Dear Grammar Nazis*,
I get it. I’ve been one of you. As an English teacher by profession, people assume I still am, more than ever. Because let’s be honest, it’s kind of fun to roll your eyes every time somebody misuses there/their/they’re. It strokes your ego when you can feel superior to someone who can’t distinguish good and well. And it’s easy to disregard somebody’s entire argument when they mix up it’s and its. Also, when you notice these English language infractions, you can’t be expected to keep them to yourself. The world needs to know that you know a grammar error occurred!
But here’s the thing. I’m not one of you anymore. I’ve changed. I’ve evolved. The funny thing is, it’s my years as an ESL teacher, along with being a Spanish learner, that have me convinced–grammar just isn’t that important. Yes, it’s important. But not nearly as important as I once believed.
Let me tell you about my Spanish learning journey.
When I entered college, I was the first in my immediate family to do so, which meant I didn’t have a lot of guidance on how to do things, like sign up for classes. The ginormous course catalog gave me anxiety. I knew I wanted to keep taking Spanish, but I had no idea which class to sign up for. Luckily, there was a handy placement test you could take online.
I took the test, which was multiple choice, mostly grammar questions. For some people, that would be a nightmare, but I was a good test taker. I didn’t always understand the vocabulary in a given question, but I knew the answer demanded an imperfect subjunctive verb. When the test score popped up, it said I should register for a 300-level class. Not really understanding what that meant, so I just did what the test told me to do.
Fast forward to my first day of classes–BIG mistake. I wasn’t in the room for five minutes before I knew I did not belong there. I couldn’t understand a word the teacher was saying. The other students were conversing easily en español, and I couldn’t begin to follow. I wanted to run from the room immediately, but I also didn’t want to draw that attention to myself. It was a long hour of hoping nobody spoke to me, and trying not to cry. (Have I mentioned what a cool kid I still was at 18?:))
As soon as class was over, I dropped the class, and picked up a 200-level one it its place. Much better! I’d already learned all the grammar in the 200-level classes, so the textbook exercises were easy. But I had no fluency. I needed time to pick up more vocabulary, acclimate my ear and tongue to the language, soak in the patterns so that the grammar became an invisible structure, not a list of rules in my head. When I returned to 300-level Spanish a year later, it was still challenging, but I was ready this time. I came in armed with more than just grammar rules.
It wasn’t smooth sailing after that, though. I never really grasped that being a good student, and being good at learning a language, are two different sets of skills. I sat quietly in class, took notes, did my homework, and got good grades on my tests. But learning a language requires talking! Lots of talking! I was too scared of opening my mouth and making a mistake. Before saying anything out loud, I’d practice it in my head, thinking through all the different grammar points. Most of the time, I’d end up not saying anything. By the time I graduated, I’d gotten good grades in tons of Spanish classes, but still didn’t feel like I spoke the language.
Progress finally started happening when I became an ESL teacher in a school that had many Spanish-speaking students and, at the time, few Spanish-speaking teachers. Suddenly, I found myself regularly in situations miles from my comfort zone, speaking to students and/or their parents, sometimes interpreting when a more qualified interpreter wasn’t available. There wasn’t time for me to analyze all the grammar in my head. I just had to open my mouth and hope something intelligible came out.
I don’t actually know if my grammar has gotten better or worse since college. Many patterns and conjugations and things have become second nature, so I don’t have to think about them anymore. But I’m pretty sure an enormous number of errors have crept in too. That’s ok. I’m actually communicating now, which I wasn’t doing before, and isn’t that the point?
On the other hand, I’ve seen some great examples of the other side of the coin.
I’ve met many English language learners–my students, but also my peers, and other professionals–who navigate the English-speaking world daily with imperfect grammar, and it doesn’t get in their way. They understand, and they’re understood. They might not conjugate every verb correctly, and they might use the wrong preposition now and then, but so what? They’re expressing complex thoughts, and small grammar errors aren’t keeping anyone from easily understanding them. Wouldn’t you rather listen to the person who’s speaking with depth and sharing complicated ideas, even if they make a few syntax mistakes, than the person who’s playing it safe and only saying the simple sentences they’ve practiced and know they can say error-free? In an engaging conversation, how long does it take before you stop even noticing small grammar stuff?
As an English teacher, I’ll keep teaching grammar, and correcting my kids’ mistakes. Grammar does matter. It gives structure to our language, so we can understand each other. And, unfortunately, it influences how we’re perceived. People judge you as more intelligent and capable when you speak according to a certain standard.
But, my grammar nazi friends, don’t be those people. If you’re as enlightened as you like to consider yourself, then you must realize there’s no correlation between a person’s grammar and their intelligence, abilities, or value. We all have our strengths. If somebody can’t figure out apostrophes, it doesn’t mean they don’t have great stuff to say! It just makes us look pretentious when we have to point out mistakes.
Also, if you’re the linguist you fancy yourself, then you realize that language is constantly evolving, and the “rules” are arbitrarily, unintentionally chosen by people with social status and power. There are many different dialects of English, and none of them are objectively better than another.
Please don’t expect me to follow you down the grammar nazi path. And don’t think that because I’m a teacher, I’m judging your grammar. I’ve been there, and it’s not for me anymore. These days, I focus on being a “word nerd” anyway. It’s much more fun.
*I’m aware that it’s controversial to use the word “nazi” lightly. I debated in my head, and decided to stick with it. I’ve heard many people own the term “grammar nazi” proudly, and I find it fitting with the elitist, intolerant attitude that it tends to accompany.