It is a truth universally acknowledged that a person in possession of a love for grammar must be in want of a heart. However little known the feelings or views of such a person may be, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of those around him that without any insight into his character, his circumstances can immediately be assumed: He rarely ventures forth from the musty confines of his book-piled study, preferring to sit hunched over a desk in a room that has never heard laughter. His features can express contempt, or disdain, or a kind of pained disappointment, but have never formed a smile. His joys are few: identifying and pointing out grammatical errors (in news broadcasts, casual conversations, eulogies, etc.), identifying and then correcting grammatical errors in library books (spidery yet assertive handwriting in ballpoint pen), and warming his withered soul by smugly reflecting on all of the errors he has recently identified and corrected.
And, oh, the errors that are to be found in the age of the Internet! So many articles. So little copyediting. So many comments from readers who are angry and in their haste to communicate are more prone to lapses and oversights. The World Wide Web is a pedant’s paradise. It is not uncommon to read a bleak and sober piece about a contemporary injustice, scroll down to the comments section, and under a comment along the lines of “Its time to stop the killing,” see the following:
It is this kind of tone-deaf, superfluous, unhelpful correcting that gives pedants a bad name (or bad names: grammar snob, grammar Nazi, grammar troll, etc).
I don’t mean to suggest that it’s always a bad thing to point out bad grammar—just that, in my opinion, it should be done only in certain circumstances. I have put together an exhaustive list of such qualifying circumstances:
- You have been asked to do so.
- You are being paid to do so.
- You are in some position of authority (parent or teacher, for example) that involves helping someone else understand what pedants are and in what circumstances they will descend upon the unwary.
- While reading an article, sign, promotional package (and so on), you have found errors that, if left unfixed, will result in the ridiculing of a copy editor, author, business owner (and so on).
I have put together an equally exhaustive list of circumstances in which you should do no correcting of grammar at all:
- You have not been asked to do so.
- You are not being paid to do so.
- You are not in a position of authority that involves helping someone else understand what pedants are and in what circumstances they will descend upon the unwary.
If you have occasional bouts of language-related persnicketiness and are concerned you may become the kind of person who compulsively and publicly corrects other people’s casual comments on websites, keep these points in mind:
- Typos are common and happen even to good people.
- People come from all kinds of backgrounds and belong to all kinds of linguistic communities, all of which have their own conventions and expectations.
- It can be difficult to edit one’s own work, and many organizations do not have editors.
- Even smart writers and readers can miss things, because they have human brains.
- Nitpicking rather than engaging meaningfully with the substance of someone else’s statement is just plain rude, and people will think you’re rude, and they will be right.
And “just plain rude” is probably putting it lightly—because when a commenter draws attention to another person’s grammatical mistakes, he is not simply striking the wrong note by responding to a heartfelt argument with petty grumbling.
Violence is decemating our community.
*decimating (and, strictly speaking, “decimate” means to kill one in ten)
That kind of response is not merely an example of fussiness run amok. The explicit rebuke—“You have made grammatical mistakes”—is loaded with subtext of a particularly nasty kind: You have not been properly educated. Your voice is not one that should be part of this conversation. Your argument will not be taken seriously on its merits, because it does not carry authority. The fact that you do not express your feelings “properly” means that they will not be heard.
Of course, these implied judgments not only work to invalidate the original commenter—they also conveniently suggest certain pleasing things about the would-be corrector: I have been properly educated. My voice deserves to be part of this conversation. My argument (if I ever actually make one) will be taken seriously on its merits, because I know what dangling modifiers are. The fact that I express my feelings properly means that I will be heard.
So if you are wading through the fetid marsh, the rank swamp, the putrescent morass that is most comments sections (synonym for “putrid” plus synonym for “bog” equals a vivid and accurate description of many parts of the Internet) and feel the urge to pipe up with a grammatical correction—even if you are genuinely motivated by an urge to help, even if you are not knowingly employing certain rhetorical strategies to cast aspersions on another commenter while at the same time elevating yourself—keep in mind what the other person will almost certainly hear. Keep in mind that words and grammar have power and that correcting your fellow commenters can be seen as an attempt to take their power away. And keep your asterisk to yourself.