Why You Shouldn't Correct People's Grammar

Hands up if you’ve ever corrected someone’s spelling, punctuation or grammar.

Keep your hand up if you’ve done it in an attempt to win an argument, or to appear clever or funny.

Ok I know I can’t see your hands, but I’m imagining many hands in the air like they just do care (about grammar).

My hand is up. I’ve done this countless times. But my hand is now lowering slowly in an act of sullen shame because, in 2019, I’m resolving to stop this patronising practice. And I was persuaded by this tweet from writer Benjamin Law.

He nails it. Yet, I feel slightly embarrassed to say, I’d never thought of it that way before.

When directed towards those who are dyslexic, linguistically diverse, non-native English speakers or those who couldn’t afford an expensive education, this is shaming behaviour.

And I’ve inadvertently been part of it. It has been an act of unintentional superciliousness.

Even when it hasn’t been aimed at people of different ethnic, abled or educational backgrounds, it could still have the effect of silencing those people’s voices. When they witness such behaviour, their fingers tremble or hesitate at their keyboards as they restrain themselves from leaving that comment in a thread with their friends, or on a news article, or any form of written communication.

That’s a lot of important, diverse voices our intolerance could be shutting out. I don’t want to contribute to that censoring any longer.

Dangling participle = automatic F. (Image: Getty)

And ok, I admit, it hasn’t always been unintentional. In my defence, usually my targets have been people abusing their position or power.

I was blocked by two very prominent UK personalities. To my knowledge, they’re the only two people on Twitter who’ve blocked me. It’s ok, I have Valium to help me catch up on all the lost sleep.

On both occasions, I saw them bulldozing others with less power. And both times, the irony was, they were attempting to intimidate -- but using grammar that’d make a toddler vicariously blush.

So I called them out on it, to redress the balance.

It’s funny how only “powerful” people have resorted to blocking -- and they did it the minute their delicate egos were bruised by the wee correction of some poor grammar.

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Sloppy grammar of egomaniacs aside, I resolve to doing the keyboard version of biting my tongue (clenching my fist?) when I see a ‘your’ conflated with a ‘you’re.’

It won’t be easy. I previously wrote a regular column for the UK Guardian called Mind your language, all about language use and abuse. I’d write entire columns about errant apostrophes. I know, gripping stuff. And my Guardian editor coined the phrase Muphry’s Law, which dictates that whenever you’re writing about grammar, you’re destined to make a grammatical error. So don’t @ me if I do. Let’s all play nicely now.

Some grammatical pedants or purists come from a more well-meaning place. Their passion is applaudable; their corrections a desire to educate, rather than condescend or diminish.

Keep it in the classroom. (Image: Getty)

But as a way to win an argument that isn’t about grammar, it’s a cheap shot.

It's a form of shaming that's deemed acceptable when actually, it maligns a whole group of people. It’s classism: superior and snooty. The discourteousness is entirely avoidable: just turn a blind eye. Let’s face it: poor maths can bankrupt a country’s economy; poor grammar will just mean someone will need to proofread the Christmas cards.

Play nicely, grammar monster. (Image: Getty)

I used to frame this as being about accuracy, when really, it’s pedantry. What is said is more important than how it’s said. If you know where to make the correction, you knew full well the intention of the writer. There are times when you just need to shut up and let others speak in their own way. It’s about going back to basics.

Ethics 101: listen; don’t judge.

Please, though, keep calling me out if ever you see me splitting an infinitive or leaving a participle dangling. I’m a professional writer so you have as much right to pull me up on this stuff as you would a car mechanic who left your exhaust dangling off or a hairdresser who scalped you with shears.

Good grammar is knowing the difference between your shit and you’re shit. But good manners just means you know when to stop being a dickhead -- albeit one with a flawless vernacular.