Browsing Tag


Social Issues

I was a grammar nazi, and I was wrong

My first year in graduate school was … enlightening. As I’ve learned since then, being informed of how terribly wrong you are about basically everything is not a fun experience, although I am thankful for it. When I enrolled at Liberty, I expected it to be a bit like my experience at Pensacola Christian, and in many ways I wasn’t too far off. Liberty and PCC have a lot more in common than I think the administrations of either place would care to admit.

However, one of the downsides of that assumption was that I thought the people who surrounded me held similar ideologies as the people I’d left behind at PCC– after all, I was still at a conservative Christian college, it couldn’t be that different, right?

I was disabused of that notion in various ways, but I don’t think any experience I had was quite as humiliating as the day I tried to argue that using correct grammar was a Christian moral imperative, that being lackadaisical about grammar was a sin. I will never forget the look on a colleague’s face as he bounced up out of his cubicle with a startled “you have got to be kidding me!” He tore into my argument like the tissue paper it absolutely was, and I wanted the floor to open up and swallow me. I have never had an argument eviscerated like that– not before, not since.

Thank heavens I had the appropriate reaction. I had been rather bluntly forced to acknowledge that I didn’t actually know anything about grammar, and I needed to rectify that. I went straight to the professor who taught the advanced grammar classes at Liberty and asked if I could sit in the back. He, very graciously, said yes.

The first day he was teaching diagramming, although it was completely unlike anything I’d ever seen before. I was used to this:

diagramming sentences

But what he had up on the board that day looked like this:

sentence diagramming 2

And that was the day when I realized that linguistics isn’t of the devil.


Through my high school and undergraduate days, all of my grammar education came through A Beka, which is published by Pensacola Christian. I can’t speak authoritatively for other curriculum, but from what I’ve gathered through my peers, what other Christian homeschool curriculum and fundamentalist Christian colleges teach isn’t substantively different.

I was taught that there is a moral difference between prescriptivist and descriptivist grammar. The problem all started with “post-modern ideologies” that affected the way people see language and communication, and it all came to a head with Merriam-Webster’s Third Edition. Dictionaries are supposed to tell you the “correct” spelling for a word, but the Third went and changed it all by refusing to say whether or not a spelling was correct. Over time “correct” and “incorrect” have been replaced by “preferred” or “standard formal.”

This is a huge problem, according to conservative Christians, and the rationale goes something like this:

  • Christians are “people of the book,” as our Gospel was delivered to us through the medium of language.
  • Evangelization depends on clear and effective communication.
  • Clear and effective communication is best maintained by teaching “correct” grammar and syntax.
  • Therefore, failure to teach grammar is detrimental to the Gospel.

PCC’s favorite example of this was the “Old Deluder Act” of 1647, which is the legislation that created public schooling in the Massachusetts colony. According to the stated intention of the law, children needed to learn to read so that they could read the Bible as Satan would be able to use their lack of education to keep them from the Scriptures.

Same thing, PCC said, only now it’s Satan trying to confuse us all by getting rid of good grammar. Because, y’know, Satan is totally the one responsible for “confusing the languages.”


It’s probably not surprising to my long-term readers that I thrived in that environment. There are a million infinitesimal rules about grammar? Yes, please! I’m assigned a project (that includes instructions down to the last excruciating detail) on evaluating ten different dictionaries and grammar handbooks? Can I do it again? Can I do more than ten? I was good at being a grammar nazi at PCC, and I expected that skill to translate well in other environments.

Except it didn’t. It actually hurt me.

If there is any more ironic than people who call themselves “grammar nazis,” I’d like to know what it is, because there are few things more racist and classist than the insistence on “correct” grammar. Putting such a harsh divide between “good” and “bad” grammar means placing upper-class educated white language as “superior” to  other dialects like AAVE.

It results in things like dismissing people like Rachel Jeantel as credible witnesses because they sound different than what upper-class educated white people think of as “good English.” I’ve listened to Rachel’s statements, and they made perfect, coherent sense. I was more than fully capable of understanding her, but the American public responded to her perfectly legitimate testimony by calling her a “thug.” Because she speaks a different dialect than upper-class white people.

Aside from all of that, I’m actually pretty upset about the fact that learning about flat adverbs or copula deletion would have been verboten. Grammar is a fascinating thing that isn’t limited to learning the parts of speech and how to diagram a sentence, but that’s about all I got out of it. Oh, I could tell you all about retained objects and nominative case, but what is that when compared to the beautiful, growing, organic, and interconnective wonder that is the English language?

Christian fundamentalism does a lot of things, but one of the worst things it does is put us all into tiny intellectual boxes with no room to expand.

