Grammar Nazis: The new Godwin’s Law

Godwin’s Law is a fallacy (actually it’s a pseudofallacy, which I discussed in my article on why appealing to fallacies makes us lazy philosophers) where someone makes a claim that someone’s character or behaviour is analogous to Hitler or the Nazis. Godwin’s law says that in an argument where someone makes a Hitler/Nazi analogy, the argument is over and the one who made the analogy has lost. Godwin created the law due to witnessing far too many political debates involving Nazi analogies as a hyperbole.

Many arguments occur online through social media. Unfortunately, this environment is typically seen as where arguments are at their worst. There is trolling, harassment, name calling, and so on. At the same time, this is where much debate occurs among the general public. The topics will much of the time include politics and philosophy. Hence, analysing how arguments are conducted in this environment is worth doing.

What I have begun to see at an increasing rate are people responding to an argument by pointing out a grammatical error. For example, a person on social media may post “their is no evidence for global warming” and someone will respond with “*there”. These people have been given the title of Grammar Nazis, because of the annoyance people will experience by having someone point out all of their grammatical errors instead of addressing their argument.

There are times when pointing out someone’s grammatical errors is useful and should be welcomed. It is something I always welcome. I am far from a perfect writer and am susceptible to typos and grammatical mistakes as much as anyone else. If something is pointed out, I will thank them (if the correction was made with at least some degree of tact) and make the required correction. However, many will point grammatical errors out as a ‘got ya’ against an argument or claim they were making. Consider the claim earlier that there is no evidence for global warming. Which is the more serious problem with this claim: The person’s misuse of the word their? Or that they are saying that there is no evidence for global warming? If we are assuming this person is legitimately just ignorant about the evidence for global warming, the better response would be to offer evidence for global warming, such as data from the IPCC.

This approach follows two principles advocated in philosophy: the principle of charity and the cooperative principle. The principle of charity is (which I discuss in my tutorial on the strawman fallacy) the attempt to make an argument that is currently unsound sound. This is done by either adding assumed premises and/or removing false premises to attempt to create a sound argument. The cooperative principle is interpreting what someone is saying based on reasonable assumptions. For instance, if we are planning to go for a picnic and I say “oh, its raining outside” an application of the cooperative principle would not interpret me making just an arbitrary statement about the weather, they would assume that I am inferring that we cannot go for a picnic today.

When someone responds to a claim or an argument by just pointing out a grammatical error, they are neither honouring the principle of charity or the cooperative principle. Regarding the principle of charity, this is because there has been no attempt to see if they can make the argument sound. Regarding the cooperative principle, the reader’s ability to identify the grammatical error means the reader knew what the writer actually meant. If I can correct the use of ‘their, there, and they’re’, then I have already understood what the writer was trying to say. If I legitimately could not make sense out of what they are saying, then I would not be able to make the correction. This would be similar to your word document at times able to advise the correct grammar option, but at other times will just underline your sentence with the advice: consider revising.

This does not mean that those who commit grammatical errors are off the hook. When writing an argument, we need to try to make the argument as clear as possible and minimise distractions. This too is a part of the cooperative principle. But this is a responsibility to those giving the argument, not the readers analysing it. As readers analysing the argument, the quality of the grammar is irrelevant to whether the argument is strong or sound. And this is what we, at least should, be trying to establish. 

Thus, I propose a new Godwin’s law: If someone appeals to grammatical errors as a response to an argument, the the argument is over and they have lost. Of course, just like the original Godwin’s Law, this is not to be taken literally. However, it would a good principle to adhere to if we want to argue better on social media.

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Andrew Tulloch

I have a Bachelor of Arts majoring in Philosophy and Sociology, with a Political Science minor. I also have an honours degree in Philosophy. I am currently studying for my PhD in Philosophy.

6 thoughts on “Grammar Nazis: The new Godwin’s Law”

  1. It is my resolve to remain familiar with your posts, mainly because of the advantages of becoming a better thinker, and not to fall too far away from the vernacular of modern academic philosophers, not to mention that we have a mutual interest in critical thinking concepts. Now in the event that the argument is actually over – not due to your interlocutor’s fixation on grammar – but because it would be unconstructive to proceed with it, what might be a couple of ways to gracefully bow out of such a dialogue without offending the other?

