What should we call ‘Grammar Nazis’?

For some people the answer is in the question. Certainly Grammar Nazi is a popular and catchy phrase for referring to people who decry errors of grammar – or what they think are errors, or grammar – and who correct other people’s language unsolicited.

This looser, more general sense of nazi is well established in informal English. I’m not trying to outlaw it – that would make me a ‘nazi’ nazi. But personally I don’t like the term unless it’s used with heavy irony, because it cheapens and trivialises the horrific historical events that it blithely hijacks for rhetorical effect.

This comic by Kris Wilson slyly turns the tables:

cyanide and happiness - explosm - grammar nazi comic strip

Whatever about using Nazi hyperbolically in political contexts to refer to a non-actual-Nazi behaving in a way that may be construed as fascist, I can’t quite get my head around its casual use to refer to attitudes to language use. It has become conventional to the point where many people self-identify, even proudly, as a ‘grammar Nazi’.

Presumably when people do this they mean to convey that they use language carefully and expect others to do the same; that they take its rules seriously and abhor what they perceive as abuse of words, punctuation, and grammar. They probably love The Elements of Style and its officious, dictatorial tone. So a tongue-in-cheek nazi label may be intended to leaven the earnestness: I take grammar seriously, but not THAT seriously.

But when I see the word Nazi, preceded by grammar or not, I don’t automatically think of someone who is attentive bordering on fussy, who likes things done right, or who believes strongly in the importance of rules and rectitude. I think of racist sociopaths. Nazi just hasn’t been semantically bleached for me to a realm of harmless irony. And I’m surprised it has for people who profess such care for language use.

Maybe there’s a cultural element to it: I’m from Europe, the original home of Nazism, and I tend to see grammar Nazi used in US English. But I haven’t looked at this systematically. In any case my attempts at sarcastic criticism have not arrested the usage’s widespread adoption:

So for those of us who write about grammar and usage and need to refer to this group, and for any self-identifying ‘grammar Nazis’ who may be thinking of dropping the designation, what alternatives are there?

I switch between different terms depending on the particular behaviour, motivation, or other local and arbitrary factors. In a post on hybrid etymology I referred to purists who complain about words like jeopardize based on a misconception that any living language could be pure and that mixing them somehow taints them. At Macmillan Dictionary Blog I advised people to ignore language cranks whose beliefs are eccentric, fervently held, and cantankerously expressed.

I use stickler quite often, because the people I refer to are dogmatic and pedantic. Pedant is also common, but one can be correct and helpful in one’s pedantry, whereas the peevers are frequently misinformed about the nature and purposes of language and the facts of its use. So I sometimes modify pedant or its derivatives to clarify.

In Oliver Kamm’s book Accidence Will Happen: The Non-Pedantic Guide to English Usage, he describes the title of his UK Times column The Pedant as an ironic joke (‘in the same spirit as Slate magazine runs a column about economics called “dismal science”‘), and he addresses the problem of terminology I’ve been discussing:

As a shorthand term I’ve called them purists but theirs is not a pure form of English. No such thing exists. . . . My preferred term for these purists is sticklers or pedants, and collectively the sticklocracy.

Much as I tend to side with Kamm’s arguments, I find sticklocracy a bit awkward, and unlikely to enter general currency for that reason and on account of its novelty. Also, while its suffix connotes the aspirational or power-based motives of some sticklers, equally there are many whose sticklerism is just indulgence in trivial, petty triumphalism.

In a similar vein, John E. McIntyre has coined peeververein, which he defines as: ‘The collective group of self-appointed language experts whose complaints about errors in grammar and usage are generally unfounded or trivial’ (from peever + verein, German for ‘association’ or ‘club’). The reduplicative core of this compound (-verver-) has led haplologically to Barrie England’s inadvertent blend peeverein.

Peever by itself I find useful; I’ve even tagged a bunch of blog posts peevology. I’ve also on occasion gone with nitpicker, fusspot, grammar grouch, authoritarian, grammaticaster, ideologue, language police, and others, some of which are relatable to language only in context. I don’t normally use prescriptivist this way without qualifying it, since its scope is too broad – as an editor I wear a prescriptive hat.

James Callan’s suggestion of language change denier has found some support, and it points pleasingly at the anti-evidence stance of those who idealise a static language or the form of it they inherited. But at six syllables the phrase is a bit long, and it is applicable only in certain cases.

