Sunday, 12 April 2015

What Grammar Nazis Miss Out On.

So, I live in India. You'll find that some of us hold a fluency in English that can only be matched by native English speakers. Yet some others butcher the Queen's language without a second thought. Now, you'd have to be in Mars to realise that English is the de facto lingua franca of the world and India. It is our comfort with English that gives us an edge over the Chinese. So much so that being good with English somehow determines your professional graph here.

Now, on face value there's nothing wrong with that. Being good at a language means being good with words. And at the end of the day, how you express yourself will influence your odds at finding success. The problem is this somehow stacks the odds against a whole lot of Indians. A good number of Indians get educated in their regional languages. Mother tongues, as they are called. They only learn English much later and they get comfortable using it much later in life. This puts a lot of Indians on the back foot professionally. As if things weren't bad enough, there's a fresh crop of problems for those trying to improve their English. Enter the cult of Grammar Nazis.

Now most Grammar Nazis as you are aware are a passive aggressive lot. They have a decent grasp of grammar. They can even pronounce Sauvignon properly. And since they possess these two skills, they make it a point to belittle anyone who flubs while speaking. They actually derive pleasure from it. Looking down upon someone who doesn't have the same amount of knowledge as you is a time-honoured tradition. Yet here it takes a different colour.

 Being a Grammar Nazi in India isn't the same as having an affectation. It's straight-up bullying. It's denying a person the right to express themselves and to flub while doing so and hence, improve in the long run. I've seen it in my own college, at work and even while travelling in the train. People asked to pronounce things right. People being told to use the right verbs. To not forget the gerunds. And it makes my blood boil. Unless you work at the New York Times, which most Grammar Nazis don't by the way, your correction of another's command of language is pointless. It's only stalling their progress and denying them their chances by destroying their confidence. So go on, judge people. For the quality of their ideas and thinking. Not the quality of speaking skills.


What's surprising is this problem has been around since the Roman era. Check out this excerpt from Emperor Marcus Aurelius' book called Meditations. Here he reveals how he learnt from a literary critic to focus on a person's words, not his pronunciations.


Not to be constantly correcting people, and in particular not to jump on them whenever they make an error of usage or a grammatical mistake or mispronounce something, but just answer their question or add another example, or debate the issue itself (not their phrasing), or make some other contribution to the discussion—and insert the right expression, unobtrusively.

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