Have you ever been nervous about writing to—or even speaking with—a writer, English teacher, or editor because you just don’t think your grammar can stand up to that kind of scrutiny?
It’s the same reason people get nervous when they pass police cars on the highway, even when we’re not breaking any laws.
We actively avoid these pedants and sticklers for “proper” grammar, or you may have heard them called the “grammar police,” these self-appointed keepers of the laws of the English language. (Some particularly offended individuals even refer to them as “grammar Nazis”!) And generally, the only ones who like the grammar police are the grammar police—and only sometimes, at that.
Most of us have encountered them at some point in our lives. Hey, many of us have been them at some point in our lives. I know I have.
Whether you find yourself on the giving end or the receiving end of criticism, there are a few things you need to understand.
It’s Not About You
First and foremost, I want you to hear this.
When someone offers you unsolicited advice and criticism, it’s almost never about you and your failings.
That’s right. Whether it’s about grammar or how to raise your children or how to maintain your car or how to cut your grass or whatever, it’s almost always about them and their need to prove how smart they are by tearing you down, whether or not they are technically right.
It’s nothing new. We see it every day, from the mean kids at school to the power-drunk HOA president to the trolls on social media. Do you really think they’re just trying to make the world a better place?
Of course not!
In November of 2019, Louise Harnby and Denise Cowle invited Rob Drummond on The Editing Podcast to talk about pedantry. I highly recommend checking it out.
I won’t go into too much detail, but in the podcast, Drummond observes that people tend to become pedants when they begin to gain a little experience and expertise with language. And they start picking others apart to prove their own awesomeness.
Drummond even drew out a graph illustrating the correlation between linguistic knowledge and pedantry. True language experts have moved beyond the need to pick at the “flaws” in others. They’ve grown up.
And that’s what the so-called grammar police are. Juveniles.
Language Is More Than Rules
You are a language expert.
What? Nobody’s ever told you that before? It’s true.
Are you a native speaker of a language? Do you communicate successfully with others every day?
Congratulations! You are an expert in your field.
That doesn’t mean there is no place for grammar (or editors, fortunately for me!). The rules we learned in school are what we call standard English. Those standards are not in place to keep people from coloring outside the lines but to allow people from different regions and subsets of language to communicate clearly.
Choosing a standard set of guidelines for specific circumstances is called style, not right or wrong. And that is the basis for most copyediting.
*I’ll try not to nerd out on you too much here. I do recognize that most people don’t share my enthusiasm for the subject.*
Language is a living, breathing, changing thing. Think about it. Just a few years ago, no one thought adult was a verb! And can you imagine the looks you’d get if you talked to someone just thirty years ago about texting?
And standard rules change to reflect that.
If you’re interested in learning more about changing language, John McWhorter gives a great TED Talk on the subject called "Txtng is Killing Language. JK!!!"
They’re Often Wrong
Do you know what this idea of changing language and having different language rules for different situations means for the critics and pedants? It means they’re often wrong!
They’re trying to impose the wrong rules on the wrong situation.
I once debated with a friend for nearly half an hour about whether or not something could be considered “more original” than something else. I could sit here and argue the point, but what it boiled down to is that he had read the rule in a book and had gained a piece of knowledge. However, he was trying to impose formal English rules on an informal conversation.
No One’s Perfect
If you’re worried about people judging you for errors in a field that you haven’t studied extensively, think how much pressure I’m under as an editor! I’m supposed to be an expert.
Look back over any blog article I’ve written, and I’m sure you’ll find typos. There are many editors who are also writers, but they don’t usually edit their own work. Do you know why?
Because we all make mistakes.
And when they’re our own, they’re even harder to see. Even when the writing isn’t our own, editors still only promise to catch a certain percentage of the errors. Do you know why?
Because no one’s perfect.
I don’t know about you, but I try not to be a hypocrite. Most editors will tell you that they only edit your words if you’re paying them to do it; otherwise, we may notice, but we just don’t care.
The truth is that we’d rather have relationships than perfect grammar!
Unsolicited Advice Is Just Plain Rude
Pulling someone aside to quietly whisper that they have toilet paper stuck to their shoe is different from announcing it to the whole room.
Do I want to know if there’s an error in something I’ve written? Absolutely!
I want my writing to be the best that it can be, for both personal and professional reasons. But how and when we go about it makes all the difference.
Is it a comment on social media or in a spoken conversation? Unless you need clarification about what they’re trying to say, let it go!
Is the writer likely to care about getting it right? If not, let it go!
And if you’re the one being called out, remember that it’s not about you. Think back to a time you’ve seen a person point out someone else’s mistake. Who came out of that looking worse, the person making an innocent mistake or the rude know-it-all who made a scene?
Laughing with Isn’t the Same as Laughing At
Learning Spanish has benefitted me in so many ways over the years. A professor in Spain once taught us a short lesson that ended up being one of those eye-opening moments in my life.
She talked about the difference between bromear and burlar. On the surface, they mean the same thing, to joke. “But,” she said, “with bromear the other person is laughing too.”
Do I laugh at some errors? Sure. We all do. Because it’s funny to read a headline about the mayor’s “pubic” announcement on Wednesday. And I have the sense of humor of a thirteen-year-old sometimes, just like the rest of you.
But there’s no derision or judgment in it. The missing L is one of the more common typos since spellcheck doesn’t usually flag it, and I understand that it could just as easily be me making that mistake. And when I do make a mistake like that, I don’t mind laughing right along, as long as you’re laughing with me instead of at me.
How to Do It Right
As I said, I want my writing to be the best it can be, and I know many others are in the same boat, which means that there is a time and a place for correction. So, how do we go about both giving and receiving correction without ruffling feathers?
Privately is the key word here. Just like with the toilet paper on someone’s shoe, calling out a grammatical error in any public setting is only going to cause embarrassment and hurt feelings. So, instead of pointing it out on social media or in the comments section of someone’s blog, we could send them a private message.
Also, tone is incredibly important here. How differently would you be likely to respond to someone who speaks from a place of respect and genuine helpfulness rather than one of mockery? “Hey, did you realize that you spelled this word wrong?” sounds very different from “Haha. Look at the word you misspelled.”
But how do we respond when we’re on the receiving end?
Our instinctual response is to go on the defensive. After all, they started it.
One thing to remember is that people often don’t see how they sound to others. Maybe they didn’t mean to hurt your feelings. But even if they are being petty and mean, remember that the only person you can control is yourself.
Do you recall what I said earlier about pedants’ attitude only reflecting badly on themselves? If you respond in kind, you paint yourself with the same brush. Respond with maturity and grace, even if you’re not in the wrong, even when it hurts.
If they’re well-intentioned but misguided in how they went about it, the relationship can be salvaged. If they’re just being mean, they end up looking like the schoolyard bully they are, but you rise above it.
So, we keep our sense of humor intact and extend a little grace and compassion to all the other flawed humans out there, just as we hope they will do for us. There will always be bullies and know-it-alls who try to peck at us, but just remember that their judgment doesn’t reflect on us.
Rebecca has a passion for helping you fill the world with great literature and making sure said literature doesn't get passed over for the lack of a little editing.