Anne Curzan at Lingua Franca recently advocated for the portmanteau word grammando, which, though superficially satisfying, is too positive-sounding to my ears. Jan Freeman feels the same way:

(Clicking through either of those tweets will show some brief follow-up discussion.)

Related portmanteaus, such as grammilitia, have failed to gain any real currency. Into this gap the Nazi meme spreads, with Grammar Gestapo, Spelling Stasi and similar monikers batted about. A grammar Nazi Twitter account uses an avatar imitative of the Third Reich flag, and a search on Google Images shows a range of related iconography that suggests lots of people find this sort of thing funny or attractive.

The cultural mashup of language criticism and Nazism may be meant ‘humorously’, but it leaves an unpleasant taste. We already have actual-Nazi grammar Nazis: why blur the line further? By using Nazi to refer to common pedantry and preoccupation with correctness, we diminish its historical substance to something altogether facile. If ever there was a word that didn’t warrant amelioration, it’s Nazi.

I don’t think any single alternative, old or new, will suit all cases or satisfy most users. Not every stickler is a crank; not every pedant is a purist: the degree of variation points to diverse positions, preferences, and needs. I expect I’ll keep picking from the set outlined above and others that occur to me, but I’d be interested to hear what you favour, and why.

I should mention one scenario where I’ve used Grammar Nazi: in a pop culture/linguistics game. I’d add scare quotes if it didn’t spoil the joke.

stan carey - Indo-European Jones meme - grammar nazis - i hate these guys

And because my brother told me he has students who’ve never heard of Elvis or the Beatles, I won’t take any chances: This is the scene to which my ‘Indo-European Jones’ image alludes:

Update: At the Baltimore Sun, John E. McIntyre offers his thoughts on the phrase:

If you are not Mel Brooks, making jokes about Nazism is in questionable taste. . . . Proclaiming oneself to be a “grammar Nazi,” however light-heartedly, serves mainly to confirm the stereotype that people who take grammar seriously are humorless authoritarians quick to condemn others over trivialities. The grammar Nazi, like the flogging schoolmaster and the knuckle-rapping nun, is a cliche ripe for retirement.

63 Responses to What should we call ‘Grammar Nazis’?

  1. maceochi says:

    Stan, should that not be peeveology? Isn’t it very AmE to leave out the e?

    • Stan Carey says:

      ‘Should’, no. ‘Could’, sure. In its original form, coined by Jan Freeman in 2007, the word was hyphenated: peeve-ology. As she explained in a subsequent discussion:

      I meant it as a nonce word, not a proposed coinage. I hyphenated because it’s not now a word, and might have been hard to read without the hyphen (“phraseology,” for instance, would be an obvious and incorrect model. But why do we pronounce the e in phraseology, I wonder?).
      I suppose it would be spelled peevology if it entered the lexicon. But really, it was just a twist on “peeveblogging” . . .

      I started to see peevology used by language bloggers and adopted it in that form, which I prefer to peeveology.

      • maceochi says:

        What I meant is according to the conventions of British English (which we use, and I hope you won’t shoot me for using) v. American English, we tend not to leave out the e in such words. Cf. ageism/agism and liveable/livable. There were banner ads floating around a while back for a site called “Givology”, which is the American way to coin such a word. On our side of the Atlantic it would be “Giveology”.

      • John Cowan says:

        We pronounce phraseology with five syllables because the word began life in the 16C as phrasiology. Quoth the OED:

        Originally (as phrasiology) < ancient Greek ϕράσις phrase n. + -logy comb. form, after e.g. physiology (ancient Greek ϕυσιολογία); subsequently after post-classical Latin phraseologia, medieval Greek ϕρασεολογία, irregularly formed by M. Neander […]. Neander’s Latin and Greek forms are perhaps after the Greek genitive singular ϕράσεως; corresponding English forms in phraseo- were perhaps reinforced by association with phrase. […]

      • Stan Carey says:

        maceochi: I’m pretty easygoing about AmE/BrE variation, and my own usage in this regard is not fully consistent. I prefer ageism, for example, and though I usually use -ise forms I sometimes go with -ize.

        John, thank you for the most interesting etymological note. I had no idea about phrasiology.

