Grammar nazis and actual nazis

:: language, politics

In the old, more innocent days of the internet – the days when people naïvely assumed that nazis were figures from a dark past, fading slowly into history – people who were very pedantic about prescriptive rules of grammar were often called ‘grammar nazis’. We did not think, then, that grammar nazis might be unconsciously encouraging actual nazis. But I think they were, and are.

Recently, Jonathan Bouquet wrote this article in The Observer, from which I quote:

Epidemiologist after epidemiologist warns that we must modify our “behaviours” if we are to counter the pandemic. Quite when it became obligatory for this horde of “experts” to pluralise the word is not known, but I do wish they would desist. And given their track record during coronavirus, with certain honourable exceptions, how many would dare to admit their profession if they were to be asked at a party what they did for a living? They’d be far better off saying they were an actuary.

There are many things wrong with this paragraph.

First of all, while Mr Bouquet is clearly at least playing at being unaware of it, natural languages do change over time. In some socially-privileged dialects of English a century ago, ‘behaviour’ was a mass noun and thus ’*behaviours’ was not correct in those dialects. But groups of people who deal with the behaviour of humans, or animals, or computer systems, found they needed a count noun: they needed a term, for instance, to talk about ‘washing your hands’ and ‘wearing a mask’ and whether people are doing one or both of these things. For a while, perhaps, clumsy terms like ‘behaviour patterns’ were used, but then the humans who actually get to define the language they speak – not Mr Bouquet, who merely gets to snipe at them because they are not using the language he learned at school any more – change the language, and ‘behaviour’ became usable as a count noun in the dialect used by these groups: ‘washing your hands’ is now a behaviour and ‘washing your hands and wearing a mask’ are1 two behaviours.

The inability to understand that the language can change and has changed – or the pretence of not understanding that for rhetorical purposes – merely makes Mr Bouquet look rather silly. Why is he also encouraging bigotry? Well, let’s look at an excerpt from the paragraph quoted above:

Quite when it became obligatory for this horde of “experts” to pluralise the word is not known, but I do wish they would desist.

Look at the scare quotes and the term ‘horde’2: Mr Bouquet clearly does not think (or is pretending not to think) that epidemiologists are actually experts: they’re just people who pretend to be experts. A bit like Mr Bouquet, in fact, who is pretending to be an expert on English, but is not, any more than I am. But in fact they are experts: they are people (I am not an epidemiologist) who have spend a great deal of time studying a quite difficult subject and have developed a great deal of skill in and knowledge of that subject. There’s a term for such people, and that term is ‘expert’.

I suspect that Mr Bouquet is just sniping at them because he has a deadline to meet and sniping makes for a nice clever-sounding article which meets his word-count requirements: he knows they are experts (perhaps he even knows that ‘behaviour’ is a fine count noun), but he just enjoys the sniping. It’s not as if, after all, we live in a world where people being dismissive of experts and not listening to what they say is a problem at all, after all, is it? No-one has ever said that a group of experts – for instance climate scientists – are not really experts, and even if they did, well that would not at all be a problem, would it? I’m sure Mr Bouquet could also have a field day with the terminology climate scientists use – what on earth is ‘a forcing’, I mean, how silly.

So, well, perhaps Mr Bouquet should not be writing articles sniping at experts, especially the experts who are trying to keep us all alive. Perhaps he should not be doing his bit to help corrode of the idea of objective truth: perhaps he has not noticed that truth decay is a quite serious problem, but it is. Perhaps, even without the part he’s playing in reducing the chances of avoiding the collapse of civilisation that global warming will cause, that’s a deeply offensive and stupid thing to do.

So what Mr Bouquet is doing is not only stupid, it’s offensive: it’s still not encouraging bigotry, is it? Yes, it is.

The Two Cultures was published more than sixty years ago, and yet here is Mr Bouquet casually sniping at scientists as a group. That is, if not directly bigoted, certainly encouraging bigotry towards scientists. Unfortunately that’s only a tiny part of the bigotry which he is encouraging. To see what else he is encouraging take a look at the people that prescriptive grammar pedants – like Mr Bouquet – who snipe at those who ‘don’t use language properly’ tend to do their sniping at. In other words, look at the groups who don’t use the privileged dialect of English that Mr Bouquet probably thinks of as ‘proper English’ but which is in fact just one dialect of the language family.

Those groups include, for instance, black people, gypsies, Scottish people, Northern English people and people who did not go to the right schools. And the various variants of English they use are derided by the one-true-English brigade as ‘degraded’ or ‘simplified’ or less expressive than the one-true-English, because by implication the people in those groups are less clever than the people who speak the one-true-English. They are not less clever and the dialects they speak are not less expressive: saying they are is bigotry, and Mr Bouquet is, very definitely, encouraging that bigotry.

I’m very sure Mr Bouquet is impeccably liberal and would not think for a moment that what he is doing is encouraging bigotry, still less that he is actually being bigoted towards scientists. Perhaps he should stop and think about that for a bit. Perhaps The Observer should stop and think about that for a bit.

He should also learn some linguistics. There are books on it.

  1. Grammar nazis might want to argue about whether this should be ‘is’ or ‘are’. I don’t know and, frankly, don’t care that much: the rules of grammar are the rules we make. 

  2. Also: ‘pluralise’? Seriously.