06337093ad28bc22286a1ffe58d6b7e08df8f63e60c3b2bb9f2345b3b5e32030When I was in college, a group of pledges from one of the socially-elite fraternities on campus painted “NERDS” in large capital letter on the roof of my fraternity’s house. It was a pejorative statement.

Until that act of vandalism, we didn’t know that we were nerds. We dressed nicely. We drank a lot. We were involved in campus activities. We weren’t the glasses-wearing, teetotaling, social pariahs portrayed in movies like Revenge of the Nerds. We were nice people.

But our niceness was precisely what made us nerds. The ever-evolving landscape of social distinctions can be difficult to discern. And, unless you’re one of the social elite, it is difficult to keep up.

Indeed, that act of vandalism roughly coincided with the advent of the internet. In the (many) years since, numerous former nerds have become millionaires and billionaires as they applied their nerdy skills to profitable technical endeavors. The terms “nerd” and “geek” are now faux-pejorative, embraced by “celebrity geek girls” like Mila Kunis, Natalie Portman, and Megan Fox to show that they aren’t empty-headed starlets, just down-to-earth folks like you and me.

But these terms are also embraced by folks like you and me—or, in fact, by you and me. We reveal our obsession with Harry Potter or Battlestar Galactica or Game of Thrones, before pronouncing ourselves to be such nerds.

But nerdiness, like everything else, has a dark side. Eventually, just enjoying The Hobbit will not be enough; instead, true nerd-dom will require an encyclopedic knowledge of the Lord of the Rings trilogy and a working knowledge of Elvish. Lines will be drawn to divide the real nerds from the pretenders.

Last week, Weird Twitter pioneer (Oh, you’ve never heard of Weird Twitter? Figures, nerd.) Michael Hale, who uses a semi-obscene Twitter handle, posted the following (mildly obscene) tweet:


The joke, he thought, was obvious: Neil deGrasse Tyson, who has reached a degree of nerd-celebrity, through his updated Cosmos and many media appearances, is unrecognized and dismissed as a “nerd” by our benighted protagonist. But the joke was not obvious to everyone. Instead, Hale was flooded with a sea of responses, accusing him of being an idiot for not recognizing Tyson. Ironically, Hale had out-nerded the nerds.

But Hale’s plight raises a larger question: Why do people get so angry on the internet? More specifically, why do people get so angry about meaningless things on the internet? It should make no difference, after all, whether some person you don’t know is able to recognize Neil deGrasse Tyson. And yet, when someone says something that we consider stupid, our instinct is not to just ignore that person, it is to correct them, not just to help the ignorant, but to demonstrate our own mastery, to shore up our own sense of identity.

This compulsion is particularly strong where grammar is concerned. Every day, legions of people post their results from the “Are You a Grammar Nerd?” quiz. But even more people loudly and publicly criticize people they don’t know for confusing “your” and “you’re” or failing to deploy an Oxford comma.

For the past two and a half years, a group of researchers based out of Leiden University in the Netherlands have been compiling a database called the Hyper Usage Guide of English (“HUGE”). This database catalogs 75 English usage guides documenting 123 usage problems spanning a period of nearly 250 years. That database allows the researchers to see how a particular usage problem has been addressed over the years and to see which usage problems were of particular concern at a particular period in time. (The linked article discusses the use of “hopefully,” a usage crime that I repeatedly and unrepentantly commit.) But the researchers have also made another finding: That, as the years go by, usage problems are not corrected; instead, they multiply:

One of the general issues that we’ve noticed in creating HUGE is that newer usage guides tend to discuss a greater number of usage problems than older ones do. This suggests that more usage problems are “discovered” than disappear, either by being “forgotten” about or resolved. . . . The number of problems probably increases because writers of usage guides base themselves on existing guides and grammars, and add their pet peeves.

The grammar nerds, it seems, are not immune to the usefulness of rules, which help them to divide the acceptable from the bothersome. Are these grammar rules—like the knowledge of Star Wars “facts”—just a more understandable way to establish a social hierarchy? A more understandable way than, say, how you wear a baseball cap or how you feign disinterest?

We are always tempted to make rules for ourselves, and, when we are the legislators, you can bet that the rules we make will be the rules that we can follow. But the legislation never ends, and tomorrow someone will embrace a new obscurity that divides the true nerds from the poseurs, the grammarians from the slouches. Our own efforts cannot bridge the yawning gap between who we are and who we want to be.

Our only hope is in a place where there is no Jew or Greek, no jock or nerd, and the vandalistic labels on our rooftops are completely washed away.