  2. Stuart Brown says:

    It’s a somewhat ironic term in an unintentional sense, given that the term Nazi originated as a derogatory epithet selected for its overlap with the diminutive of Ignatz: a stereotypically yokellish name in Germany, and thus exactly the kind of non-standard user that grammar Nazis are likely to sneer at.
    And, indeed, that touches on a point that I think is important. This kind of peeving/pedantry is minimally used to try and enhance one’s (apparent) intellectual cachet, but usually goes further and manifests as actively denigratory attitudes towards the “incorrect” language users. As I never tire of pointing out, denigration of language forms is simply a proxy for denigration of the speech community that use them. As such, the “grammar Nazi” practice seems to me to merit an -ism/-ist term parallel to racist, sexist, and so forth. I have proposed previously vernacularism and vernacularist (“You’re just being vernacularist”) which I hope, being an -ist term carries the necessary force of demonstrating prejudice.
    Not everyone I’ve proposed this too agrees with it: some object due to the fact that vernacularism already has semantic content; but then my response to that is: language changes, deal with it. Others take offence at the suggestion that this is a form of prejudice: but they’re exactly my targets: people who oppose overt sexism, racism, classism, and homophobia, yet who continue to criticize language forms associated with exactly those groups which they claim to object to the stigmatization of.*

    * Stranded preposition; but hey, I’m cool with that.

    • Stan Carey says:

      ‘denigration of language forms is simply a proxy for denigration of the speech community that use them’
      Yes, it very often is. Language is essentially used as a scapegoat that allows people to exercise their prejudices in a way that’s still socially acceptable. I like your word vernacularist, though I don’t think it’s transparent or snappy enough to catch on.

  3. Chips says:

    I think grammar addict probably suffices. Or GA for short (and that would also work for the 12 step program to rid the addiction through Grammar Anonymous). It is a pathology, or a deviation from a healthy, normal, or efficient condition, something along the same trajectory of other addictions. It is largely harmless unless it infects school curricula or “language” commentaries in major news outlets. Unfortunately it cannot be taxed (like alcohol or tobacco, and soon marijuana), let alone outlawed. Probably just as well. The last thing we need are grammar martyrs. Let them take the 12 step program or whither on the vine. Or disappear up their own grammatical fundaments.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Hmm, I hadn’t thought about it this way. Addict is usually pejorative, but I could readily describe myself as a grammar addict (or a book addict, etc.) without any real negative implications. I don’t think the peevers are addicted to grammar so much as they are addicted to complaining, petty one-upmanship, hostility, and so on. Grammar is often just a front for them to exercise their assorted frustrations and fixations.

  4. maceochi says:

    The other big problem with term grammar Nazi, apart from the Nazi bit, is the misapplication of “grammar”. Often people who give out about other people’s sloppy usage are smart enough to realise native speakers can’t use “bad” grammar. They can, however, use bad spelling, punctuation and syntax.

  5. Duncan says:

    I was going to suggest grammarati, but I’d say – like grammando – it’s a little too kind. What about gramma(r)gripe? Or gramma(r)grump. Or, if we want to keep a military flavour, grammarsnipe. For a suggestion of “I’m telling the teacher’, you could have grammarsnitch. Can’t help but think there’d be a magnificent German compound noun that would do. Ich weis nicht.

    Then again, why dignify these folk with a name? Why not just call them arses and be done with it?

  6. Vinetta Bell says:

    Good morning/afternoon, Stan!
    Grammar Queen is the term used by many in the USA. However, I admire Queen Elizabeth II, thus would not imply that my acceptance of the term for one who loves and (yes) imposes assumed grammatical correctness in all (or most) contexts negatively denigrates the Queen or her public persona. (a side note: I don’t know how I would view the Queen or the British English language if I were a native of one of the British isles or of one of the former British colonies.) As for grammar Nazi, I am very uncomfortable with appropriating a term with so much historical and political negativism for a situation that is not life-threatening (i.e., being known for knowledge and application of assumed correct use of language versus attempting to annihilate an entire people for whatever reason). Yet, I also acknowledge that language is political as it reflects its origin(s) and the status of those in a position to demand a formal register during code-switching. Thank you for permitting me to contribute my two cents to this discussion. Your discussion and those of your contributors are always interesting, even when I fiercely disagree with the comments or other elements of your posts.

