Can you correct someone without being a language bully?

vevo #WordCrimesOver the past two weeks, the linguistic blogosphere has exploded over ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic’s latest musical parody Word Crimes. Linguists, editors and others were blogging at break-neck speed to discuss the judgements expressed in the song. On this blog, Viktorija Kostadinova posted about it on the day the video appeared on YouTube.

This all came very timely, as many of these comments touch on something that I wanted to write about for a while. It started about a week earlier, when I was going over some of the blogs on our blogroll, looking for interesting posts. I was going over some of the blogs on our blogroll, looking for interesting posts.

source: Google+ 'grammar monkeys'

I came across an older post on the now seemingly inactive Grammar Monkeys blog. It’s called Corrections with a smile, which seems to deal with the question why correcting other people’s language is often met with resistance and even hostility. The post is a reaction to another post, on Claiborne L.’s blog Proof or Consequences titled In Defense of Language, in which L. asks herself the same questions.

Why do people hate on those of us who know grammar? Why is it insulting to have your language skills corrected?

L. writes that she would appreciate being corrected and most of us would appreciate help in other areas, but that language is somehow different.

snob

Most of us appreciate help with math, such as when calculating a tip or making change. If I read a map wrong, I hope that someone will correct my navigation skills.
But if I correct your grammar, punctuation or spelling […] I will be dubbed a snob, a prude, uptight and righteous. Why is it bad for me to help you communicate better and more clearly? For me to share a skill I have to help improve yours?

It seems that she genuinely wants to know why there is so much hostility aimed at the correctors. She suggests that it comes out of an American distrust of those who are educated, and out of the fact that it makes those who are corrected look uneducated. She also gives some advice for these correctors on how to correctly correct people’s language use.

… the challenge to us correctors, then, is not to set ourselves up as pretentious know-it-alls, but rather as peers trying to teach others. Check the attitude, and offer only the instruction.

Adding

I should note that I’m fully aware how pretentious and know-it-all this whole post sounds, but I don’t know how else to discuss education. Those who have it should flaunt it. Let us rejoice in knowledge.

Now personally I am very much in favour of rejoicing in knowledge, but I think it might be very hard to both check the attitude while flaunting your educatedness.

check-attitude

But back to the Grammar Monkeys; they suggest the following arguments as the objections people have against being corrected.

  1. “It’s not rocket science.” Everyone uses language; not everyone uses calculus. So why is your grammar any better than mine?
  2. “You know what I meant.” Correctors assume ambiguity that isn’t there. See #3:
  3. Correctors ignore context.
  4. Correctors are missing the point.
  5. Pedants have NO sense of humor.
  6. Not an error. Many “grammar cops” insist on correcting “mistakes” that aren’t mistakes […] some of the “rules” are really guidelines, suggestions or merely shibboleths.
  7. The attitude. Smug and superior is an immediate turn-off for most people no matter the subject.

source: Trevor9891 @ imgur.com

All these arguments make sense to me and I have given them at times myself when being corrected. The attitude especially seems to put people off, and has led to correctors being called Grammar Nazis or Language Bullies. The Grammar Monkeys give the same argument for correcting people as L.: people don’t mind getting help.

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.

source: corebloggers.comThen they proceed to give the following tips for better correcting:

  1. Make sure you’re really right.
  2. Make sure it matters.
  3. Be polite.
  4. Get feedback.

This seems like a good start, especially the third point, Be polite, to which they add the explanation “Don’t be a know-it-all (even if you know it all). Ask if advice is welcome”. But both blogposts seem to miss two important points. One is that people generally don’t like being corrected in the first place, regardless of what it is about or how politely it is done – perhaps especially if it’s done by self-styled authority.

source: freeths.co.uk

Another, related point, is that what I think is missing from the advice on how to correct someone, should you choose to do so, is that this is probably better done in private. Correcting someone’s language in public – even if their mistakes are ‘real’ – is considered grammar shaming, and can be seen to be as rude as publicly pointing out (perceived) errors in the way they dress, wear their hair, or who they choose to be friends with.

However, I suspect that this goes even more for corrections on the way we use language because this is such an important part of our identity. The way we use language is possibly the most fundamental expression of our personal identity we have. Our language indicates to others which social group(s) we belong to, perhaps more subtly, but perhaps also more fundamentally, than anything else we do. If you publicly point out errors in someone’s language, you’re telling them that you think that who they are is wrong.

