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Richard Nordquist

Are You a SNOOT?

By January 9, 2008

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SNOOT (n) (highly colloq) is this reviewer's nuclear family's nickname à clef for a really extreme usage fanatic, the sort of person whose idea of Sunday fun is to hunt for mistakes in the very prose of Safire's column ["On Language," in The New York Times Magazine].

This definition of the family word SNOOT (an acronym for "Sprachgefühl Necessitates Our Ongoing Tendance" or "Syntax Nudniks of Our Time") appears in footnote number five of David Foster Wallace's review article "Authority and American Usage" (Consider the Lobster and Other Essays, Little, Brown and Company, 2005). There, the acclaimed author of Infinite Jest devotes more than 50 smart and entertaining pages to the topic of grammar--in particular, to the dispute between "linguistic conservatives" and "linguistic liberals," otherwise known as the Prescriptivists vs. the Descriptivists.

What especially interests us is whether you, wise reader of the Grammar & Composition Blog, would feel comfortable characterizing yourself as a SNOOT. Before responding, consider Wallace's description of "SNOOTitude":

There are lots of epithets for people like this--Grammar Nazis, Usage Nerds, Syntax Snobs, the Grammar Battalion, the Language Police. The term I was raised with is SNOOT. The word might be slightly self-mocking, but those other terms are outright dysphemisms. A SNOOT can be defined as somebody who knows what dysphemism means and doesn't mind letting you know it.

I submit that we SNOOTs are just about the last remaining kind of truly elitist nerd. There are, granted, plenty of nerd-species in today's America, and some of these are elitist within their own nerdy purview (e.g., the skinny, carbuncular, semi-autistic Computer Nerd moves instantly up on the totem pole of status when your screen freezes and now you need his help, and the bland condescension with which he performs the two occult keystrokes that unfreeze your screen is both elitist and situationally valid). But the SNOOT's purview is interhuman social life itself. You don't, after all (despite withering cultural pressure), have to use a computer, but you can't escape language: Language is everything and everywhere; it's what lets us have anything to do with one another; it's what separates us from the animals; Genesis 11:7-10 and so on. And we SNOOTS know when and how to hyphenate phrasal adjectives and to keep participles from dangling, and we know that we know, and we know how very few other Americans know this stuff or even care, and we judge them accordingly.

In ways that certain of us are uncomfortable about, SNOOTs' attitudes about contemporary usage resemble religious/political conservatives' attitudes about contemporary culture: We combine a missionary zeal and a near-neural faith in our beliefs' importance with a curmudgeonly hell-in-a-handbasket despair at the way English is routinely manhandled and corrupted by supposedly literate adults. Plus a dash of the elitism of, say, Billy Zane in Titanic--a fellow SNOOT I know likes to say that listening to most people's public English feels like watching somebody use a Stradivarius to pound nails. We are the Few, the Proud, the More or Less Constantly Appalled at Everyone Else.

As regular visitors to this site may have noticed, we strive to remain on speaking terms with both sides in the Usage Wars. Looking at how language works (description) happens to interest us more than laying down arbitrary laws on how language should be used (prescription). And yet it's clear that most readers arrive at Grammar & Composition in search of rulings, not linguistic ruminations, and so we do try to be accommodating.

But please, speak for yourselves. How do you define your interest in language? Are you a fan of Lynne Truss's Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation (2004), or do you feel more at home with David Crystal's The Fight for English: How Language Pundits Ate, Shot, and Left (2007)? Are you inclined to fuss at a child who uses "ain't," or are you more interested in finding out that until the 19th century in both England and America "ain't" was an acceptable usage?In short, do you consider yourself a SNOOT?

Please let us know by clicking on the "comments" button below.

More About Grammar and Usage

Image: Consider the Lobster and Other Essays, by David Foster Wallace, Little, Brown and Company, 2005. Wallace's review article "Authority and American Usage" originally appeared in Harper's Magazine, April 2001.

Comments

January 9, 2008 at 6:39 am
(1) Joy says:

I’m no SNOOT!

January 10, 2008 at 10:07 am
(2) Michelle Hamilton says:

I’m a SNOOT, always have been, and, well… I try to be polite. Let’s just say I need SNOOT therapy. My biggest peaves right now are the incorrect use of “myself” instead of the boring “I” and using “I” instead of “me” in combination with another object after a preposition, e.g. “Richard seems like a SNOOT to Kenn and I.” is like nails on a chalkboard. It’s supposed to be “…Kenn and ME!”

My biggest gap is syntax. You fellow SNOOTS probably caught that already. >>

January 10, 2008 at 11:36 am
(3) Tony R says:

Not to be rude, Michelle, but it’s “peeves.” I guess I’m kind of a SNOOT, too.

January 10, 2008 at 3:21 pm
(4) grammar says:

But a refreshingly polite SNOOT. Thank you, Michelle and Tony.

