Tag Archives: grammar Nazi


A person who is severely prescriptive in matters of English usage is often called a “grammar Nazi.” I must say I dislike this term. Real-life fascists and racists do not amuse me, and I am resistant to trivializing them. We wouldn’t think it reasonable to call a person a “grammar rapist,” after all, would we?

Various replacements have been suggested, among which I like “grammar numpty” – a numpty being a stupid person (it’s a Britishism). But that’s not quite optimal either; ‘stupid’ is arguably different from ‘obnoxiously purblind’. I find myself more partial to “grammar Nazgûl” (you can leave off the circumflex on the u if you want).

If you’re a Tolkien (Lord of the Rings) fan, I don’t need to tell you what a Nazgûl is, so off you go. You can spend the next few minutes writing a piece explaining something like how Gollum would not fall into lava with the ring; lava, being molten rock, is still so dense that a person falling on it would fall onto it, not into it, and would immediately combust on the surface (and the ring would of course melt). Facts, after all.

For the rest of you: ring? Yes, ring. Sauron, the great sorceror, forged rings of power, which gave their wearers great powers but gave him greater powers over them, for he had the one ring that had power over all of them, a ring that bore this inscription:

Ash nazg durbatulûk, ash nazg gimbatul,
Ash nazg thrakatulûk agh burzum-ishi krimpatul.

Which means

One ring to rule them all, one ring to find them,
One ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.

It’s a tidy little exercise in morphology – frankly, I’m surprised it’s not more often used in introductory linguistics classes. You can see readily enough that ash nazg must mean ‘one ring’, that a verb root plus –atul means the verb is done to ‘them’ and a verb root plus –atulûk means it is done to ‘them all’ (meaning –ûk must mean ‘all’, more or less). Other details that are known, though not inevitable from the text, are that burzum means ‘darkness’ and ishi is a postposition, and agh means ‘and’, and in –atul the –at is a verbal ending (meaning something like ‘to’) and –ul means ‘them’. Also, ash means ‘one’ and nazg means ‘ring’, not vice-versa (nothing in the sample itself makes that necessarily so).

So is nazgûl ‘ring them’? No, because of the difference between ul and ûl – the circumflex means it’s a long vowel (literally: hold it longer, just like you hold the /k/ in bookkeeper longer than the one in bookie). That makes it a different sound. Also, nazg isn’t a verb. Nazgûl is from nazg plus gûl, which means ‘wraith’. What’s a wraith? Kind of like a ghoul. Hmm.

Well, it is a constructed language. ‘Bind’ uses the root krimp, like English crimp, for instance. Whether Nazi influenced Tolkien’s invention of nazg here I don’t know (the Nazis did like Wagner’s Ring Cycle), but he was writing this in the 1940s.

What is a Nazgûl, then? A ring-wraith, yes, but what are those? Men who took up rings of power forged by Sauron, came under Sauron’s control, and, after Sauron lost the One Ring, were tasked with seeking it out mercilessly. If anyone was carrying it, and especially if anyone was wearing it, they could sense it, and they would swoop down with the aim of destroying the wearer and restoring the ring to its rightful condition. They descended as if from nowhere, uttering unbearable sounds.

I’m not saying that the parallel is exact. But consider: A person learns a set of tidy rules about English that give a sense of knowledge and control. They believe that in enforcing them they are serving the betterment of English and their own expression, but the rules become ends in themselves, and their enforcement an exercise in condemnation and destruction. They dedicate themselves to seeking out transgressions. A hapless person uses a bit of grammar that falls within their set of magical rules – or, rather, strays against it – and they swoop in as if from nowhere, making sounds terrible to the hearer.

Does that seem a bit of an extreme caricature? Not all that extreme. Look, I was one in my younger days, so I have some idea.

That does mean that, unlike a Nazgûl, one may always stop being one. Nonetheless grammar Nazgûl is at least as viable as any other similar term. And it has a good ring to it.

numpty, nudnik

For once and for all, let’s stop using the term grammar Nazi.

The Nazis were not just people who got all up in your face about small things. Do I even need to tell you about them? Are you really OK with using Nazi as a synonym for meanie or taskmaster or martinet or pedant?

Sure, we need a term for people who can’t seem to resist being dicks about other people’s grammar. But I don’t think we need to call them grammar genocidal megalomaniacs. There’s a better term, much better, that was drawn to my attention by one of the language gang on Twitter, @mededitor, who tweeted a flow chart made by David Bradley: “A simple flowchart to avoid becoming a grammar numpty.”

Ah, yes, grammar numpty. As @mededitor explained, “‘Numpty’ is a UK pejorative, meaning chowderhead.” It’s actually a fairly new word; it seems to have started showing up in the last 30 years. It’s likely derived from numps, a much older word (around since the time of Shakespeare) also referring to a stupid, silly, foolish, or ineffectual person, and possibly formed from the name Humphrey; numpty is quite possibly modelled on Humpty-Dumpty (which may also come from Humphrey – way to Bogart that name), gaining effect from echoes of numbskull and dumb and the effect of the dull “uh” vowel and the soft nasal consonant. And, for the grammar pickers, an echo of “harrumph.” It can be a noun or an adjective.

I should say that David Bradley (who, by the way, is British) is not the first person to use grammar numpty. I found a tweet from last November, for instance, directed at the Twitter account of a company that sells grammar-checking software (a company that also published an appallingly stupid article supposedly “correcting” “mistakes” in a popular novel series – mainly presenting style choices as rules, and making some truly cack-handed recommendations – so I won’t be naming them); they picked on a headline with what was probably an intentional error for the sake of humour, and @onekind (who is Australian) tweeted at them, “IT’S A JOKE YOU GRAMMAR NUMPTIES”.

Now, admittedly, people who I may want to call grammar numpties (because they’re needlessly prickish about other people’s usage) might well feel inclined to call their targets grammar numpties, because it is somewhat subjective just who is a numpty. Therefore, I do have an alternate available for those who would like one: grammar nudnik.

I like the word nudnik because it’s more specific. It’s not like numpty, which just means that you think the person is obtuse. Nudnik refers to a pest. A person who is boring, a person who buttonholes you and tells you inane details at length, a person who picks at you incessantly. A person who is like slimy celery leaves clinging to your finger. It’s less goofy-sounding than numpty; it has that sharp prick of ik at the end, suitable for dickish behaviour. The u is as in noodle, not as in dump, so it’s more focused and tense (like a lurking version of needy), but at the same time it has the lowest resonances of any vowel (if you want to know more about those resonances, read “The world speaks in harmony”).

Where does nudnik come from? Yiddish. (And I do think I’d rather have a word from Yiddish than one – Nazi – naming the people who murdered millions of Yiddish speakers.) It comes from the verb nudyen ‘bore’ and traces ultimately to Proto-Slavic. Although it has (for us) an echo of rude, it doesn’t automatically connote rudeness, though it allows it. Mainly it just means the sort of person who soon has you thinking, “Will. You. Shut. Up.”

So you have a choice of two. When some twit starts picking at others on small points of grammar that he or she may or may not even be right about, you can call the twit a grammar numpty or a grammar nudnik. And you don’t need to use that other word at all.