Misplaced apostrophes’, passive voice being used, and sentence fragments. We’ve all experienced the frustration of witnessing infuriating grammar faux pas. I’ve often found myself internally rolling my eyes when someone doesn’t know the difference between “there,” “their,” and “they’re.” Don’t even get me started on the misuse of “literally.”
It’s human nature to want to correct others’ mistakes and this extends to grammatical errors too. For example, an entire Twitter page is dedicated to pointing out typos in New York Times articles. Grammar quizzes on websites like Buzzfeed are popular segments that allow readers to prove their language prowess. These forms of grammar correction are a fun way to kill time and are essentially harmless.
In real-life conversations, however, correcting others’ grammatical errors is not only unnecessary but also demeaning. Therefore, I urge you to reconsider the ways in which you approach grammar mistakes.
At a place like Penn where imposter syndrome runs rampant, correcting others’ grammar can be performative. It can act as a signaling mechanism that communicates to others that the corrector knows more than the person who made the error. Personally, I’ve witnessed too many uncomfortable conversations where one person points out a minor grammatical error, only to be met with an awkward silence or half-hearted nod. Simply put, understanding the difference between “less” and “fewer” is by no means an indication that we are smarter than a classmate who does not. The temporary ego boost that it provides has little to no effect on how intelligent we are perceived to be.
We see grammar correction take on a more sinister purpose when used in arguments. It is often utilized as a comeback or a sort of “gotcha” moment. When someone makes a grammar mistake, their point of view, no matter how valid, is automatically dismissed. The problem with this is that grammar correctors are not engaging with the argument but rather using humiliation tactics to write it off as invalid. It sets up an odd power dynamic by perpetuating the idea that someone’s voice is only worth being heard if they are using correct grammar.
This is an even more concerning phenomenon when we consider the strong relationship between knowing grammar rules and having privilege. Many people who correct their peers’ grammar grew up speaking English, had access to an education that instilled them with grammar rules, and don’t possess speech impediments or learning disabilities that make the process harder. It’s naive to assume that everyone we communicate with has the same set of privileges. In a lot of cases, we don’t know everything about the person we’re speaking to or their life circumstances.
In fact, living in an English-speaking country and speaking English as a first language is a privilege that more than 15% of American adults do not have. 1 in 5 Americans have learning or attention issues and almost 7% of Americans have a language impairment, making it more difficult for them to learn and retain grammar rules.
Of course, this argument does not extend to professional or academic contexts. When you’re editing a friend’s paper or helping them practice for an interview, by all means, correct their grammar. Using correct grammar matters extensively in the real world. Practically speaking, it is essential for making good impressions and effectively conveying ideas.
Because of this, there are a number of settings where it is not only acceptable but helpful to correct someone else’s grammar. For example, a teacher correcting a student, a parent correcting a child, or an editor correcting a writer are examples of relationships where grammar correction is advantageous. Nevertheless, in colloquial settings, conversations between peers, for example, correcting grammar is simply unnecessary and insensitive.
Frankly speaking, grammar and, more generally, all language is made-up. It is a set of rules that have been defined by us and are still constantly changing. The increasingly normalized use of “they” as a singular pronoun is an example of this. That’s not to say that language doesn’t matter or should be completely ignored. It is no excuse, however, to demean others or imply that they are less intelligent because they do not adhere to a set of arbitrary rules.
At the end of the day, we all slip up. We all make silly mistakes, regardless of how many times we’ve been reminded that “irregardless” is not a word. Next time your friend uses a dangling modifier, don’t call them out for it. Instead ask yourself: Is correcting their grammar going to be helpful or humiliating?
SANGITHA AIYER is a College first-year from Singapore. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.