They lurk in the quiet corners of most offices, maintaining a low profile, performing their normal jobs quietly and efficiently. It’s a carefully practiced deception designed to divert attention from their true identities. They are the Grammar Nazis.
When asked to review a document, a proposal, a brochure, or a report, they feign reluctance before sighing and agreeing to take on the task. And then, like Gestapo officers about to pounce at the conclusion of an interrogation, they study the project with a peculiar, barely concealed mix of contempt and glee.
It doesn’t matter where they sit on the organizational chart or in the food chain. Most often, you’ll find them serving in roles they privately believe are beneath their station in life. After all, it’s obvious they know more than their supposed superiors. She can’t use contractions in a proposal! And doesn’t he realize you can’t start a sentence with a conjunction?
Professional editors and proofreaders aren’t Grammar Nazis. No, the Nazis in question are the self-styled experts who paid close attention in their seventh-grade English classes and received perfect grades on every theme they submitted. In their minds, that makes them authorities and enforcers.
They embody the adage that a little learning is truly a dangerous thing. You see, they memorized the basic rules and guidelines, but never delved more deeply into the exceptions to and expansions of those simple strictures. If the rules are that simple and straightforward, why is the Chicago Manual of Style (the Bible for serious grammarians) nearly a thousand pages long?
So why do I call attention to them? Because they’re dangerous, both to the materials they review and the morale of those around them. Their passive-aggressive manner intimidates others, shaking their confidence and leading them to believe that they are incapable of writing. Most of all, they interfere with clear, effective communication. They operate under the belief that all writing should be done in the formal, pedantic style that’s used in the seventh-grade classroom and the rest of the academic world.
I recall a staff member at a long-ago client who insisted there were only ten — just ten! — valid uses for commas, because one of her middle-school teachers pounded that flawed concept into her head. I’m sure the teacher was bravely trying to simplify the incredibly complex array of comma rules for the barely attentive twelve-year-olds in her class. Unfortunately, that staff member left class with a belief that those ten uses represented an inviolable rule, and every piece of writing she reviewed was tainted by her “little learning.” She was just one of many I’ve encountered over the years.
The simple fact is that academic-style copy is rarely the right choice outside of the classroom. In nearly every case, a conversational, more casual tone is far more communicative. Sometimes that means ending sentences with prepositions or sneaking a sentence fragment or two into a paragraph. And there’s nothing wrong with any of that.
But it isn’t the Grammar Nazis’ tendency to cling to a small set of rules and a narrow outlook that troubles me the most. Instead, it’s their penchant for being scathing and overbearing in their criticism of what others have created. And sadly, most of their victims walk away with the belief that the criticism is deserved and appropriate.
Serious writers and editors (in other words, those who earn a living at it) don’t review others’ copy with a goal of degrading the writer. Their intent is to ensure that the words and sentences convey the meaning clearly, correctly, and effectively. If they spot an obvious mistake, such as a subject and a verb that appear to be disagreeable, they’ll point it out. If they think a sentence could be structured more clearly, they’ll offer a suggestion. And when the writer fine-tunes the piece, they’ll share in his or her pride.
What should you do when you find yourself and your hard work being second-guessed by a Grammar Nazi? Don’t cower in fear. After all, they’re bullies of a sort, and your fear feeds their sense of power. Deprive them of that satisfaction by smiling and thanking them for their suggestions before you ignore them.
Instead of worrying about offending your organization’s resident Grammar Nazi, write with confidence and clarity. Focus on communicating with your audience instead of trying to win the approval of these self-styled experts — because you never will.