Can We Stop Talking About Grammar Nazis?

Stewart DesMeules Photography New England Holocaust Memorial dsc_04921
Stewart DesMeules Photography, New England Holocaust Memorial

As writers and readers, we know words have power. They mean things. Some words carry more weight than others. Anyone who has been bullied knows that. One pointed word, repeated over and over again, can be sharper than an army’s worth of swords.

Before you start talking about lightening up and censorship — let me tell you a story.

About ten years ago, I drove to the Bronx with my husband to visit his then ninety-one-year-old great aunt. She grew up in czarist Russia, as did some of my family. Once in a while, Cossacks would ride through and terrorize Jewish villages. Kill, rape, burn houses to the ground. Destroy entire communities. Able-bodied young men were taken away and conscribed into the Czar’s army. But mostly they were all killed. When she was five, the Cossacks rode into my great-aunt-in-law’s village. At the time she, and many of her neighbors, were in synagogue. She and a few other children managed to escape and hide in a tiny loft in the attic. But they could hear everything from downstairs. The women screaming. The men groaning out their last breaths as the blades sliced them clean through. She still remembered every detail, every sound, every hair standing up on her arms and neck, eighty-five years later.

“Cossack” was not a term thrown lightly around those who survived. It was shushed away from children’s lips, for fear of calling the evil spirits back. It was not attached to other words and weakened.

I am lucky on many fronts. My direct ancestors escaped Eastern Europe and the tyranny of the Czar. I am also lucky that they were living in New York when the Nazis rose to power. Some branches of my husband’s family were not so lucky. They went to the camps. They did not return.

But what we don’t preserve and remember, we lose. If we weaken the concept of the Nazis by making it “cute” with phrases like “Grammar Nazi,” et cetera, then we begin to forget. And it sounds so awfully extreme, to equate someone who points out the rules of comma usage with criminals who bayonetted babies — yes, they did that — and put people in gas ovens.

I abhor censorship. Not only because as a writer, I don’t want my rights of free expression curtailed, but because I have the greatest respect for the power of words. Drop the perfect one in at the perfect time and that can make all the difference. Or, if a weaker one is substituted, it can bring your story to a crashing halt.

This isn’t about censorship – it’s about respect and compassion for the millions of people who suffered either directly or indirectly from the atrocities that were committed.

Grammar police works, as our K.S. Brooks pointed out. Call me a grammar grump, a grammar grouch. Dust off your thesaurus and call me persnickety, pedantic, and a picky pain in the ass, but can we leave the Nazis out of it? Thank you.

Author: Laurie Boris

Laurie Boris is a freelance writer, editor, proofreader, and former graphic designer. She has been writing fiction for over twenty-five years and is the award-winning author of four novels. She lives in New York’s lovely Hudson Valley. Learn more about Laurie at her website and her Amazon author page.

54 thoughts on “Can We Stop Talking About Grammar Nazis?”

  1. Hear, hear. As the daughter of a Nazi Concentration Camp survivor I could not agree more. I believe the same holds true for the use of the swastika and the confederate flag.These symbols and words ought not to be trivialized.

    1. Thank you for reading, Yvonne. These symbols – they’re so much a part of our human past, what has formed who we are now. It’s been interesting to watch the discussions going on in the “lower 48” about the Confederate flag. Put it in a museum, IMO, so we can teach the kids what it meant.

  2. Thank you, Laurie. Well expressed and persuasive. For your next post, please discuss the issue of whether it makes sense to criticize a writer for using the language “correctly” (in terms of grammar, punctuation, style, usage, and mechanics).

  3. We should never make light of any word that represents cruelty, the lack of humanity, and disrespect for our fellow human beings. I believe as writers that we have a responsibility to the younger generation to provide the true meaning behind such words, so history will no repeat itself. IMHO

      1. Ha ha! Okay, since everyone is in lockstep here, do you mind if I play devil’s avocado? 😉

        I think you make a great and eloquent pitch and pretty much half of me agrees, but there’s another aspect of trivialization that no one has mentioned: namely, that Nazism as a political philosophy deserves to be trivialized. And indeed, writers are uniquely positioned to do just that. Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld could never be seen as people blinded to historic suffering, but they came up with the Soup Nazi, I suspect, for similar reasons: to take the sting out of that historic horror. Were they wrong? Insensitive?

