A few months back, when I was still writing my full-length play, I overheard the following conversation at a coffee shop between two friends, a barista and a patron:
Patron: I was talking to a classmate and she used the word irregardless.
Barista: That’s not a word.
Patron: I know! But I didn’t know if I should correct her grammar.
Barista: So what did you do?
I leaned backwards, pretending that I wasn’t listening yet craving to hear what she said. What did she do? Did she correct her grammar?
That’s when the barista fired up the blender. I guess we’ll never know.
We could make an educated guess. Because the conversation was polite between these two friends (and lacked “like” and “you know”), it’s likely that the patron did not correct her classmate.
Unless catty rivalry overtook her calm demeanor and she did throw a lesson her classmate’s way.
All of us have slipped on our correct grammar usage. And all of us have heard a friend or peer misspeak grammatically.
This leaves us in a socially awkward quandary: Should you correct someone’s grammar?
The answer: It depends.
I ask myself these four questions before I crack open my figurative grammar book and correct someone’s grammar.
Question 1: Are you certain that this person was incorrect?
My peers who know that I’m a writer enjoy correcting me. When I answer “how are you?” with “I’m good. And how are you?” I frequently receive a snide “I’m well.”
But they’re wrong. I settle the good vs. well debate here.
It’s easy to assume that the most common way we form our sentences, either spoken or written, is the right way. But that’s not the case.
It’s not “Jan met with Ron and myself.” It’s not “ice cream flavors (i.e. chocolate, vanilla, peppermint).” And irregardless isn’t a word.
Before you correct someone’s grammar, make sure that you fully understand the grammar rule in question. Unless you are open to being grammatically corrected.
So, you would bet your Las Vegas poker hand that you know grammar? Then you may move on to the next question.
Question 2: Can you explain the correct grammar usage politely?
If you can’t say it nicely, don’t say it at all.
What you say won’t resonate if you have ulterior motives. If you’re going on an ego trip, stop the car. If you want to make the person look bad or feel stupid, turn the mirror your way.
When you correct someone’s grammar, your listener will discredit and undervalue what you have to say if you come to the table with negative energy. Plain and simple.
You genuinely want to help this person? Please scroll to the next question.
Question 3: Can you explain the correct grammar usage clearly?
The best way to know that you fully understand a correct grammar rule is if you can clearly teach it to someone else.
You may understand the concept in theory, but can you give reasons why the grammar rule works the way it does? Can you provide examples to illustrate the rule when you correct someone’s grammar?
But it’s not just about understanding the grammar rule. It’s also about understanding how your listener learns best.
Does the person prefer to learn by hearing or by seeing? Does the person need to see your face in person in order to understand your good intentions? Do you have this person’s full attention?
All systems go? The final question is…
Question 4: Is this person open to correcting his/her grammar?
This can easily slam the brakes on your should-I-correct-someone’s-grammar quest.
The truth is, not many people want to hear the truth.
Does your person want to know? Or does being “called out” really get under this person’s skin?
I learned this the hard way. Years ago, when I was texting someone-who-shall-remain-nameless, I made the mistake of correcting the person’s grammar. And I was dealt the silent treatment for a solid week.
Don’t make the assumption that the person is just like you. Some people just don’t want to know.
I am unusual and I want to improve my grammar. I even told a co-worker to not be shy about correcting me. And she wasn’t. She made sure each time I ended a sentence with a preposition that I knew about it.
I learned. I worked on it. And now I never (well, more like rarely) end my sentences with a preposition.
I also didn’t throw a tantrum or plot revenge.
Should you correct someone’s grammar if you’re a teacher and a student misspeaks?
I’m choosing not to answer that one.
Do you correct someone’s grammar? Share your story below.