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.


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’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.)


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