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Being the Grammar Police

For nearly two years, I’ve written posts about grammar and usage, so clearly it’s a topic that I think is…

For nearly two years, I’ve written posts about grammar and usage, so clearly it’s a topic that I think is important. Equally important, I think, is knowing when it’s appropriate to insist on proper grammar and how to go about it.

You hear of cases now and then in which people go into public and make a big show of correcting grammatical problems on signage. Take for example this instance that resulted in probation for two men who fixed the grammar on a sign at Grand Canyon National Park. The men in fact went on a nationwide crusade to fix public typos, as documented in an NPR story and a book.

If you search the web for “Facebook grammar,” you’ll find a number of lists of posts in which people have used the language incorrectly and been corrected in the comments. The corrections are often delivered with a distinct air of superiority to or disdain for the author of the incorrect post, and the sites listing them tend to do so for the sake of humor.

I don’t think either of these types of corrections turn out to be very useful. Or, while they may result in the correction of grammar, they also tend to be self-serving. They call attention to the people making the corrections rather than to the reasons it might be beneficial to use the language more carefully, and I think they’re usually petty and toxic rather than relevant and helpful. There is almost always a subtext of “I am smarter than whoever made this mistake” — a subtext that is essentially trollish.

This is not to say that raising awareness about using the language carefully isn’t valuable. I do think that putting care into how we write and speak helps us to formulate our thoughts more clearly and shows respect for our readers and our subject matter. I think that if more people used such care, the world would be in some ways a better place. And I think that helping those who’re interested in understanding the rules of grammar and the finer points of usage is a good thing to do. But I also think that trolling people by pointing out mistakes that were clearly only typos or mistakes that, in their context, are minor or forgivable (a quick Facebook status requires less rigor than a persuasive letter) doesn’t help a thing and in fact may do more harm than good.


After a year of writing a post a week about grammar and usage, I tapered off to a post a month both because I was running out of ideas and because we added a bunch of new regular features to The Daily Post. Although grammar’s never far from my mind, I’m retiring the column — internally they’re calling me the grammarian emeritus, and I eagerly await my mortarboard and robes — and will be writing for a while instead about writing I like (and why).

91 Comments

  1. I agree!
    If I see a post which contains an error, I Tweet or email the writer so they can fix it. I find that pointing out grammatical errors in a comment draws attention away from the author and it really effects the comment flow. I have found that they really appreciate the private “heads up.”

      1. I would reply ” Go forth and multiply” Are some people so anal about grammar that they spend their time correcting the authors mistakes rather than enjoying the work. But you are so perfect you have never commited an error? What is it they say ‘Those without a grammatical error cast the first vowel’ So leave people alone to write how they wish.

  2. Well said! I’ve enjoyed your grammar blogs. This is a really good thing to remember. I’ve seen things on other blogs and once sent a correction in comment form, which I felt guilty about after sending it. It’s not like I haven’t gone back to my own posts, once published, and found corrections to make. I think being kind is so much more important than being right.

    I’ve reblogged this at runningintolife.wordpress.com

  3. I agree, no point in humiliating someone, I email errors all the time. As a writer, it amazes me what still is found after 3 or 4 rounds of editing! It’s why we do so many edits. IM and Tweets are like conversations, which are not final drafts! I am convinced that my fingers are dyslexic and work only after serious workouts with my coffee mug!

    I write at home and with 4 Siberian huskies, my windows are often open and heat off –even in the winter. I type with fingerless gloves, so my tweets are often far from perfect. Try typing with blue fingers! Blue dyslexic fingers!

    I remember a boss asked to see my rough notes from a meeting, it was my job to write up the minutes. He then proceeded to circle errors with a red marker! It was a the rough draft!

    1. I agree it is difficult to type in the cold but I it also takes me a while to warm up to typing.

  4. I totally agree- I find it inelegant and smarmy to comment just to point out someone’s errors. It implies that the content of a post is less important than its grammatical correctness, and it is definitely self-serving. Having said that, I do find it sad when people don’t reread before posting and leave glaringly obvious mistakes that taint an otherwise excellent piece.

  5. I am sure if someone do want to find fault with grammar and usage, they will and I am also sure they will find a lot of grammar mistakes on my posts. I would however appreciate any constructive criticism as English is my second language and with my poor concentration it is sometimes difficult to convert my Afrikaans thoughts into English and that is mainly the reason why I do not like to write a lot but instead try and convey my thoughts or stories through my photographs. Lovely post and thanks for sharing. :)

    1. Commenting only because you asked for corrections – First of all, I wish I could write as well as you do in a second language! But I did notice just one grammar mistake – it should be “if someone does want to find fault”, not “if someone do”.