Richard

January 10, 2008 at 6:09 pm
(5) Shelby says:

“Peeves”, indeed! When I read Michelle’s comment, I agreed with the sentiment, however I also wondered whether it was a clever test to see who may have been paying close attention!
I’m a SNOOT who learned German as a child, and who thus has mastered the dative case (e.g. usage of whom). Who among us has ever gone on a “which” hunt? I have, I have, and I thought I was alone in my search for blissful, pure, correct grammatical usage. Hallelujah, I am not alone! There is a name for this affliction – er, um -SNOOTitis?

Dr. Shelby

January 10, 2008 at 7:25 pm
(6) grammar says:

I like “SNOOTitis.” Also, these two from David Wallace: “SNOOTitude” and “SNOOTlets.” He defines SNOOTlets as “the offspring of SNOOTs”–”the sorts of six-to-twelve-year-olds who use ‘whom’ correctly and whose response to striking out in T-ball is to shout ‘How incalculably dreadful!’”

Cheers,
Richard

January 14, 2008 at 12:52 pm
(7) Cici says:

The evolution of language into widespread digital transmission has knocked all of the snoot straight out of me, save the occasional Chinese menu and random site copy masquerading as “articles” (remember what inverted pyramid looked like before infusion of the “I”, complete with sources, let alone source annotation?), and left me first with a gaping mouth that it was happening all around me with no one to police it (Stage 1 of Snoot offense) and finished with where I am now: mostly lazy, forgetting grammar, infusing slang where once was abomination, looking at the dictionary as a set of recommendations over hard-coded rules, and wondering if I still am a marketable writer being as anal-retentive as I am. (Yes, I hyphenated that.)

So, snoot no more. But I’m not sure what I am anymore without all those rules. How will the word go on? What’s to become of us?

(I’m kidding.)

If anything, the fall of the Age of Snootism means that there will be a greater emphasis on message and how it is delivered. Flexibility will make us better communicators. (S)he who masters the language as it evolves are the best writers there are because they are able to max out the parameters of known and acceptable usage into far better forms. Be limber!

January 14, 2008 at 1:05 pm
(8) Billie Mulcahy says:

As a former classics major, it really bothers me when people don’t use a subjunctive when it’s appropriate and I often find grammatical errors grating. But, when I detect a build-up of incipient snootitis*, I remember Winston Churchill’s rejoinder upon being criticized for ending a sentence with a preposition: “This is the type of criticism up with which I shall not put” and take these things in stride. I have learned to do this with the help of my four children, who knew this was a hot button item for me. My daughter, now grown, confesses that when she wanted to annoy me she would misuse the word plethora. I’m beginning to enjoy the creative uses of language, particularly in technological settings; great metaphors, like firewalls and debuggers.

*great word, but shouldn’t it mean an inflamed snoot?

January 14, 2008 at 2:48 pm
(9) Frank Hodges says:

I would like to consider myself a SNOOT, but
I have accomplished an age with the full knowledge that there are gaps in my SNOOTiness
that remain to this day. That is, I still maintain a well-used Funk and Wagnall to cover
myself whenever I doubt my own language ability. Do SNOOTs even believe in Funk and
Wagnall?

January 14, 2008 at 9:49 pm
(10) Cyg-nifyer says:

Perhaps there are sub-groups of SNOOTs, such as pure snoots, political snoots, and contextual snoots? Some usages annoy the daylights out of me — is the concept of “myself” as a reflexive really that difficult? or the use of “were” with hypotheticals? In other cases, my SNOOTiness has gone by the wayside — after years out of the US, I simply can’t get worked up over whether someone uses “in hospital” or “in the hospital” even if I’ll never get the hang of using singular pronouns with group nouns. Some “violations” seem superior, so I’ve made a few compromises. Star Trek forever changed my mind on split infinitives (“to boldly go” is ever so much more satisfactory than “to go boldly”). And, the use of conjunctions to begin sentences seems a natural for expressing complicated links between ideas. At times though, I get a SNOOTful of political indignation and become down-right antagonistic to pure SNOOTiness in the cause of larger political ends. After doing research on psychological perceptions of masculine pronouns, I decided to forever ignore any rules that lead to a generic he or generic man– and I admit to preferring s/he to he/she on groups of visual simplicity and feminist sensibility. In order to underline the concept of world Englishes (and hence to counter the appalling linguistic ethnocentrism of Brits, Yanks, Aussies, etc.), I deliberately use a mix of spelling and idiomatic phrasings, lying in wait for someone to “correct” me so I can enlighten them (and so I have some excuse when I can no longer remember which spelling out of the range of “correct” spellings is the correct one for the country/context in which I find myself). So my SNOOTitude borders on the obsessive….unless I’ve come to a reasoned decision to obsess politically instead.