So can you correct someone’s language without being a language bully? Probably, but always at your own risk. Your thoughts?

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About Robin Straaijer

I am a linguist and EAP trainer, working on English prescriptivism and Standard English. Lover of photography and comedy.
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8 Responses to Can you correct someone without being a language bully?

  1. Doreen DUGELAY says:

    How much of this is purely cultural and specific to the English-speaking world? Working as a translator/interpreter/teacher in France, I have often heard comments from French people along the lines of: “Why doesn’t my [American] colleague correct my mistakes in English? He knows I’m trying to learn.” While Americans tend to complain: “Why did he correct my French? I thought he liked me! He knows I’m trying to learn.”

    Americans seem to have an ingrained notion that correcting other people’s language is very bad manners, whatever the language. British people, on the other hand, are completely uninhibited about correcting what would be perfectly correct in other countries, usually smugly insisting “It’s called English for a reason.” So I get conversations like this at the train station:

    Me: Just chuck your stuff in the trunk.
    British guest: Oh, I can’t do that! But I’ll bung it in the boot.

    Have you any opinion on this from the Netherlands?

    PS: Thanks for Weird Al.

    • That is a good question Doreen: I don’t really know how much of this is culturally determined. I certainly wouldn’t mind being corrected when I’m trying to speak a foreign language I’m learning, since I know that the native speaker has superior knowledge of the language. However, the examples you give are of interactions between native speakers and L2 learners of that language. And I suppose that that is a different situation from the one in which one native speaker corrects another, since both are supposed or expected to speak the language well enough already, and also equally well. This means that in principle there is not automatically an accepted difference in knowledge or fluency, which may make it harder to accept some else’s judgement.

      As far as Dutch is concerned, I can only really speak for myself. I don’t seem to experience Dutch people correcting each other’s language much, but my social circle is not typical. But I can say that I take offence at being corrected in public, and for exactly the reasons I give in the original post. However, I may also take offence at being corrected in private, though I think that in that situation it is no longer a matter of politeness. But I guess that at that point it may be more about personality; apparently I have one that doesn’t react well to being corrected about anything, wether it is warranted or not.

      P.S. Thanks, though I am not responsible for Weird Al.

  2. In practice, correcting people’s grammar is rarely welcome, unless you’re an English teacher or a parent, and even then it’s not exactly fun. For the reasons you cite, it’s virtually impossible to do it without coming across as needlessly judgmental. And what’s the point? Someone being corrected once for offhand informal speech is more likely to remember the embarrassment than the criticism.

    But I don’t think they’re anything wrong *in principle* with critiquing language usage and grammar. Prescriptivism get a bad name these, but I wonder how the so-called descriptivists would go about running an English as a foreign language class. Presumably they would not allow their students to write down an incomprehensible stream of almost-words (as every language learner must do initially) and then say “Good job! You clearly know English already, so I don’t recommend you attend any more classes!” The first-time learner is the extreme example, but the rule applies equally well to those of us who have spoken English all our lives. There is probably no human being alive whose language couldn’t be made more clear, accessible, precise or otherwise attractive in some way or another.

    I tend to agree with Steven Pinker that the whole prescriptivist/descriptivist fight is invented: False Fronts in the Language Wars on Slate.com.

    • Your example of a descriptivist English class is a straw man. A class is one of the places where correction is expected. As a descriptivist myself if I was teaching someone English I would only correct them so their usage looked like the usage of native speakers they want to communicate with. We do have formal and informal usage rules. If they are paying me to teach them to communicate like a native speaker that is what I’m going to teach them.

  3. If you want to be polite, I agree with Miss Manners, Judith Martin, unsolicited advice is never welcome or polite. Giving someone advice is always telling them they are wrong and you just shouldn’t do it unless they have literally asked for it. Even if you mean well you are still being rude.

    • John Cowan says:

      When I see a group of people standing around a New York City street, consulting a map and conversing in something other than English or Spanish, I always ask them (assuming I have time) “Do you need help?” Often they do. Unsolicited advice is very different from unsolicited corrections.

  4. BtU Admin says:

    [Response to moderated comment]
    JustFor Aggies @JustForAggies.twitter.com, Thank you for your visiting our blog and commenting.

  5. Nick Costello says:

    I think it depends also on your theory about how people learn languages. People (at least from a certain level upwards) learn by (mostly unconsciously) copying what they hear from people they consider to be correct speakers, rather than by consciously applying the corrections that such people offer them. So corrections are generally a waste of time.

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