        I love the idea of the writer as court jester, as trickster, as someone whose very job is to mock the self-importance of kings (and by extension, humans in general), do you know what I mean? I always find that if I’m told not to use a word my first instinct is to use it more, lol.

        Again, I can actually see both sides in this, so I thought I’d give the other perspective here since no one else has done so, not because I’m vehemently behind it.

        1. Well, sure. I get that. Daffy Duck was once dressed as Hitler in a Bugs Bunny cartoon. And Springtime for Hitler speaks for itself. Hogan’s Heroes turning the Nazi officers into buffoons. It’s a way to take the control back.

          1. And if we want to extend that a little further, there’s a long history in comedy and satire of the oppressed making fun of the oppressor, as a way to gain the upper hand. That would be a fascinating topic for discussion.

          2. I’m proudly a Grammar WTFWDTCI. (I’ll let you work that out yourself.) It doesn’t bother me to be called that or to see others use it, but from this perspective, I get it. And I’m not sure my thoughts could or should have any bearing. But I’m torn, because Mr Antrobus is seldom wrong and I can see that side too.

            Maybe I’d rather be called a Grammar Nazi because by Godwin’s Law, that means I win, whereas a Grammar Grump just makes me … ummm. cranky. 🙂

          3. Yes! It’s like some of the debate over whether people can make rape jokes, and there’s a good argument to be made that, yes, maybe, but as long as you’re punching up not down. But that in itself can be subjective or blurry at times, so I think the wider message is: be sensitive to the words we use.

            Agreed. It’s fascinating, and it especially goes to the heart of our role as writers, one we all wrestle with albeit in different ways.

            Well damn. Now you’ve made this heat-addled brain try to do a little work today, so thanks for that. I think. 😉

  4. You’re absolutely on point with this post, Laurie. Thank you. What baffles me is how the term came into such widespread use in the first place. Honestly, who thinks that being a fussbudget about proper grammar is comparable to committing some of the most horrific actions in history?

  5. Chilling stories, Laurie, and a reminder that words wield the power to wound or to heal. “Nazi” is even more offensive than the other “N-word.” Both carry negative connotations and should never be used, especially in jest…

    1. I agree. But the words might carry a massive punch if used in dialogue for the appropriate character in fiction. I can’t imagine some books NOT having them. Huck Finn? THAT’s the power of not diluting the meanings. At least I think so. It’s an interesting topic. How words change. “Terrorist” had a different connotation once, and not so long ago.

  6. What everyone above has said. As we all know, the first rule of the internets is that whoever first uses the word Nazi loses the argument. I think that should extend to the phrase “grammar Nazi” as well.

  7. Great post, and very thought-provoking. As the daughter and sister of police officers, may I suggest that even that is inappropriate for similar, but completely different, reasons. Police risk their lives daily to protect the public. No one is laying down their life for the sake of grammar. I say go with the devil avocado’s – I mean David’s – syntactivist. That is pure gold…

    1. I totally get that, Julie, after being involved with law enforcement and the military in many ways for decades. The word “policing” though, has meanings beyond law enforcement, and that’s how I tend to look at it in this case. Certainly not to demean or belittle police officers. I do like “Grammar Warrior” and especially like the devil’s avocado Syntactivist. 🙂

      1. oh no, not demean or belittle. But if we’re picking the appropriate term, yes, syntactivist. Definitely not Grammar Grump… Hm, I see a Forrest Gump parody in there somewhere. Life is like a box of oxford commas….

  8. Such a great post. Words do have meaning, and we shouldn’t associate anything cute or harmless with Nazis. Grammar warriors are awesome. Nazis were evil and there’s nothing evil about a person who wishes to assist you by correcting your grammar.

