I have a terrible secret I’m ashamed to share. I used to be a grammar cop.
I know. Ew. I was one of those people who, when somebody whose opinion I disagreed with expressed that opinion with a typo in it, I would immediately disregard everything they’d said and leave a snarky comment correcting their grammar. The message my correction conveyed was: If you’re too stupid to use proper grammar, you’re not worthy of me considering your opinion.
Granted, I reserved my elitist grammar snark for people whose opinions I truly couldn’t (and still can’t) abide. For example, when someone would scream on social media about how those dirty “libtards” would pry “there” guns from their cold, dead hands. I figured if they were going to be dicks about it, I may as well insult their intelligence, which, judging by their inability to recognize the need for common sense gun legislation, was lacking.
But still. It’s unlikely that harping on their grammar inconsistencies did anything to sway their opinion about gun control. In general, insulting someone’s intelligence is probably not the most effective debate tactic. It’s a way to hit below the belt, to show disdain, contempt, superiority. It’s a way to say, “I’m smarter than you are and therefore I’m right.” It’s a way to be an asshole.
Even if your intent is utterly benign, even if you mean only to educate, you honestly are not trying to be snarky — you still shouldn’t correct anyone’s grammar. If someone isn’t specifically soliciting your input, then that’s probably because they don’t want it. This is especially true if the topic at hand doesn’t have anything to do with grammar, punctuation, writing, or publishing. If the conversation isn’t already about grammar, there is no reason to bring grammar into it. This is just a way to sidetrack the conversation or lord your education over others rather than engage in good-faith debate.
And what is the big deal about grammar anyway? Why should someone’s thoughts be deemed less relevant simply because they didn’t get the education necessary to perfect their grammar? And by the way, have you ever tried to seek out a grammar education without actually going to school or taking classes? If you make it to adulthood without knowing the thousands of teeny tiny rules and all their exceptions, there’s little chance of suddenly acquiring them all merely by reading a lot. Grammar is not intuitive. It’s confusing AF.
Even the best writers make mistakes, and the most esteemed books and publications have typos. Nobody’s perfect. I will probably have at least one one typo in this article. I still find typos and misplaced commas in The Washington Post, The New York Times, even The Guardian, my favorite online publication. I find typos in Stephen King’s books.
All of these publications go through multiple rounds of edits. They’re proofed by some of the most competent grammar experts in the publishing industry. And yet they’re still almost never perfect. So why on earth would we expect an average commenter or social media personality to have flawless grammar?
The worst is when we expect perfect grammar from people who are trying to advocate for a larger population of marginalized folks. Kenny Ethan Jones posted on his Instagram a few days ago asking for people to please stop correcting his grammar. Jones is a transgender man and activist raising awareness for trans issues. He made history when he was featured in a period campaign in the U.K. with Pink Parcel.
“I left school at the age of 14,” he said in his Instagram post. “Everything I have learnt since then has been self taught, meaning; I didn’t complete my GSCES (U.K.’s equivalent to a high school diploma in the U.S.), I’ve had no school curriculum to follow, no teachers have been supporting me or correcting my mistakes.”
I can only imagine how he must feel when he carefully crafts a message intended to bring awareness to the public about transgender issues, work that literally saves people’s lives, only for someone to pick at his grammar.
“I know many of you have pure intentions and think you’re being helpful when you’re correcting my spelling and grammar,” he went on to say, “but actually, it’s damaging.” He received over 50 messages about one error on a previous post. He’s already working every day at being a better writer. He left school due to harassment from his peers and teachers. He wasn’t afforded the privilege of having the opportunity to learn grammar rules. But who fucking cares about his grammar, anyway? Listen to what he’s saying.
As for me, I’ve come a long way in my own grammar journey. Years ago when I was being a jerk about people’s grammar, I wasn’t quite the hot shot I thought I was. I have since learned, thanks to many tough editors who tore apart my writing, that I had plenty to learn. And if I had a lot to learn then, when I thought I knew so much, who’s to say I don’t still have a ton to learn? In other words, who am I to judge? This is all apart from the fact that when it comes to the message, grammar is irrelevant.
Those who live in glass houses should not throw stones, and those who don’t have perfect grammar should not correct other people’s grammar. Precious few professional writers could manage to produce a work of any significant length completely free of grammar or punctuation errors. So, unless it’s literally your job to correct someone else’s grammar, just don’t.
Try listening to what they’re saying instead.