Even before the Tucson shootings, Jared L. Loughner acted weirdly and darkly in so many ways that singling out any one aspect may defy sense. Nonetheless, for bizarreness, his rants about grammar stand out. As Mr. Loughner has tried to explain it in Web postings, English grammar is not merely usage that enjoys common acceptance.
Rather, it is nothing less than a government conspiracy to control people’s minds. Perhaps more bizarre, even potentially troubling, is that he is not the only one out there clinging to this belief. Some grammarians say they hear it more often than you may think. “It is completely off the wall,” said Patricia T. O’Conner, the author of several books on grammar, including “Woe Is I.”
“But I’m not actually that surprised,” said Ms. O’Conner, who also writes a blog, grammarphobia.com, with her husband, Stewart Kellerman. “I get mail once in a while from people who believe that it’s wrong to try to reinforce good English because it’s some kind of mind-control plot, and English teachers are at the bottom of this. For anyone to say that subject and verb should agree, for example, is an infringement of your freedoms, and you have a God-given right to speak and use whichever words you want, which of course you do.
“But they see it as some sort of plot to standardize people’s minds and make everyone robotically the same.”
One person identified with this notion is a Milwaukee man named David Wynn Miller, who prefers to render his name as :David-Wynn: Miller and who says that people must free themselves of a government he deems tyrannical. But Mr. Miller has distanced himself from Mr. Loughner and rejected suggestions that his own online writings over the years may have inspired the rampage in Tucson.
Of course, idiosyncratic grammar and punctuation, of themselves, are hardly automatic signs of derangement. Nor are they confined to one point or another along the political spectrum.
Rappers have long gone their own way when it comes to spelling names and putting thoughts into words. And the idea that language can be used, and abused, to exert control is familiar. Orwell, anyone? (In fact, on his YouTube page, Mr. Loughner listed Orwell’s “Animal Farm” as one of his favorite books.)
But the Loughners and Millers take many steps closer to the dark side by describing grammatical structure as proof of government wickedness.
Ben Zimmer, the “On Language” columnist for The New York Times Magazine, said he, too, had received letters talking of a “grand conspiracy.” He got them, in particular, when he was editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press.
“When people are confronted with linguistic authority of various kinds, whether it’s dictionaries or grammar books, the more conspiratorially minded may use that as evidence of some grand scheme, or something where people are pulling the strings behind the scenes and using language to do that,” Mr. Zimmer said.
Ms. O’Conner said there is a flip side to the rejection of all grammatical structure. It is slavish adherence to old rules and intolerance for any perceived transgression.
She gets an earful, she said, when she writes that there is nothing horrific about, say, splitting an infinitive or ending a sentence with a preposition. For some people, those are heresies to always object to.
But it’s the more anarchic types whom Ms. O’Conner finds worrisome, those who “think we’re all in cahoots — government, business, education, the church — and it’s all one big conspiracy, and grammar is part of it.” E-mails that she gets boil down to, “You’re part of this elitist attempt to keep the masses down through language.”