  9. It’s nice that you are mentioning this because sometimes we use words without thought. This is a good reminder.

  10. No matter how powerful, words get diluted with time. Through overuse by those who don’t feel them so strongly, they lose their power.
    Our only hope is that the reason they fade is because the threat they represented has also faded into humanity’s violent past.
    Because if it hasn’t, then history will repeat itself.

    1. One can only hope, Gordon. But I’ve always believed that people should know where they come from, and we should know our history and not sweep it away. Or maybe I’m just too idealistic.

  11. I published an essay on my blog a few years ago asking what people would think of sports teams with names like the “Houston Hebes” and “Washington Niggers” meeting to play a game of whatever. If they got offended by that, why wouldn’t they get offended by the “Washington Redskins”? I point out that it’s not a matter of political correctness, but rather, a matter of respect.

    Some people have asked me what can be done now about the tens of millions of Native Americans who were slaughtered during the European colonization of the Western Hemisphere; the worst and longest-lasting genocide in human history. I simply replied, in that case, what can be done about the Pearl Harbor attack? The Nazi Holocaust? The 09/11/01 attacks? Nothing can be done about those events now, but pretending they never occurred (or mitigating their severity) is just as bad.

    By the way, does anyone remember when Rush Limbaugh created the term “femi-nazis”?

    1. Alejandro, I detested “femi-nazi” just as much, back in the day. I may have even written a few letters. And no, we can’t change the past. But we can respect, and remember, and try not to let it happen again. And not revise history to make it “nicer.” That’s one of the reasons I’m waving my little pen around during Banned Books Week, because I want kids to be able to read about what REALLY happened and make up their own minds. I think that’s one of the responsibilities of being a writer. Telling the stories of those whose voices have gone unheard.

  12. I thought that “nazi” was actually a derogatory reference coined to belittle the Nationalsozialistische similar to “commie” vs. Communist.

  13. Well said, Laurie. Words do have power, and we belittle them at our peril. As an atheist I bend over backwards not to bring the word g.o.d. into my writing because I cannot write it with a capital ‘G’, yet belittling it with a lowercase ‘g’ is like a slap in the face to people who do believe.

    Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. And the reverse is also true – just because you don’t ‘have’ to do something doesn’t mean you should not. Respect is the glue that holds society together.

    1. Hi AC. I’m an atheist, and I write God into my works all the time. Heck, my latest MC is a brunette, God loving, Batman hating, cat owning, white wine drinker. So… the exact opposite of me. Except for our mutual love of bacon and dumplings. 😀

  14. Thank you so much for reminding us of the impact of words and how they affect people. It’s not the intention but the perception that causes so much unrest. What people want is a word that compares grammar-aware people to someone in power who abuses that power. I don’t like that concept either. Using a language correctly is part of the job of writers, educators, the media, and used to be expected of anyone educated. Everyone should read your post. Maybe a contest (after reading the post for those less sensitive) to submit ideas would give us more input and give your message more visibility? I would love to share your post, giving you the credit you deserve. Thank you so much!

  15. I found myself about to use the term Nazi in an email not long ago, caught myself in time and changed it to ‘tyrant’. Not quite the same connotation but a far more neutral word, and a better fit for the situation I was describing.

    I also have a problem with people using the term ‘bully’ as freely as they do about online activities. It’s a nasty trigger for people who were actually physically bullied, and waters down the impact of real bullying. Call your opponent critical, aggressive, unreasonable, manipulative or whatever adjective describes their actions–but don’t resort to calling them a bully.

    These emotive words are often used precisely because the writer wants to evoke emotion in others and shine the spotlight on their opponent’s behavior. I would argue that precision in defining what is making you angry will take the conversation down a much more civilized path.

  16. Thanks Laurie for your thoughts. I was lucky enough to be born in north Africa and with the help of British General Montgomery who pushed back the Nazis and Rommel at El Alamein in 1942, I’m still alive today. The term Nazi should be spat upon as evil incarnate. And to use a term that brought so much suffering is to make light of a human holocaust where over 80 million people worldwide died needlessly.

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