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When Are It Okay to Correct Someone’s Grammar?

According to an advice columnist, an etiquette expert and a linguist

One of my least attractive character traits is a penchant for correcting people’s grammar. It’s never well-received, likely because correcting grammar is rarely about grammar and usually about demonstrating intellectual or cultural superiority. At least that’s how it’s perceived.

“Mind your subjunctive,” I once teased a date.

I never heard from him again.

I take after my mother, a bona fide grammar nerd who raised me to be precise with my words. Even the question “How are you?” has always given me pause. “I’m well?” I’ll think. (Nope — when used as an adjective, “well” means “in good health.”) “I’m good?” (Nope — “good” means “having moral excellence.”) “I’m doing good?” (Nope — “good” is an adjective, not an adverb, you fucking idiot.)

“I’m doing well!”

Bingo, though no one believes me after 15 seconds of awkward silence.

It’s exhausting — and might seem to place me on the spectrum — but it does explain why I’ll reflexively redress you when you use “disinterested” (impartial) when you mean “uninterested” (bored), or “further” (metaphorical distance) when you mean “farther” (physical distance.)

I was curious, though — what’s the etiquette here? Is correcting someone’s grammar always a dick move? Or are there occasions when you’re doing someone a solid by suggesting — in, say, a Facebook comment — that they lose the apostrophe in “it’s”?

For answers, I turned to Tracey Sturgal, a professor in communication studies at Marquette University; Tracy Moore, a fellow MEL staff writer and our resident advice columnist; and Daniel Post Senning, the current torchbearer of the first family of etiquette.

Is it ever okay to police someone’s grammar?

Post Senning: I approach this like the broccoli-on-the-tooth rule: If you’re going to help someone avoid some embarrassment, go ahead. If you notice I’m saying “Versayse” all the time, find a quiet moment to explain to me that it’s pronounced Ver-SA-chie. That said, you rarely have standing to correct someone else, so proceed with caution.

Moore: I think friends and trusted colleagues ought to be able to pull someone aside and correct grammar if it’s obviously a result of ignorance or something you know would embarrass them.

Sturgal: Outside of a classroom setting, one would need to mainly consider one’s relationship with the speaker and the purpose of the correction. We also must consider the intentionality of the communication: What’s the intended meaning of the speakers (on both sides), and what’s the actual meaning received?

What if you’re going to help save them further embarrassment or future awkwardness by pointing something out?

Post Senning: If you think someone will appreciate it, then by all means do it.

Sturgal: How do you know if the person doesn’t know the proper grammar or made a mental error? The immediate assumption when a speaker makes a grammatical error isn’t a fair starting point. There might not be future awkwardness if it was a one-off. No one speaks perfect English all the time, even people who claim they do. That isn’t the way language works.

Moore: This is precisely why it must be done. Who among us hasn’t learned how to pronounce something the right way because we were corrected? This is literally how people learn.

If you do choose to correct someone’s grammar, how should you do it?

Post Senning: Do it in private — as discreetly as possible — and by showing some respect for their intelligence and good will. For example, “I always heard that it was pronounced like this…,” where you’re not being critical but instead raising it as something you noticed.

Sturgal: I opt for positivity and assuming it was a fatigue error. This helps save face for the person who misspoke (or doesn’t know the “rule”). If I feel compelled to say something, I might start with: [friendly, nonjudgmental smile] “You meant to say affect, right?” If the intent is truly about educating someone on the proper usage, it shouldn’t come with a dose of smugness.

Moore: The key is to never do it in front of anyone, but to pull them aside privately and let them know you’re just mentioning it because you thought it might be of use to them.

How about on a comment stream on Facebook?

Post Senning: I think it’s easier to handle subtleties in communication in person than it is with the written word, or online. For example, I’d advise against suggesting that someone use that new Grammarly app before posting next time.