      English only makes one change in present tense verbs – third person singular (he, she, it, one) adds an “s” to the end of the verb (and sometimes, just because English spelling is weird, an “es” as with do – does or go – goes).* On the other hand, any native speaker reading what you wrote will completely understand what you meant, and that’s the important thing ;)

      1. Well, thank you very much for the compliment and as well for the help with the grammar mistake. I’ve always been very bad with my tenses…in school and in college and it doesn’t matter what I do I just can’t remember them. LOL! Must be the “blonde” in me..hahahah. You lost me at “present tense verbs”. I grew up in a home where both languages (Afrikaans and English) were spoken and I guess that is why I am so confused and “blonde”. Sometimes we even mixed both languages and still do, which is very bad. The only time I do not have a problem is when I have to translate Dutch Paint Shop Pro tutorials to English. :) Thanks for the last line of comfort though. You are too kind. :)

  6. I am an aging dysgraphic. For those not in the know, my brain spells and punctuates using a unique system all its own. The problems is found sprouting in the earliest ancestral genetic tree. Aging means the problems increase. I have also published 21 books, thanks to word processing, spell check, and editors from heaven. Needless to say I loved this post. Think it is also important to recognize that grammatical errors bother editors and editor-like people more than the rest of us. So I forgive even the power hungry tyrants who spend more time pointing out errors than searching for nuggets of wisdom. Stay strong all and thank you for this post. Wish it had an image so I could pin it.

  7. This is funny, I had this happen last week in Friday Fictioneers. I posted my 100 word story, necessarily economical with words, and received a comment about the grammar in the opening dialogue. I thanked the commenter for her input and explained why I had decided not to change it. We then had a short exchange which I left in the post because I thought her comments said more about her than they did about the story.

    I love to have feedback and in our group people are almost always very kind and courteous about the way they point out errors. I want to learn and grow as a writer but sometimes you can see that a commenter has an agenda which isn’t necessarily just to be helpful. I am sorry you are stopping the grammar posts, I always find them very useful and informative. Best of luck for the future.

    1. I think correction depends on the mistake and the forum. In Friday Fictioneers, I’ll sometimes mention a mistake, taking great care to say it nicely so that the person can then fix it if he/she likes. In stories where there might be lots of mistakes, I rarely comment since I don’t want to be a pain. There are certain people, especially who write English as their second language, who I know appreciate the help. People in this group often ask for criticism and help, so I try to help if I think it will be appreciated.

      janet

      1. Janet you are always so helpful in the way you comment, I am always grateful for your valuable input and look forward to your helpful comments. It would be a loss to me if you stopped. :)

    2. There’s definitely a distinction to be made between general public writing and writing that’s put out there explicitly for critique. When somebody asks me for a critique, I spare no red ink. The uninvited critiques are the ones that I think can often be unconstructive.

  8. I agree with you,sometimes the mistakes are made because it is not checked before posting it,or the person was tired and did not care.I am not defending anyone,I am saying it happens.
    Ranu

  9. Finally, a voice of reason! Grammar and good spelling are paramount to me, so I generally fix grammar / spelling mistakes in my head. While I would never comment to correct an error, I’d never thought to actually contact the author privately. Perhaps I start today.

    When I know that the author is not a native English speaker I think I’m more forgiving of the errors. I know how my journey with a second language has progressed :)

    Enjoy your “retirement” , hope to read more of your posts in the future!

    1. I think that you hit the nail right on its head. Do unto others as they would do unto you,? What goes around comes around? Pay it forward? Tell me when to stop.

  10. “So carefully she doth pick at the bones, she knows not whether tis beast or fowl she eats…”

    A smart-ass response I wrote, that did not go over so well with the grammar nitpicker.

  11. I make plenty of silly mistakes due to poor eyesight… Most times, I catch it, but other times, I’m so excited by what I wrote that I tend to see what i’m thinking rather than what I’m writing… I’ll keep this in mind for my next posts… Thanks for the information…

  12. It’s hard not to have typos in this day and age. If you’re rushing to get something down and you can’t type on a smart phone keyboard fast enough because your thoughts are faster than your hands certainly there will be typos. As well, it’s the age of spelling things differently – to stand out. Language is organic to a certain extent. We know that our language (english) has evolved over centuries. Yes, because of different cultural influences, preference and simple mistakes that become part of the lexicon. I think we can overlook the historical aberrations, but I think if we slow down and reread while thinking and texting, we can avoid some obvious errors and say what we really mean. *George Bernard Shaw hated punctuation. I wonder if those two guys have put a sharpie to all of his masterpieces! :)

  13. Our local newspaper is a disaster of typos and poor grammar. While I do not approach the writer to make suggestions, I am smilingly recalling a former employer who actually went to the trouble of having postcards printed up which he mailed each time he found an error in the paper. As a former proofreader I can’t help but notice errors but I also know that in the printing industry one never relies on oneself for proofing and it is wiser to have two or more proof readers. As for feeling superior because of my own expertise, I’m continually knocked on my butt by making mistakes of my own.

  14. I’ve been known to offer a correction or two, but it’s usually when it’s something that affects how (or whether) the message would be understood correctly. Like you said, if it’s obviously just a typo then there’s really no point.

    I had actually considered starting a blog similar to this, but I figured there were already enough. Now might be just the time to start it, huh? :D

    I’ll miss your grammar posts though…

  15. I think my grammar and my punctuation is bad, If I made a post where the context of the sentence was dramatically changed by the error I would appreciate the heads up, if it still read as it should but there was a typo or some such other minor “offence” I would not really appreciate the visit from the grammar Nazi police.

