What Is a SNOOT?

gaunt gentleman in suit
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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 [William] Safire's column [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" (in Consider the Lobster and Other Essays, 2005). There, the late 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.

Before deciding whether you would feel comfortable characterizing yourself as a SNOOT, 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.
(David Foster Wallace, Consider the Lobster and Other Essays. Little, Brown and Company, 2005)

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 About.com Grammar & Composition in search of rulings, not linguistic ruminations, and so we do try to be accommodating.

But 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?