The politics of grammar

By describing himself as a grammar fascist recently, the British Conservative MP Alan Duncan may have had his tongue firmly in his cheek but it’s striking how people who get worked up over English usage, grammar, style, and punctuation will often refer to themselves as grammar fascists or grammar Nazis with pride.

Mr Duncan has challenged staff at the Department for International Development to be more careful in their use of English, to avoid verbing nouns, and to elimate jargon. (For more detail, read Tom Chivers’ recent piece in The Daily Telegraph.)

We all have pet peeves about language usage and punctuation but I wonder what happens when the line is crossed and feeling peevish about a misplaced apostrophe becomes something more intense?

The demise of The Queen’s English Society – which struggled to champion “good” English for four decades – suggests that trying to impose rules on a living language doesn’t work. (The QES says people just don’t want to join committees anymore.)

In the USA, Jeff Deck and Benjamin D. Herson have decided to take direct action against typographical errors they find in public signs and their book detailing their travels, The Great Typo Hunt, has been pretty successful.

I enjoy a funny typo – who doesn’t? – but would I go as far as these guys? (No. But I might take a photo and tweet about it.)

The question is, if some prescriptivists are happy to call themselves grammar Nazis, are there any descriptivists who define themselves as grammar socialists? Somehow, I think not. It always ends badly  …

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