If you were to do a random poll of Twitter bios, online dating profiles and those obnoxious pithy things journalists like to put at the end of their stories there is a fair chance that someone will profess their love of grammar. Perhaps they will say things like “I am a self-avowed grammar nazi/nerd/fearless fighter for the appropriate use of apostrophes.” They might say that they will block you if you use the wrong ‘your’ in a sentence, or marry you if you get it right. Both of which sound rather extreme, and not nearly as clever and enticing as the owner of said comment might think. Just like the clamouring tribes of self-confessed introverts on the internet, online is the natural habitat of the grammar nazi, where somehow knowing how to wield an apostrophe has become a noble act, nay, personal brand.
But the policing of grammar online and on social media has also become something of a blood-thirsty and demoralising sport. A typo causes crowing re-tweets among the grammarazi, or if the tweeter is feeling particularly superior they might screen grab an error just in case it was fixed – often the case in online - before they got the opportunity to gloat. A mis-spelt word is declared enough to discredit an entire argument and let’s not even go there with the comments left on articles.
For no better (and more mean spirited) examples of this we must turn to Lamebook, the site that compiles the lamest things people do on Facebook. Like make spelling mistakes that people snidely correct in the comments. A slightly more cheerful version is this compilation of the worst spelling mistakes on twitter, and my undying respect goes to the person who spelt ambience as umbeyonce.
But then the uncomfortable mean feeling sets in. Because what if the mistakes so readily mocked online are not born of haste but through ignorance? What then to make of the gloating red marker set? Well, it kind of sounds like they’re a pack of bullies. Something that Matthew J. X Malady picked up on in his great piece, Are you a Language Bully? in Slate.
“Those who use their advanced knowledge to embarrass or humiliate others are the absolute worst. Yet, for whatever reason, language bullies don’t seem to get this, or they don’t care. Either way, they are out there at this very moment, lurking, lying in wait, ready to pounce. “
Malady investigated why language bullies like to make their corrections public via social media by seeking out the opinion of a psychologist on the matter, who concluded that language bullies publicly correct people partly to get the approval of fellow language bullies.
“[A] lot of that has to do with signaling to other people,” says Robert Kurzban, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania.
“People are trying to signal their expertise, because being able to identify mistakes indicates that you know more about something than the person who committed the error.”’
So basically, it’s really just an exercise in putting down others in order to bolster one’s own self-esteem, not so much a commitment to a properly punctuated cause.
As Benoît Monin, a psychology professor at Stanford University told Malady, “There is a glee in upending people who are supposed to be superior to us—especially if we think it’s unfair that they are superior to us ... it seems like the true emotion is a joyful, vengeful one. I’m actually kind of excited to be able to correct you.”’
It’s not the correcting of mistakes - something always welcomed by anyone really - it's that gleefulness that is the most irksome thing about the grammar nerd. So quick are they to roundly mock anybody who dares to put their ideas out to the world without polishing every single one.
This is not to say that I do not value words, because I do, fervently so. I too am guilty of mentally clocking the wrong usage of your/you’re on people’s Facebook pages. Like Taystee in Orange is the New Black, I appreciate the correct use of language.
Especially as I am a journalist prone to butchering it with well-meaning malapropisms (a trait I share with Tony Soprano). For example, I am forever grateful to the colleague who told me that my favourite word chutzpah is pronounced ‘hootz-pah).
But lately I’ve wondered if that fleeting sense of superiority that comes with noting a spelling mistake in your ex’s new beau’s blog (or whatever) actually means anything other than merely being unkind, and also, petty.
What’s more, while social media has made it easier to have your opinion heard and to publicly mock the opinions of others, as this great piece by Scott Simpson titled You Are Boring so perfectly encapsulates, it’s getting harder to be original. Ultimately, grammar and spelling are just the scaffolding for the ideas and the arguments, and the stuff that really matters. If you’ve only got the scaffolding and a sparsely populated Twitter account, well, I’m afraid you’re just one of many grammar nerds on the internet.
And maybe that’s what really burns the language bullies. Because deep down, pointing out the typos is the only creative work they’ve got.