An Australian author living in Norway

An Open Letter to Grammar Nazis

Dear Pedants,

(Hey, everyone’s writing open letters these days, why not me, right?)

When I became a freelance editor, I worried that I’d become one of those insufferable pedants, or “Grammar Nazis” as they are affectionately known, who cannot stop themselves from picking on everyone’s mistakes, no matter how tiny or how accidental. Admittedly, I was already a serial-corrector—pretty much from the day I learned to speak, yeah, one of those kids—so I figured as soon as I started deliberately focusing on picking out errors in people’s work, I wouldn’t be able to stop myself from finding abhorrent grammatical mistakes everywhere, and worse, correcting them whether people wanted me to or not.

However, I have found that the opposite has become true, and thank goodness. It’s not to say that horrific misuse of language doesn’t still grate with me—of course it does—but as a professional editor, I’ve learned to adapt myself to that beautiful thing writers use to make the language their own: style. Sometimes this means that a semicolon does not, in fact, join two independent but related sentences. Yes, I can hear your horrified gasps from here, but if I were to get out my little red pen and make the page bleed every single time I spotted a technical misuse simply because it was “incorrect”, I would be stripping the writer of their voice, and that is the biggest no-no in the editing profession, bar none. In my opinion, at least.

What I think makes a good editor, and it is something I strive for in every project I work on, is someone who recognises what makes the writer’s voice unique, and works hard both to preserve and enhance it. Sometimes this means cutting back, much like pruning a rose bush will bring forth bigger, more beautiful flowers; sometimes it means encouraging further exploration of a character or story arc; sometimes it means helping a writer to find, and refine, their voice. And sometimes it means ignoring a grammatical niggle because the piece would lose something were it to be corrected: in these cases, the misuse makes the voice.

However, editing a manuscript for publication is a far cry from reading blog posts, Facebook statuses, tweets, and other informal pieces of writing. It was in this arena I worried the most about keeping my big fat keyboard quiet. And I can’t pretend I don’t cringe a little when I see “your beautiful” or “Look! The kittys eating it’s food!”, but do I struggle to stop myself from posting an unsolicited corrective comment? No. Not anymore. I let it be. Why? Because everyone makes mistakes. Everyone. And Muphry’s Law is sure to come back and bite you when you’re snarky comment has a mistake in it. (See what I did there?)

Whether we like it or not, language changes, develops, incorporates new words (and new usage of old words), and whether or not you want words like “transition” to be used as verbs, or “literally” to mean “figuratively”, there’s nothing you can do to stop the evolution of language. So why not embrace it? Use it, add your voice to the cacophony, no matter how discordant you find it at first, and make it your own. Be bold, be brave, and deny the urge to be a pompous jackass. You will never be happy as long as you are trying to correct others, because all anyone sees is your effort to stifle their voice and look smart (when what you actually look like is a douchebag), and that’s not going to make them change their ways.


  1. Sharleena

    As a person who has a fit at the use of ‘literally’ incorrectly, I have never considered it as an evolution of language. Thank for the food for thought Zoe, maybe now I can stop yelling at Jamie Oliver and just enjoy the show!

  2. 'bolic

    I think you’re right, Zoe. If we remember that the primary task of all of this is to share my idea with you, provided I have adequately succeeded in this, what more is there? The other point of balance is between two ideas, the first being that if I am able to help you improve your communication and can, then I should, versus the second consideration that you might not care to have my help at this time.

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