    1. the grammar police are very important, much more important than you could possibly imagine, i am slightly dyslexic and so i am definitely not a bigit, when it comes to written english.
      as long as the correct meaning is communicated across, a few spelling mistakes can be overlooked, i think.
      grammar is most important, grammar can actually change the whole meaning of a sentence,
      for example, when we make a report to the police, it is logged on the computer yeah,
      we might report:
      altercation between mother and stepfather male, approached victim male child and pushed.
      or we might report:
      altercation between mother and stepfather: male approached victim male child and pushed.

      as you can see, that coma, makes a hell of a lot of difference.

  16. coodn’t agree more! ;o) I call these people Granny Grammarians. I have a BA in English and my favorites are “and you have a degree in that, don’t you?” I figure it says more about them than me.

  17. Daryl – sorry to hear you are moving on to other topics, I have enjoyed the grammar posts.

    For the Grammar (and Punctuation) Cop in all of us, I recommend Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss

  18. As much as I appreciate your blog, I do not like to be corrected in public. Social media are a platform open to a global audience, and to me, who do not have english as my native language I feel as if I should stop writing at all if people are more concerned about my grammar than my message. One of the beauties of the human mind and, of all our languages, is the enormous amount of redundancy we are able to handle, as opposed to machines, and still understand each other. If we only bring our heart and soul into the conversation and not only our mind and the red marker.

  19. Posts like this also angers me, I don’t need some jumped up know it all to correct me on the way I write, talk and express myself. Language is a living and evolving entity, English is my language, it is not as the American software companies would have it ‘English American’ it is English UK, it have been made up of thousands of years of changing conquests from Romans to Vikings, Normans to Germanic, through the change from regional accents coming together in the northen towns of the industrial revolution, the Welsh coalminers digging in the Yorkshire mines, the Scottish master masons come to build the houses of the growing rich wool merchants of Yorkshire and Lancashire. Mix this all the the south west broad accents of the farm labourers all mixed in the soup of the back street slums of the 18th & 19th century.
    Grammar today is not as important as it was 50 years ago with the BBC polite speak coming from the world service.
    I live in Scotland and the language with its lack of pronunciation and syntax, but the language is full of beautiful metaphors with regional accents, the language of Gaelic and Doric. Doric is a regional language mostly in the North East of Scotland. Here is an example,

    A belly like a bloated yowe. = A belly like a bloated Sheep. (Belly full of gas or eaten to much!)
    A doo’s claikin. = To have two kids (In the old days when families were big)
    A hoose like a byre. = Very untidy house.
    A mou like a torn pouch. = A mouth like a torn pocket.
    A stanin seck aye fills best. = A standing sack always fills best.
    Aa man maun hae mait! = A man must have food.
    Aa man maun hae mait! = You must eat!
    Aa man maun hae mait! = Oh, I am very hungry!

    People have been speaking this way for generations. So you can remove, you can throw away that sheriff’s hat and walk off into the sunset with your book of grammar law and leave people to write and speak how they wish, its their language, its their way of life. Thank you.

  20. Thank you. I needed this polite telling off. I can be a grammar-Nazi, but my pointing out errors on Facebook isn’t winning me any friends and it isn’t making people who just don’t care correct their grammar.

    1. Oh, I wasn’t really trying to tell anybody off. I just found the other day that a friend had typo’d, and I wanted the power to secretly correct it without telling anybody so that she could be spared any public commentary and I wouldn’t have to deal with the awkwardness of suggesting a fix (publicly or otherwise). Out of that experience was born this little post. :)

  21. Yes, being corrected on forums, where you’re engaging for fun, or communication, or to be part of a community, isn’t appropriate, particularly when you don’t know the person’s first language or age. I’m English, and only really speak and write English, and am just grateful that people from other languages learn my language to communicate. What is annoying though, and which should be held up to public ridicule, are when people whose role it is to communicate get it wrong. Journalists, (even citizen journalists),publishers, signwriters, writers, advertiser, all are increasingly making mistakes. And it does impede communication because as you’re reading it, you’re subconsciously fixing it in your head, which gets in the way of the flow of reading it.

    The thing that’s getting to me the most now? For some reason, people have stopped placing the s after the apostrophe when the word ends in s. I think someone once made up a rule that you do drop it (you don’t) and now others are adopting it. If I ever see one of my books referred to as Mark Childs’ (whatever) rather than Mark Childs’s I’m going to sue. It was written by me, not several people called Mark Child. :@

  22. I don’t have the greatest grammar but I try really hard to get it right. English is my first language but I grew up in a time and place where teachers were not allowed to correct you in grammar except in your english lessons. So if you wrote an essay in history they could only correct on content. I really feel I was and many others in the public school system were given a disservice. I loved school and my terrible grammar it was not because I did not care because I do. I strive everyday to do my best when writing.

    I usually have to change any sentence I use with the word there or their by talking out loud. Is it over there or is it theirs? Grammar so frustrating but I believe by blogging I am getting better. At least I hope that I am. I also would have not problem with a grammar police correct me, although it would be best privately. I suggest being polite about grammar and realize that many people are doing the best they can.

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