January 15, 2008 at 4:29 pm
(11) Irene says:

FOBB (Fingernails On BlackBoard) #1 – the “politically correct” but grammatically anathema use of “they” and “their” to refer to singular nouns and pronouns

FOBB #2 – the belief, especially among business executives, news commentators, and politicians that using more words will make you look demonstrably more clever than the average schmuck. Not so! The truly clever person – with a large vocabulary and a habit of thinking before speaking – says precisely what s/he means in as few words as possible.

January 18, 2008 at 6:25 pm
(12) Ann says:

I’m not a snoot and proud of it! :)

January 21, 2008 at 2:46 pm
(13) Jim Carter says:

My pet hate is use of the abbreviation “ID” as a verb, e.g,, “the police i-deed him as the culprit.” Acronyms, in general, have become the bane of communication and suggest a different type of elitism: a society in which only the cognoscenti are able to communicate with one another. The examples are too numerous to mention.

January 27, 2008 at 8:37 pm
(14) Richard van Buren says:

I don’t seen myself as a SNOOT, but I do try to be as precise in my language as a non-native English speaker can be. And that is exactly the reason why I subscribed to the Grammar Newsletter: To improve my English grammar!

What is a killer to me is language like “i look for u l8tr”, which might have been appropriate in morse communication, but IMO isn’t in today’s on-line communication. Also “mixed languages” like the sentence “And that is absolutely verboten” or my name cousin’s first explanation of the SNOOT acronym.

Richard (Grammar), in the newsletter you write: when a friend says that she “could care less”… Well, I have to admit I could be that friend (in male form), but please tell me, what is the correct expression? Like I wrote in the above: I am willing to learn!

Richard
The Netherlands (aka ‘Holland’)

January 27, 2008 at 10:45 pm
(15) grammar says:

Greetings, Richard.

In England and the U.S., the expression “I couldn’t care less” is a conventional (and somewhat sarcastic) way of showing lack of interest in a topic. For example, if a friend begins to relate a bit of gossip about a celebrity, I might try to change the subject by saying “I couldn’t care less.”

In recent years, however, many speakers in the U.S. have chosen to drop the negative, saying “I could care less” when the opposite meaning is intended.

A few years ago, Michael Quinion at World Wide Words ( http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-ico1.htm ) wrote an interesting piece about this curious (and seemingly illogical) loss of the negative in “I couldn’t care less.”

I hope this is helpful.

All the best–

Richard

January 28, 2008 at 9:29 am
(16) Richard van Buren says:

Greetings Richard :-)

Thanks for the explanation and the very interesting link you provided. Grrr… that I missed that negative, but as we say here: “This was my learning moment for the day!” I won’t forget that one that easily!

Thanks again and all the best in return.

Richard.

August 8, 2010 at 3:12 am
(17) Susan says:

I probably have a tinge of ‘snooticism’, but I prefer not to be aggressively so. I make a point of never criticizing or correcting anyone (although I often cringe inwardly). I’ve painfully learned that those earnestly trying to ‘write right’ take offense, or have hurt feelings, and I don’t intend either. I’m delighted, however, when anyone asks for help.
I have no patience with those who don’t care, abuse the language, or handle it with sloppy indifference, or are just plain lazy. It usually is unproductive to announce aloud such shortcomings, and so I suffer in silence.
I have less difficulty in using “snoot” and its many variations than I do using “elite”. Can we just do this without envisioning ourselves up on some tall ivory pedestal? At least “snoot” has some redeeming quality in being somewhat self-deprecating, as you mention.

While great minds are gathered here, can anyone explain when and why it is correct to use “historic” or “historical”? I see the latter form often used, when it seems the former would be sufficient. Please advise. Thanks.

August 8, 2010 at 4:19 pm
(18) Richard says:

Hello Susan. You’ll find an article on “historic/historical” at
http://grammar.about.com/od/alightersideofwriting/a/historicgloss.htm.

All the best–
Richard

August 9, 2010 at 2:43 pm
(19) Susan says:

Richard, Thank you for the link! That question has been on my laundry list for some time and I’m so glad to cross it off. I always try to use the language respectfully and correctly, but there are a few annoying trouble spots. If I cannot resolve them satisfactorily, I may be back. I’m looking forward to the newsletter. Thanks again!

July 6, 2012 at 8:24 pm
(20) Pat Barrett says:

Wallace’s article was the first thing written by a snoot that made sense. Most snoots aka prescriptivists simply are ignorant of the language, of grammar, and of the history of our language. However, once in a while, I am forced to question my anti-snootiness, as when I hear the much admired Karen Armstrong use “inchoate” in the sense of “whirling confusion”, even though the trajectory of meaning change is so clear. I don’t mind words changing meaning; I just want to be able to continue to use “inchoate” in the sense of inchoative verbs and for people to know what I mean.

Has anyone here read Roger Lass’ The Shape of English?

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