One of the Substacks I subscribe to has a huge readership that comments prolifically, intelligently, and sometimes with a daunting knowledge of the subject at hand. So after I read the column, I skim some of the comments. Since I invariably arrive several hours after the column has posted, there are hundreds more comments than I can read without taking the day off, so I start with the ones at the top: the ones that have garnered the most “likes” from other readers.
The other day, that top comment was particularly interesting, so my eye moved down to see what the responses had been. The very first one took the commenter to task for mixing up “incredulous” and “incredible.” This had indeed blipped my editorial radar, but it was 100% clear what the commenter meant so I kept reading.
The grammar cop, however, stopped me dead in my tracks. I’d never read anything like this in this particular Substack, or in any other I follow, and it’s pretty damn uncommon even in the free-for-all of the newspaper comment sections I frequent. A few people had commented, some apparently OK with the usage correction and some definitely not. I joined the latter group with this reply:
[Male commenter], I hope you see how your need to be right has hijacked the discussion and become a subject in itself. I’ve seen this happen a lot over the years, and it often has the effect that [female commenter] points out: people leave the group rather than subject themselves to possible humiliation by language know-it-alls. In my experience, the worst offenders are English teachers and copyeditors. (I’m a copyeditor as well as other kinds of editor, so I can say this.)
Most of us don’t do this, needless to say. We’ve learned over the years how many English-speakers are insecure about their spelling, usage, and/or punctuation, even when their writing proves them extremely capable. I want forums like this to welcome everyone who has something to say, even if they aren’t professional writers or editors or teachers, even if English is their second, third, or fourth language.
So please, all you English teachers and copyeditors and every other perfectionist out there, ask yourself “How important is it?” Errors of fact and genuinely confusing statements are worth questioning — tactfully, please! But most readers aren’t likely to be confused by mixing up “incredulous” and “incredible,” or “affect” and “effect,” or many of the other little booby-traps that English is full of. Thank you.
The know-it-all defended himself, as such know-it-alls usually do.
I thought back to my early experiences in e-groups, in the late 1990s and very early 2000s. Most of the groups I participated in consisted of word people: writers, editors, journalists, librarians, and so on. A few were devoted to either horses (usually Morgans) or dogs (especially Alaskan malamutes). At first I used the same sig for all of them, giving my name and indentifying me as a copyeditor and proofreader.
In the horse and dog groups, sometimes a participant would apologize for her spelling or grammar, even though there was nothing wrong with either. A couple of times I sensed a certain defensiveness in the apology.
Finally I got it: My sig was making some people self-conscious about their written English. I started using a different sig for the horse and dog groups, using just my name. The defensive comments stopped.
I connected this with conversations I’ve had over the many years with other writers and editors — people, most of them women, who make their living in the word trades. A startling number of us seem to have gone through a stage where we couldn’t write, didn’t write, thought we were no good at writing. Some traced this back to an ill-met English teacher, usually in junior high or middle school. For others it started with college professor, or in a writers’ workshop taken as an adult.
The common thread was an authority figure, teacher or professor, who taught that when it came to grammar, usage, and writing in general, there was only one correct way to do it. Every other way was flat-out wrong or, at best, substandard.
Being a recovering perfectionist myself, I get it. As an apprentice editor, I learned the which/that distinction — that for restrictive clauses, which for nonrestrictive — and immediately started using it to separate the initiates from the ignorants. Within a few years, however, I’d realized that the which/that distinction doesn’t seem to exist in British English, and users of British English nevertheless manage to distinguish between restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses. Most U.S. trade publishers I’ve worked for over the years either require or strongly recommend it, and I can apply it if it’s called for, but I know that it’s a style thing, not a matter of good/bad or right/wrong.
So what to do when you spot an error in a public forum, on social media, or in the local newspaper? Here are my guidelines.
- First, make bloody sure that it is an error. Many words have variant spellings. The rules you may have learned in junior high aren’t as iron-clad as you were led to believe.
- Ask yourself how important is it. Errors of fact and misleading statements are way more important than spelling mistakes and subject-verb disagreements.
- Check your motives. Are you genuinely trying to clarify something or make something better, or are you just showing off?
- If there’s a way to communicate with the writer privately, use it. Let them take care of correcting the error, if error it is. (To be fair to the jerk in my example above, there was no way to do this. To my mind, though clearly not to his, this was reason enough to STFU.)
- If you decide to go ahead with a public correction, be tactful. Good editors and good teachers know how to do this, because goddess knows we spend a lot of time correcting errors and fixing unclarities and if we don’t learn how to do this without humiliating people, we’re in the wrong trade.
So here’s a real-life example. The other day I spotted a poster for a local theater production on the bulletin board at the supermarket. My proofreaderly mind registered the typo a mere instant after the name of the play, even though the latter is much more prominent.
If you’re at all familiar with musical theater, you know that the Rodgers of Rodgers & Hammerstein has a “d” in it. So far I haven’t done anything about it, except call it to the attention of a friend who, like me, was involved with this particular organization long ago and who, also like me, notices typos in the wild.
Why not contact the theater company itself? Because it’s unlikely, given the short lead time and the probable cost of correcting the poster, that anything can be done about it, and also because it’s probably been called to the director’s attention so many times that he’s ready to tear his hair out.
It’s a lesson, however, in the importance of proofreading, and proofreading by a proofreader, not just a smart person who knows how to spell.