Photo by Jon Fife


How I stopped worrying and learned to love Deconstructionism

deconstructivist building

During one “prayer group,” at my fundamentalist college, a woman asked us to pray for an assignment she was working on called (commence boom-y announcer voice) “The Annotated Bibliography!” She was incredibly frustrated with it, called it a stupid, pointless waste of time, but it was an assignment that required a lot of time and and an exacting, precise level of dedication. When I took Advanced Grammar and Bibliography, I was handed the same assignment, and I realized the hellish nature of what she had been describing. The instructions for the assignment were four pages long, 10 pt font, single spaced. When the professor handed it out, she explained that the assignment, if done well, would take a minimum of forty hours’ work.

And what was this assignment you asked? Reading dictionaries and usage manuals.

Not just reading, really– we also had to evaluate them based on a very specific set of criteria. My professor explained the rationale thusly:

It may seem obvious, but the Bible was given to us in the form of language; [H]e also promised to preserve [H]is [W]ord, so in order to preserve [H]is [W]ord effectively, [H]e was required to preserve all words, in general. That is why it is every Christian’s duty to use language correctly to the best of their ability. If language were allowed to lose meaning and clarity, then we would lose the ability to read Scripture properly.

And yes, to my everlasting shame, I bought this explanation hook, line, and sinker. I even managed to end up in an argument with several of my graduate students my first year, for what are now obvious reasons. It was a humiliating conversation for me, simply because the gaping holes in the argument were glaringly obvious to my fellow graduate students, but not to me. To me, this line of reasoning was solid– unshakable even. I even went up to my professor after the class was over and thanked her for showing this to me. She hugged me and told me she was glad I’d understood the “true purpose of class” because “so few” did.

I completely missed the fact that this argument can only be effective when it is sitting on top of a huge ideological web– a web so interwoven that it’s impossible to talk about it to another human being coherently. To a sane person, this argument leads to “bad grammar” = “sin” which is . . . ridiculous. It also cannot function in a world of change. Cultures progresses, adapts, accommodates– and language changes with it. Meanings of words change; we create new words as we need them. Our language describes the world we live in, and it can do nothing else.

The fundamentalist point of view is also the ideological enemy of anything remotely post-modern or deconstructionist. Deconstructionism, to fundamentalist educators, represents some of the worst evil that can possibly exist. Deconstructionism is the tool of Satan, and he has used it to destroy people’s lives and bring nations to their knees. Every time I heard it discussed while I was in college, it was accompanied by a call for students to defend Absolute Truth at all costs. As long as we had Absolute Truth, we could not be “taken unawares” by post-modernism or deconstructionism or moral relativism. The Bible, as long as we believe in Absolute Truth, is utterly impervious to any of these things.

My first semester in grad school, I enrolled in Advanced Literary Criticism. It was a difficult class to adjust to, because I had no experience in literary theory or literary criticism. I’d never even heard those words before– and for someone who studied English in college, this is a massive oversight. It’s like a nursing major not studying anatomy– it’s that important. My professor was throwing words and terms around that I had zero context for, so the first few weeks, when we were studying phenomenology, I struggled mightily. The second area of literary theory we studied was Deconstructionism, and after my professor explained how it is performed on a text, he asked us to deconstruct Genesis 3:1-7.

I went into the assignment with confidence, but also not quite sure how I was supposed to do the assignment. It’s the Bible. It can’t be deconstructed.

After I finished the assignment, I was in tears. Horrified. Dismayed. And suddenly, on very shaky ground philosophically. Deconstructing the passage had been ridiculously easy. Child’s play. The only things that deconstructionism, as a theory, does is help the reader identify binaries in the text. It’s not that complicated once you start doing it. And once you find the binaries, you identify the tension between the opposites in the text.

The funny thing is– applying deconstructionism didn’t change anything about that passage. It revealed binaries and tensions, that’s all. It revealed the same kinds of binaries and tensions that exist in any piece of writing ever recorded on stone, or paper, or animal skin. Binaries, on a textual level, don’t point to inherent contradictions in the text. Deconstructionism’s purpose as a literary theory is just another tool– it’s just another way to look at writing and language and figure out what it means– or doesn’t mean. Ultimately, it is a more honest way of approaching a text, because the basic premise of deconstructionism is: the reader doesn’t understand what this means.

That’s why fundamentalists can’t exist in a world where meaning in language is a fuzzy, fluid thing. If the meaning of a text is fluid, it cannot be applied universally to Every Single Last Human Being on the Whole Planet for All of Time. Admitting that what a passage means to one person may not be what it means to another completely destroys fundamentalism. They cannot be flexible– everything about their approach to faith is rigid and unyielding– being “steadfast in the faith” (i.e.: purposely blind to other points of view) is the very essentialness of what being a fundamentalist is. If there is not one meaning–their meaning–then they cannot be the Only Authority on the Interpretation of Scripture. They cannot control your life with their legalistic, Pharisaical, back-breaking religion. They lose their basis for teaching doctrine.

In short– post-modernism and Deconstructionism rebuilt my faith–because it allowed me the liberty and freedom that Christ promised.

Bet you didn’t see that one coming, didja, oh ye fundamentalist college?

ps. as an interesting side note, you can’t identify as many binaries in more modern translations of the Bible, like the English Standard, that you can in the King James. Curious.