger that normally sets you off in a direction that eventually leaves you miserable, walk away before getting started.
Let this year be the one where you no longer play that Game, the one that makes you crazy.

Stop reading the articles about actresses and their bodies and hair and clothes. Don’t play their “You’re Not Good Enough” Game.

Step away from the groups—online or at-home—that started meeting for a good cause, but now just get together to belittle and complain. Don’t play that “Let’s Decide Who’s Worse Than Us” Game.

Excuse yourself when the Game of “Listen to How Great My Job/New Car/Vacation/Kids/House” begins. Don’t one-up the other players, don’t belittle them, don’t play that Game at all. No one will win.

Can’t leave the Game? Then change the rules!

That “Listen to How Much Better (or Worse!) My Life is Than Yours” Game? Next time, agree with them! That’ll totally throw them off their Game.

“Wow–you’re right. Your mother-in-law really is more neglectful than anyone else’s.”

“Yes, yes–that boat is worth every penny you’ve sacrificed for it; don’t listen to your wife.”

“I agree–your son probably is the most hopeless nineteen-year-old I’ve ever heard of. Good luck with that.”

Really, they won’t know how to play that Game, and will likely quit (until they figure out your new rules).

Neighbors that aren’t really neighborly? Kill them with kindness; toss them cookies instead of throwing their animal’s poop back over the fence.

Family members that press your buttons? Move around those buttons and prepare responses that will completely confuse them.

Coworkers that consistently let you down? Work circles around them until they get dizzy.

Just don’t play that Game anymore.
Walk away.
Find something better.

I’m not guaranteeing it will all work. You’ll still likely get sucked into arguments you didn’t want, tasks that shouldn’t be yours, and feelings you thought you had conquered.

But you will have fewer of them, and when you realize that the world is full of Games, one that you can choose to play or leave at your will, suddenly life becomes much more manageable.

Snyd gave up and slapped his desk almost cheerfully. If the other man wasn’t even going to play who’s-got-the-bigger-brass, it was as good as a win.
He didn’t notice Perrin didn’t even care.