Browsing Tag

prescriptivist grammar

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