Op Ed

It’s Time For the Grammar Police To Retire

My pet peeve is “sneak peek” spelled like “sneak peak.” What the hell would “sneak peak” even mean? Hey, who’s that creeping up behind me? OMG, it’s Mount St. Helens!

Mount St. Helens and Spirit Lake
Surprise, bitches!

Mistakes in spelling, grammar, punctuation, and usage can literally make you’re head explode. [BOOM! -PoM]¬†Nonetheless, there are lots of good reasons not to give people you chat with online a hard time for making these errors.

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  1. English isn’t everybody’s first language. That’s easy for people in the U.S. to forget, because lots of us don’t have a second language.
  2. Not everyone grew up in a home that encouraged reading, or had access to good education. People who don’t read much are more likely to make mistakes.
  3. Some people have dyslexia or other learning disabilities that make proper spelling or grammar more difficult.
  4. A lot of things can cause a drop in writing skills: serious things, like Alzheimer’s or a head injury, and not-so-serious things, like being sleepy, drunk, or both.
  5. English isn’t spoken the same way everywhere, and someone’s irregular usage may be common for her community.
  6. When you correct someone’s English in an online argument, it makes you appear as though you don’t have a substantial point to make. It’s like the snooty English major version of saying, “Oh yeah? Well, you’re ugly.” I guess if you’re really irritated, you can do this in a subtle way by repeating what the other person has said, but correctly: “I understand you feel as though your head will explode. However…”


Of course, there are lots of situations where you can help someone out by fixing her writing. A friend who’s trying to use better English might let you know she welcomes corrections. If your coworker always spells something wrong in emails, or has a glaring typo in her Powerpoint deck, you should say something privately so she doesn’t look bad. If you let a business know that something on their sign or website is misspelled, you’re usually doing them a favor.

The rest of the time, it’s best to just let things go, even if you’re an American who loves good grammar and fears we are becoming a nation of semi-illiterates. I suspect that we aren’t, and that poor spellers have always been among us. With the rise of social media, more people are expressing themselves more often in written form, and maybe that makes mistakes seem more pervasive.

If something’s really bothering you, you can always opt for the PSA Facebook status. “May I have your attention, please? When you are discussing your diet plans, it’s correct to write, ‘I want to lose weight,’ not, ‘I want to loose weight.’* Thank you. That is all.” It might make you feel better. Just don’t do it right after someone on your Facebook feed has made this mistake, so that he or she feels publicly shamed. That’s being a jerk, for all intensive purposes.**

*I am actually a big fan of the phrase “loosing weight.” “Release the pounds! Off you go! Be free!”

**Yes. I know. “Intents and.”

[Image credit: CVO Photo Archives Mount St. Helens, Washington Before, During, and After May 18, 1980; via Wikimedia Commons (in the public domain)]

By Bryn Donovan

Romance writer, poet, quilter, and dog cuddler.

12 replies on “It’s Time For the Grammar Police To Retire”

My favorite is when people mean to write “wean” and write “ween” instead. One is getting used to doing without something; the other is a penis.

I correct my husband when he makes stupid grammar mistakes in writing, but otherwise I mostly grin and bear it unless I just feel like being a bitch.

Yeah, I used to be a complete jerkwad about this stuff and then I realized that I was, in fact, being a jerkwad, and now I try to live by this rule: I only correct people’s spelling and grammar when I’ve been asked or paid to do so.

I slip sometimes. It’s difficult not to listen to the prescriptivist (“this is how language should be”) voice and listen to the descriptivist (“this is how language is”) one instead. So, yeah, I go off on rants on Facebook, but I try to keep it to a reasonable level. Usually.

Mostly I do restrain myself, but I do check copy and presentations frequently for work, and believe me I go to town with my red pen (as I expect others to do for me!).

I generally don’t correct something elsewhere (speech, email, online chat…) unless it genuinely makes their meaning unclear, or I know the person well so I can slag them:)

I can *usually* resist commenting on spelling/grammar/usage in a not-editing-or-tutoring setting. Usually. Unless it’s so obvious (like when someone kept using “antiseptic” to mean “aesthetic”, and “the antiseptic quality of this painting” does not mean what they thought it meant) or they’re crowing about their own language skills while making significant mistakes. If it’s a casual conversation, though, or I know that the person isn’t as strong with writing/speaking in English as they’d like to be (especially if I know they’re self-conscious about it), I’ll only comment if they ask for feedback, and I try to stick with personal messages rather than “calling out” in a more public forum. I mean, if I were on a Spanish-language website and someone responded to my posts by picking at my grammar, I’d feel dumb and wouldn’t want to visit that website anymore, you know what I mean?

And I know that my punctuation isn’t always as good as it should be, and I tend to run-on a bit. But I try to be as precise with my words as possible. These are MY words, after all.

I prefer the term my brother came up for my Mom and I: Feral Grammarian. Yes, it was totally a privilege to have an editor for a mother (seriously, she was the editor of the series of grammar text books and work books my brother and I used in elementary and middle school). But just like I’ll engage someone in conversation if they start using “facts” that are incorrect, I will also engage a person in conversation about the correct spelling or punctuation or whatever. I don’t imagine the world is becoming more illiterate, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to let things that are incorrect remain incorrect just because it’s easier. There are all manner of tactful or tactless ways to approach anything, and I’m not going to assume that just because someone’s doing it wrong doesn’t mean they wouldn’t also like to be doing it better.

But I want them around, because I always mix up at least three languages (including one I created myself, which doesn’t help at all)!

And I think you can correct people. I also think you should consider time, place and tone of voice. I will also admit (Hi I’m Freckle And I Have A Grammar Police Past) that I have used the “I don’t understand what you’re saying because it’s spelled so badly” remark. Defense will add that it was with Dutch people on a Dutch forum that previously showed to be able to write correctly.
But I’m sorry.

Hi, I’m Brenda, and I’m a recovering grammar cop …

Once I realized good grammar/good education/brain wired for English grammar is a form of privilege I was able to back off some. I still cringe when I make my own mistakes, but I’m able to let other people’s slide on by.

Another possibility for why someone makes a mistake is how they came to know the word/phrase/whatever. One of my kids once wrote “paper view” for pay-per-view. My first instinct was to wonder how that mistake could be made, until I realized said child had only heard the term, never seen it in words. It certainly sounds like paper.

Omg!! How could I forget I did that?

I heard the term when Nixon and China were big news. I was young and had zero context for what it was. I tried looking it up in the encyclopedia and when I couldn’t find it I thought it must be something really,really bad. I was in my late teens when I finally saw the word in print.

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