Writers Talk About Writing
Corrections with a Smile
Lisa McLendon is Deputy Copy Desk Chief at the Wichita Eagle, writes: I ran across an interesting post over the weekend that asks: "Why do people hate on those of us who know grammar? Why is it insulting to have your language skills corrected?"
The author, Claiborne L., a professional writer and editor, makes some excellent points in the post, and also links to a howlingly funny collection of obnoxious responses to language mistakes on Facebook. But she sums it up by saying that people knowledgeable about language should approach corrections as advice from a peer, not as diktats from on high. "Check the attitude," she says, "and offer only the instruction."
As an editor, I realize that I fall closer to "fussbudget" than "freewheeler." That's the job of an editor: to clarify, streamline — and correct.
But her post made me think, why do people hate having their language corrected, and hate the people who do it? Aside from the fact that most people dislike being told they're wrong about anything, there are a few other reasons that seem specific to corrections of grammar.
1. "It's not rocket science." Language is naturally picked up by little children with no formal instruction, unlike math, golf or other skills. Everyone uses language; not everyone uses calculus. So why is your grammar any better than mine?
2. "You know what I meant." This one is probably the trickiest, because even with mistakes, most times the message is communicated. But in some contexts, merely being understood despite mistakes isn't good enough. See #3.
3. Context. Errors of language in professional work, resumes, letters, homework, etc., make a big difference. In casual communication — text messages, status updates and other bits of dashed-off verbiage — they don't, much as they may pain the eyes. Sweat the important stuff.
4. Missing the point. Sometimes people get so focused on "there needs to be a comma there" and "you mean 'were,' not 'was,' " that they lose sight of the point the other person is trying to make. This is a pretty strong argument for using clear, correct language — so as not to distract a reader/listener. Regardless, if people think you're not paying attention to what they're saying, only to how they're saying it, they tend to get a bit testy.
5. Pedants have NO sense of humor.
6. Not an error. Many "grammar cops" insist on correcting "mistakes" that aren't mistakes. They'll harp on split infinitives, sentence-ending prepositions and a bunch of other "rules" that have no basis in English grammar. Not that language doesn't have rules — it does — but some of the "rules" are really guidelines, suggestions or merely shibboleths, "secret handshakes" used to identify those who know the "rules."
7. The attitude. Smug and superior is an immediate turn-off for most people no matter the subject. Add to it the huffy, or worse, gleeful, pointing out of an error with an "everybody-knows-THAT" tone of voice, and offense is guaranteed.
As we've discussed before in this blog, clear and accurate use of language is a goal worth striving for. Grammar is what makes sentences work, and when it's lacking, meaning suffers. Using language well, particularly written language, enables communication for all parties involved. So making language clear and smooth is a good thing. It's not unlike helping your grandma do her taxes or coaching a friend on how to sink a 12-foot putt.
So, if you feel the need to share your language aptitude, how should you correct?
1. Make sure you're really right. I look stuff up all the time while editing, even things I'm sure I know. I want to make certain I have a good reason behind a change.
2. Make sure it matters. As funny as the snarky Facebook responses are, is a correction really worth alienating a friend over? But if it's an error on something important, fix away.
3. Be polite. Don't be a know-it-all (even if you know it all). Ask if advice is welcome. Offer it with a smile, and maybe a little joke. You can start off gently, assuming that of course the person already knows the correct way but must have overlooked it in haste, as we all do from time to time. Or you can start off admitting a mistake of your own: "I must have looked up 'lie' and 'lay' a thousand times before I finally remembered it."
4. Get feedback. Ask the person's opinion of your fix: "Please tell me if you don't see it this way, and why." You can learn a lot about that person, and yourself, as a result.
The exception: If someone in an online forum is criticizing a previous poster's grammar or spelling, feel free to point out — gleefully, if you wish — that person's own misspellings (particularly "grammer"), punctuation mistakes and incorrect word choices.
And, above all, beware of Muphry's Law — it sneaks up on the best of us.
Lisa McLendon is Deputy Copy Desk Chief at the Wichita Eagle, where she also writes book reviews and coordinates the Grammar Monkeys blog and Twitter feed. She is the vice president for conferences of the American Copy Editors Society. She began her journalism career at the Denton Record-Chronicle in Texas after earning a doctorate in Slavic Linguistics from the University of Texas.