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    1. Thank you Jason for the kind words. I too enjoy and follow your blog for similar reasons. I find your writing to be a great way to demonstrate the value of philosophy, since you write with a kind of passion that makes it pleasurable to read (I tend to be a dry operator in my writing, so it’s great to see your approach).

      Regarding your question, this is really hard and I have no confident answer. However, I will give my general approach when these things come up, which they do.

      First, I will let them have the last word. I will not have my last response involve another argument or claim, because this will encourage them to leave another response and risk annoyance from them if you don’t answer to this response.

      Second, this sounds a little dishonest (which sometimes it is, but sometimes it really is sincere), but you can thank them for the discussion and state that you will end it there due to time constraints. For instance, I work full time, studying part time and am the father of a 7 year old. I get busy. So I will explain that there is a limited amount of time to dedicate to each conversation and say that to dig any deeper will take too much time.

      Third, if I have made it clear that it is my last response and have thanked them for conversation, I will ignore any further comments. Say they respond with something like ‘oh running scared’ or ‘you’re losing the argument’. I won’t take the bait, because it will just continue on and in my experience if this is their attitude they will not allow you to ever end the conversation without their ‘ha ha got ya!’ So I’ll just let them have it.

      This is by no means a correct way of doing it, but an approach I typically take.



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      1. Your compliment warmed my ageing bones. Passion is often a good indicator that one cares about their discipline, but that is not to say dry doesn’t play an effective role. Your work is by far more likely to be peer reviewed though academic institutes, whereas my prose will most likely be thrown to the four winds and forgotten like yesterday’s news.

        As for your first approach to exiting unproductive arguments, I believe it’s genius. Your second way of dealing with such matters seems fair enough. No Magistrate in their right mind would accuse you of being false. In regards of the third one, surely there is nothing wrong with silence. In fact it can speak much louder than words. Learning to let go or let things be as they are can sometimes be the most natural or appropriate thing to do by far.

        So you are a proud father of a 7 year old!? Hopefully this young soul is a great teacher and reminder of what is good and just. Do you agree with the traditional idea that most children know right from wrong by the age of 7? You might say that depends on what is meant by right and wrong, and encourage me to rephrase myself like this: Do you mean that a child can grasp the fundamental principles of social contracts; i.e. what is required to get along with others? And to that I would yes, could you describe in part how your offspring demonstrates an understanding and appreciation for the moral or behavioural principles that allow him or her to participate in group activity?

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      2. Thanks Jason,

        I did forget to mention there is a philosopher who did attempt to come up with a list on how to engage arguments (although he was more concerned with how to start them rather than how to end them), which is Daniel Dennett’s ‘Rapoport’s rules’.

        Yes your last question is an interesting one. And the simple answer would be yes, he has displayed intuitive reactions to how to behave with others. We could go down the rabbit hole of the nature/nurture debate on what brings that about (Noam Chomsky has interesting ideas on a purely nature acquisition on morality and culture, however I am an interactionists [believes intuitions come about from a mixture of nature/nurture).

        I have the pleasure of teaching primary school ethics, which my son is a student, so I get to see this directly. Him and other students will be able to understand that breaking a promise to a friend without a good reason is wrong, although many will struggle to come up with a reason to why it is wrong. Many will just restate the answer in a different way, or just say ‘I don’t know.., it just is’. In the class we try to encourage justifying claims with reasons, but it is interesting how they can, and do, latch on to moral rules without knowing the explicit reason for why they should follow them.

        And yes my relationship with my son is a great reminder of many morally relevant ideas. I regularly reflect on my relationship with him when considering the idea of special relationships with others, our duties, our preferences, and so on.



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      3. This is all so interesting Andrew! However, I won’t inquire or comment here, but I’d definitely like to read posts about your teaching experiences down the road. If you could somehow link it in with the notion of what it means to have a conscience, then that would probably be all the more delightful.

        Really like this quote: “let your aim be to come at truth, not to conquer your opponent. So you never shall be at a loss in losing the argument, and gaining a new discovery.”

        Thank you for conscientiousness and kindness.

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      4. Thanks again Jason,

        Yes absolutely, I will enjoy thinking over and writing such a piece. And yes I agree, I try my best to adhere to that standard (although sometimes fail, we are all human after all).



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