Friday, July 22, 2011

In Defense of Language

A friend of mine just introduced me to this wonderful list of "obnoxious" responses to spelling errors on Facebook. I read the list until the wee hours of the night, trying hard to stifle my laughter so as to not wake D.

While the list is funny, and some of those who are correcting others' spelling are indeed catty, it brought out my fighting side a bit. Why do people hate on those of us who know grammar? Why is it insulting to have your language skills corrected?

When friends correct us or help us improve other skills, we are often flattered. 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. And if I'm about to say in French, "Where is the house of prostitutes?" instead of, "Where is the convent?," you bet I want someone to correct me.

But if I correct your grammar, punctuation or spelling, you will think bad things about me (be honest, it's true). I will be dubbed a snob, a prude, uptight and righteous. But why? 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?

When you get down to it, I think people are offended because it makes them look uneducated. And in the reverse, it makes the corrector seem over-educated. But what's wrong with education? I mean, we're not talking about post-doctoral studies here: grammar lessons start in 5th grade. We are supposed to know it all before graduating high school. So why do we insult and lash out at those who are only displaying high-school level knowledge of the English language?

Not to get too preachy, but American society's current distrust of Those Who are Educated is not really helping us or making us look good. So instead of insulting those trying to educate the masses, let's all try to elevate education and language skills by rejoicing in correctness. Let us thank those who help us learn how to use "who" vs. "whom," or to know the correct version of "your" vs. "you're." We all win if we all speak and write better.

And 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.

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.


  1. Just came across this post and I totally agree. "Let us rejoice in knowledge" is a great way to put it.

  2. I have a guess that getting preachy about it is exactly the problem: Americans associate book-learning with theological education, as it was for the first three hundred or so years of English-speaking settlement. Stephen Prothero (Religious Literacy) has shown how the nineteenth century evangelical movements and ecumenicism at the college level turned us against the idea that learning is necessary for salvation--and therefore, grammar for communication. It is the spirit that counts, as they/we now say.

  3. @Lauren - thanks for visiting!
    @FB - I am not familiar with the historical study you mention, but it does make a lot of sense. Thanks for making the connection. It is indeed odd that our society both believes that education is important but also that it is not to be trusted.

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  5. I stumbled upon you and your blog through Grammar Monkey. And I must say, I've been enjoying reading about your thoughts. You've just reminded me of a journalism/writing professor and a public relations instructor of mine from college, from when I was a student in Minnesota. These people influence me a lot.

    Born and raised in Malaysia, a highly patriarchal, typically Asian society, I think the folks here are having the same issues. Whenever I attempt to point out others' grammar and/or spelling errors, I'd be regarded as a snob, a know-it-all, a grammar Nazi, when the standards of the English language in Malaysia are taking a great plunge, when many Malaysians are having the mentalities that obstruct them from taking learning English seriously. (The English here used to be better because of the Brits who once ruled here, but a severe decline has been spotted beginning the Gen-Y era.)

    Even with my current bosses, who got offended by that email of mine that tried to point out a grammar error of theirs, to tell them that it should be, "an 18,000-square-foot production floor," and not "an 18,000-square-feet production floor." They shut me up immediately and made me apologize because I "lectured" them and "failed to show respect" to the bosses--something valued highly in Asian societies.

    All this has made me feel like it's totally worthless bringing such matter up to and sharing our knowledge with others. Things seem to get discouraging all across the world.

    P.S. Sorry for spamming you with another comment. I found a typo in my previous one, and so I corrected it and deleted the previous one and reposted this new one.