Telling people that they’re wrong is one of the most exquisite joys life has to offer. The fly in this highbrow soup is determining how to do so without causing offense to your more grammar-bereft counterparts.
The conundrum is figuring out how to insult people without seeming like a jerk. Grammar is an especially tender topic, rife with personal preferences, a mix of strictness and flexibility, and real and imagined implications for social and professional mobility.
Should (when) you find yourself nearly bursting with grammatical contempt or linguistic indignation, try these gentle approaches to ensure you correct others with tact, preserving the relationship while elevating their written or verbal expression:
1. Begin with a question. “May I tell you something? I noticed your advertisement is missing a letter that changes the meaning substantially. ‘Hoemade apple butter’ has a different ring than ‘homemade apple butter,’ no?”
2. Build camaraderie. “I actually just learned that the term is ‘homing device’ not ‘honing device.’ I think I’ve been hearing it wrong my entire life. Well, now we both know, eh?” (If “just learned” was actually 25 years ago, there is no need to clarify that detail.)
3. Lead with a compliment. “You’re adorable. So is ‘repeatedly, constantly redundant.’ Let me help you fix this.” (This works well with children and people without huge egos. If they’re significantly older than you or fit to burst with pomposity, it may backfire.)
4. Douse it in humility. “I suggest…you reread this since I caught a few errors…you may be implying something unintentionally…your message would come across better if you reorganized this or reworded this part for clarity.”
5. Give up. If one of these fails to prevent a retaliatory tantrum, shrug your shoulders slightly and say, “Begging your pardon. I meant no offense.” After that, you may go home and read Shakespeare aloud in a terse, cowboy accent to relieve your rage.
Conversely, if you favor the more direct approach (and by “direct” we mean “displaying atrocious manners and supreme snideness”), here are a few foolproof responses that will streamline your path to infamy:
1. Use imagery. “For the love of all that is good and holy, would you stop talking? It’s like hearing nails on a chalkboard in cold, pouring rain while someone perpetually burns popcorn and coughs in my face.”
2. Wield hyperbole. “Every word you write is wrong. Even the words that aren’t wrong are wrong by virtue of being accomplices on the page.”
3. Stun them. “If I stopped you to correct your grammar, you’d have to cease speaking altogether.”
4. Sow confusion. “I don’t know whether I should laud you or shame you for your exceptionally poor spelling.”
5. Bribe/insult them. “I will give you money to stop writing/talking. I will pay your mortgage. I will send your children to college. If you don’t have children, I will send your dog to college. Because there is no hope for you.”
Language should draw us together. So, unless you observe egregious errors or are saving someone from embarrassment or immediate ruin, if you’re in a casual atmosphere and their language is intelligible, let it rest.
Unlike us. We are paid to be judgmental. And we really, really love our jobs.
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