    • John Cowan says:

      So forget Elizabeth and think about the other queens in history, some of whom were bad news indeed.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Good evening, Vinetta. Grammar Queen is one I haven’t encountered much at all, nor any other royal variants. When I see the queen pop up in linguistic contexts it tends to be in the phrase the Queen’s English, though I did cite Queen Elizabeth II in my latest post at Macmillan Dictionary, because she used the phrase due to in a way that sticklers – grammar queens! – would likely dispute. I share your discomfort over the strange appropriation of Nazi, and I appreciate your thoughtful reaction to what I wrote about it.

  7. astraya says:

    grammarstatlers and grammarwaldorfs. Probably won’t catch on.

  8. limlom says:

    I suppose “gram-Aryan” /ɡramˈɛːrɪən/ is not much of an improvement?

  9. Timothy Gwyn says:

    I used the term Grammar Police when I was one. I offer Grammar Zealot as implying more rabid behavior. Language Reactionary might be suitable for those whose objections focus on new usage.

  10. Barrie says:

    I, too, for the reason you give, object to the use of ‘Nazi’ in any context other than its historical one. I can only suppose that those who use it so casually have no knowledge of what happened in Europe in the middle of the last century.

    Steven Pinker calls them ‘mavens’. I sometimes call them ‘harrumphers’.

    • Stan Carey says:

      It’s hard to know what knowledge they have of Nazism, or what their relationship to that knowledge is. It could be a kind of unknown known, where they’re familiar with the basic facts but haven’t really interiorised them.

      William Safire popularised language maven but Pinker shot it down in The Language Instinct: “Maven, shmaven! Kibbitzers and nudniks is more like it.” Harrumphers is a great term, and can incorporate affectionate chastisement.

      • astraya says:

        Maven (‘an expert or connoisseur’) shouldn’t be negative, but has generally become so – but not always. In his quotation on the back of Jan Freeman’s book on Ambrose Bierce, Pinker calls her ‘one of the wisest language mavens of this century’, which I presume he means positively.

        • astraya says:

          After checking BNC and COCA, I withdraw the assertion that ‘maven’ has generally become negative.
          Sort-of related: today, the Sydney Morning Herald website had a headline ‘A linguist explains the 51 most misused words’. With some trepidation, I clicked. It turned out to be a summary of that section of ‘A sense of style’. The headline was later changed to ‘most commonly misused’. I don’t think that Pinker ever claimed that they were either the most misused or the most commonly misused (some of them are quite rare), and I don’t know why this should be a headline ?1 year after the book was released.

          • Stan Carey says:

            I haven’t read Sense of Style yet, but Pinker himself tweeted that list yesterday when it appeared on another news website, so I assume he stands over its presentation. I was actually thinking of blogging about the list, specifically about some of its debatable entries.

            By the way, I changed the comment settings because WordPress seems to have started putting newer replies higher up than later ones, which is just baffling. That still applies, but I bumped up the allowable number of nested/threaded replies from 3 to 5, which should help matters.

      • Stan Carey says:

        (To David’s comment, below.) He must do, and she is. But I wasn’t aware that maven is now generally negative. I’ll have to look into that.

        • astraya says:

          (I don’t know how these comments order themselves.) At least, most times I when I have encountered ‘maven’, it’s been negative, including a whole chapter of one of Pinker’s books. Google Ngrams shows market, language, fashion, computer, media, marketing and culture mavens. Perhaps the people we are talking about can be ‘nevams’ – mavens who’ve got it the wrong way round.

  11. Thank you so much for saying this! You’ve made my day! I find this use of the word Nazi highly objectionable, and it’s really encouraging to hear that it’s not just me! (and that it’s not just my Jewish sensitivities)

    I like your suggested alternatives “nitpickers” or “fusspots”, as I feel they convey the right flavour. Also, I once came across the suggestion that we borrow the Yiddish term “nudnik”, which to my mind would work very well for this – a nudnik is that annoying person who keeps pestering you about stuff. (now, whose blog was it where I came across that suggestion? let’s see if my google-fu is sufficient for digging it up… yes, found it: https://sesquiotic.wordpress.com/2015/03/18/numpty-nudnik)

    • Stan Carey says:

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post, Meirav. It’s definitely not just you. I agree with you that nitpicker and fusspot have the right flavour: they communicate the peevers’ irritability over trivialities without calling them fascists, which in these cases they generally aren’t. Nudnik is a charming word – see my Pinker quote in an earlier reply – but not one that ever came readily to my mind.

      (Thanks for the link to Sesquiotica; I’d forgotten about that post. James and I are partners in profanity.)

  12. acilius says:

    Perhaps “Grammar Strict Police”?