Sturgal: Policing grammar on Facebook is a waste of time and energy. Sure, in a political debate, it can be satisfying to correct someone, thus giving oneself a false sense of superiority. But it’s not worth the hassle, and it likely isn’t helping advance the original point of the comment stream. If you care, keep using proper grammar in your threads as the model you want to put out in the world. You don’t know what education struggles a commenter has been through. Don’t assume it’s ignorance or laziness.

Moore: Totally pointless. Correcting a mistaken fact is one thing; everyone ought to accept that on social media and texting, we’re more careless and the message trumps the medium.

Can you think of a comparable delicate topic regarding unwanted unsolicited advice?

Post Senning: It’s very similar to how people hold utensils.

Sturgal: Outside of my kids and close family/friends, I stay away from policing other people’s behavior unless specifically asked. Unsolicited commentary on behavior doesn’t generally end well.

Moore: After I put my chopsticks in a bowl of rice so that they stood vertically, a friend told me never to do this because in some cultures it signifies that someone has died. I was grateful; anyone who doesn’t wish to at least be informed of any rules they might be breaking or groups they are inadvertently offending must have some serious hangups about being wrong.

Is it ever appropriate to correct the way someone is holding their fork?

Post Senning: It’s circumstantial and situational. A spouse might want to hear it, or they might not. I get hired by companies to come in because managers or CEOs watch how their team is eating and think they need some work. It might be a little awkward to learn you’re chewing with your mouth open, but you’d probably rather hear it from me than from a boss, supervisor or client.

Sturgal: I would never say anything, but I might try to get the offender to see how I’m holding my fork as a visual hint. Unless I’m helping this person get a job or some other scenario where I need to help them present well, I’m not getting involved in how someone holds a fork. That’s their journey. (Perhaps they have a muscle issue that forces a nontraditional way of holding a fork?)

Moore: Etiquette is obviously about making people feel comfortable, but on some level we all have a responsibility to be easy-going about our fuck-ups. We should be able to take minor criticism if we look like we’re not rising to the occasion of a social situation.

Is it ever appropriate to correct someone’s grammar in a business context?

Post Senning: Again, there is the question of how. Oftentimes, people are going to appreciate it if you do it well. If you’re not being critical or judgmental. If you approach it with a spirit of being helpful, then yeah. But it can be hurtful and condescending if you come across as critical or judgmental.

Sturgal: Timing is everything. I might include the language in my response with the proper grammar, hoping the person catches my correction and follows suit. I might pull them aside if I feel it’s necessary for their future interactions with others at the function, and if I’m the best person to do so.

Moore: I’d only do it if it were an equal or colleague, and likely not a higher-up, just because the power dynamics would be too fraught. But otherwise, I think in any situation with someone you trust and know, you can tell them they’ve gotten it wrong.

Is policing someone’s grammar always about displaying some kind of intellectual superiority?

Post Senning: Absolutely. It’s more about you than it is about them.

Sturgal: Yes. People usually don’t consider the educational backgrounds and lack of opportunities others have struggled with. Remember that the history of grammar usage is based on people in power. There’s no inherent reason why some grammar rules exist. So the importance of being grammatically correct is based in social judgments. As society evolves, so to will the social judgments. Some based on who is in power, some based on generational changes. We don’t follow all of the grammar rules of the first generations of English speakers, and those changes will continue to evolve over time. It’s not a bad thing. Languages evolve, or they die.

Moore: I think it can be for certain people — grammar snobs need a new hobby — but it can also be seen as wanting everyone to have the opportunity to put the goods in the best possible light. In a work meeting, you want everyone to appear polished and sharp. In a social situation, we can all rely on a certain group pressure to elevate ourselves. I’ve met lots of smart, well-educated people who get words wrong. I do the same. I think the most important thing here is having a good, humble attitude about not knowing what you don’t know, and having the curiosity and humility to be willing to learn. I want to be corrected; I want to get it “right” — whatever that means. I think that’s how most of us ought to be. How else do we learn? But that said, no, I’m not going to correct a stranger who says “I seen that.” It’s pointless unless we have a relationship where it’s clear that no one is pulling rank or trying in any way to embarrass someone; we all just have each other’s back.