The death of a language can often be traced to its inflexibility- the inability or unwillingness to change with, and thus express, changing times. Scholars conjecture that the world might speak Latin today had not the ancient Romans refused to coin a word meaning "sketchy guy who lingers outside the women's bath."
But no tale better illustrates the perils of prescriptive rigidity than the grim history of a gang of miscreants who, in their attempt to preserve English, nearly wrought its doom: the Grammar Nazi Party, that affiliation of thugs whose goal of "purifying" perceived deficiencies in our language's diverse heritage proved the most egregious grammatical error of all. No group of linguists in modern times was more paranoid, savage or nit-picky.
The roots of Grammar National Socialism lie in the syntactic upheaval of mid-20th Century America. Raging controversies over correct grammar had split society into factions, the flames stoked by the Supreme Court's contentious Farther vs. Further verdict of 1972 and culminating in the nationwide Declension Riots. Into this powder keg strolled Ralph Cheswick of Rutland, Vermont, a calculating if undereducated copy editor who chillingly warned that "our proud West Germanic language is under attack from tainted foreign elements." Foreign loanwords had exacted a terrible strain on our word economy, he insisted; grammatical rules existed but were not properly enforced. By socializing grammar, the state would exclusively control usage, diction and morphology, with solecisms punishable as treason.
As Cheswick's ideas took root, he assembled a cadre of equally depraved language sticklers from throughout the New England area: Connecticut schoolteacher Gavin Connell, fired for horsewhipping a student who'd written the word "courageousness." From Rhode Island came Arnold Schulman, "The Pawtucket Proofreader," once jailed for correcting highway signage with spray paint. And Cape Cod's Bruce Tomlinson, whose bottomless loathing of the serial comma would send countless journalists to their deaths. They and others formed a ruthless cabal who it was said "would make Joyce tremble to start a sentence with a conjunction"- the Grammar Nazi High Command.
Their first attempt to seize power- cutting the phone lines of an elementary school, then firing a pistol into the cafeteria ceiling- gained attention but also a lengthy prison term, during which Cheswick would author his leviathan manifesto and style guide. They achieved greater success by torching the Boston Public Library and framing a local scholar with ties to transformational linguistics, the esoteric discipline which Cheswick excoriated as "heathen voodoo." In time, Grammar Nazism gained power throughout the Northeast, famously securing Boston as host city of the 1974 National Spelling Bee, though the party was humiliated when an Asian immigrant won. By 1975, New England schools led the nation in language scores, and few residents dared write a shopping list without three drafts and a final look-over for safety.
This obsession with detail, and the fear that bred it, was the price of syntactic unity. The Grammar Nazis enforced their rule tyrannically, stopping random pedestrians and forcing them to diagram sentences on the spot. Youths using the word "like" as a grunt were savagely beaten in town squares. Belligerent schoolteachers were sent to the gallows, their corpses displayed publicly under the slogan "Let Men Dangle Before Modifiers." One notorious incident, the "Night of Broken English," saw thousands of Boston-area signs, billboards, menus and standees burned or smashed for such transgressions as an apostrophe after the 's' when not in the possessive case. Thus New England was grammatically purified, but lived in terror. The only question was when the English-speaking world would fight back.
The New Yorker first called attention to the siege in a 1976 article calling Cheswick "a cringing, ellipsis-counting bully who swipes maliciously at every regional locution." Cheswick reacted coolly, dismissing the feature as "prattle from tainted swine drunk on their own extraneous diacritics," but the fight came home when Harvard University Press released a scathing statement against party policy. Worse, they seemed to deliberately bait Cheswick by writing "[his] nauseous despotism will literally strangle the English language." In a rage, Cheswick purged all Harvard alumni from the party, either by gunshot or shipping them to the conjugation camps of rural Maine. Others joined the chorus of disapproval, but it was the support of Toastmasters International that turned the tide. Some historians question the humanitarian interests of Toastmasters, suggesting they simply enjoyed lively games of Scrabble, but their vast arsenal of phonetic plosives and nuclear syllables made them critical allies; Cheswick and his goons were sent into hiding.
Within the subterranean bunker deep below Cheswick's mother's living room, the situation deteriorated further. The party's military forces were hopelessly stalled by debates over the plural of "cannon." Teletyped messages to the front were all caps, thwarting any attempt at nuance. And no one had brought a copy of Follett's to use for reference. In the end, the writing on the wall was the only writing they could not revise. As the resistance marched on Vermont, Cheswick penned a self-aggrandizing last testament, pleading, "They called me a monster, but concise, unambiguous communication was all about which I had been speaking." And with that, he unholstered his pistol and defiantly punctuated himself.
Today, Cheswick's extremism is ridiculed by all but fringe groups like Grammar Neo-nazism and the Strunk & White Power movement, but the scars linger still. When the survivors relate their harrowing tales, you can hear them strain for the appropriate wording as though truncheons hanged over their heads even now- grim reproach to the foreboding blue pencil of fascism.