  13. Ben Hemmens says:

    I thought grammar nazi was based on the notorious soup nazi. But in general yes, it’s not nice to call people any kind of nazi. God knows we stil have some real Nazis around. We could save the term for them.

    • Stan Carey says:

      I’ve added a link in the second paragraph to a helpful post on the phrase’s history. Grammar Nazi predates Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi, but the latter probably helped popularise and normalise the X Nazi formula. For what it’s worth, I think it’s fine to use it in outright comedic contexts.

  14. Jeremy Wheeler says:

    I suggested to a defender of the term “grammar nazi” that a suitable alternative might be “grammar Klansman”. He was quite put out.

  15. stuartnz says:

    A great piece, thanks Stan! The Cyanide and Happiness strip nicely sums it up. As for what to call them, I was thinking about petty-minded enforcers of rules which/that are far less than important than they think and the phrase parsing wardens sprang to mind.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Thanks, Stuart. Wardens I like, and it conjures the gates at which ‘defenders’ of language like to imagine themselves standing watch. Maybe word-wardens will find an opportune moment.

  16. Well, defending on your point of view, I suppose you could describe them as “pedants” or… “correct”.

  17. Tom Freeman says:

    Grammar spammers? Because their offerings are annoying, unwanted and often completely bogus…

  18. John Kraft says:

    Having been accused of being a Grammar Nazi a time or twelve I would offer an alternative that one person dropped on me: “Pain in the ass.”

  19. I love Gram-Aryan! But why not be really abusive and just call them Simon Heffer? Have you ever heard gramadáin in Irish? :-)

  20. Chips says:

    How about grammarchist, which is someone who advocates we all live under a grammarchy, or rule by grammar? Works for monarchists etc

    • Stan Carey says:

      Grammarchy and grammarchist are nice blends but to me they strongly suggest ‘anarchy’ and ‘anarchist’ rather than just the neutral suffix -archy and its agentive derivative. They may even appeal to hardline prescriptivists who use the straw-man argument that descriptivists believe everything in language to be correct or permissible.

      • Chips says:

        Which is why the hard line prescriptivists use that tactic, as others in other contexts deride anarchists! I did try “prestricitivarchy” and variants but was too much a mouthful, but it does seem to me that, one way or another, the -archy suffix applies to these buggers because they seek to rule over the rest of us. And of course,while I was aware of the anarchist possibility (though not the trap you suggest) there are plenty of other -archy suffixes beyond that that are used. Plus I like the fact that a Greek suffix can be applied to such a bunch of no hopers.

  21. BobbyShazam says:

    As a confirmed Grammar Nazi I can see why some people may find it annoying (I’m pretty much convinced mine is an OCD, I am trying my best to work on it) however the main motivation behind is not some sort of superiority complex on my part. I am not saying, “I know better than you” or anything similar and am always happy to have my own spelling/grammar corrected where necessary. As a parent it’s hard enough (in an enjoyable way of course) helping to teach my children about grammar, spelling and other such subjects however kids certainly do pick up and emulate what they see and hear online. So when they encounter others with such a ‘laissez fair’ approach to grammar they’re more likely to see it as normal. You even see articles these days in online newspapers with grammatical errors and when you point them out rather than showing some sort of gratitude – which wasn’t the intention anyway but would have been nice – you usually get criticism and/or abuse. Many companies these days have said that when recruiting they’d pass over an otherwise well-qualified candidate if they made glaring grammatical errors in their application. That’s not what I want for my kids.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Bobby, though this isn’t really what my post is about. Like you I value grammatical, error-free prose: it’s my day job, after all. And in professional contexts I think it’s fine to flag errors politely. But ‘grammar Nazism’ is different. It makes no allowances for context and legitimate variation in language use, and it’s often rude and misinformed to boot. I’ve explored this elsewhere, for instance in a post about privilege and the language police. The present post is about the term grammar Nazi itself, and why I think it’s inappropriate.

  22. […] of editing training? Ever been called a Grammar Nazi? Stan Carey ruminates that […]

  23. Erica Scott says:

    I used to prefer “grammar police,” but given the violent connotation of today’s cops, that’s not much better! I find the term Grammar Nazi terribly offensive, both as a copy editor and a Jew.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Grammar police and language police, while not ideal, are far less problematic, I think. It helps that police commonly takes other modifiers, like transport and railway, to form phrases that are connotatively quite neutral.

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