You know what’s tough about talking about the finer points of writing, words, and grammar? Trying to do it with people who aren’t as into it as you are.
I’m an editor because I love these things. I love finding the best way to communicate an author’s idea if it’s not coming through clearly. I love going over the same sentence over and over, trying different words, punctuations, rhythms, until I find something that’s just right. I love learning about what kind of language conveys what to other people, whether it evokes irritation or a more positive emotional response.
This passion means loving language and its construction on a few different levels, from the highly detailed to the very broad. A single comma can change a sentence’s meaning or tone or context. Larger changes can affect a reader’s entire perception of the writer’s message.
Paying attention to these differences is important to an editor and to a lot of unpaid language lovers, as well. But we confront a dilemma when we try to share this love and interest to our larger social networks because, as I find, talking about details of language and the way it’s pieced together, if it’s not explicitly framed as “Here are some ‘rules’ you can relax about” or “Grammar Nazis suck,” tend to get interpreted by some as falling on the side of “The sky is going to fall if you don’t stop doing this in your writing.”
In other words, if you talk about grammar, you’re assumed to be a grammar snob.
Of course, trying to explain the difference between prescriptivism and descriptivism will only make you look like more of a grammar snob because you use, y’know, big words to talk about it.
Does being interested in fashion make one a fashion snob? Does loving movies make one a film snob? How about football? It’s possible to be a snob about any of these things, but you can also be a fan. You can simply love clothes, movies, football games, talking about them, analyzing them, having an opinion about them. Fandom might slip into judging others for their opinions, but it doesn’t have to, and don’t grammar fans deserve as much of the benefit of the doubt as that friend of yours who owns the entire Criterion Collection but will also be first in line for The Fast and the Furious XIII?
Being a fan of grammar often means being deeply analytical. But analysis also doesn’t mean judgment. It means wanting to understand where that grammatical belief, convention, or habit came from and what it “really” means (where “really” isn’t really real because it shifts just as much as anything else in grammar). It also means wanting to understand why some words and constructions annoy people, sometimes even oneself. Why do I say “lol” but cringe when someone on the internet says “u”? Why do I draw that line, and is there a good reason for it or is it arbitrary?
Sometimes we do slip into judginess of some degree or another. In our minds, it might not be “serious,” but of course it might look that way to others. Around the new year, I posted to a social media site, “What words or phrases do you hope will die in the new year?” My own nomination was “life hack,” which I think is overused and misused and could often be replaced with the phrase “helpful hints.” Of course, most contributions to that thread after mine ended up being “slang the kids are saying these days.”
Admittedly, most of us in that thread would probably be deemed word snobs, though perhaps for different reasons. But if we censor ourselves to avoid that perception, it’s analogous to refraining from criticizing that last dress Beyoncé/J-Lo/Scarlett/whoever wore to the last red carpet event for fear of someone misunderstanding the line between critique and snobbery.
What fascinated me in that discussion were the different types of opinionatedness. Personally, I’m more bothered by overused media buzzwords than by new adolescent slang, so it was interesting to see the thread take shape. While it’s kind of fun to whine about our personal word peeves, I’m actually more enticed by analyzing where the peeves come from.
Apparently, some people are really put off by the phrase “no problem” as a synonym for “you’re welcome.” I can’t relate, and I don’t agree, but I am very interested in hearing the arguments for it because the arguments themselves say so much about how people understand, use, and hear language and about their perceptions of how it develops. If someone wants to make a case for this position, I will defend them against those who think the writer has “too much time on their hands,” even though I disagree with their conclusion. The thought process behind it is, to me, the valuable part.
More often than not, I hesitate to share articles and topics of a grammatical or word-loving nature in social media outside of editors’ contexts, even though I have friends who’d appreciate them, because I prefer to avoid the “snob” factor these days. Recently, a normally very outspoken friend privately messaged me an article that had nothing directly to do with grammar, rather than posting it publicly, because she was avoiding the same accusation.
Who are the real judges in that case? Those who like to talk about words and might have an opinion about them now and then? Or the ones who dislike the subject so much — unless it’s validating their own opinions — that we end up silencing ourselves around them?
I'm Lea, a freelance editor who specializes in academic and nonfiction materials. More info about my services is available throughout this site.