Correcting Someone’s Grammar in Public Is Rude


For the record, I’m fine with posting signs, although I feel for this poor ice cream jockey.

If you’ve written very much on the interwebs and you don’t spend five minutes proofreading everything you post, you’ve probably gotten comments like this, “Hee Hee . . . don’t you mean ‘YOUR day’ instead of ‘YOU’RE day’. :)”

I hate this. 

It’s rude.

We don’t walk into a crowded restaurant, notice our friend has on mismatched socks, and then shout, “Hey, you put on two different socks.” while grinning.   We don’t find a piece of mail in our inbox at the office and stand up to shout over the cubicle, “Hey, mail kid. You gave me Javier’s mail.”  Okay, we don’t do these things unless we’re jerks.

But yet, on a public forum, where hundreds, maybe thousands of people can see it, we regularly point out each other’s grammatical mistakes.  Given, this might happen to me more often than it does to most people because I write a lot online and because I write, edit, and teach writing for a living. And because, honestly, I think some people really enjoy feeling superior to a writing teacher.  Still, publicly pointing out a grammatical, spelling, or punctuation error on a Facebook or Twitter makes you a jerk.  Period. 

Now before people get all huffy about “standards” and “the slackness of our educational system” or the “need for accountability,” let me be clear.  I APPRECIATE when people point out my errors in a private manner. A little IM, a brief email, a Direct Message on Twitter.  I truly value that input, and I always edit when people send me those errors.  I want my writing to be pristine; I just don’t want the moments when it’s not to be announced with emoticons and links to dictionaries or style guides.  (Yep, someone pointed me to the MLA guide once – I wanted to pick up the copy that sits beside my desk and fling it’s silvery weight through the screen.)

So, for the love of Pete, let’s stop showing off our superior knowledge of the semi-colon by calling out someone’s inappropriate use on social media.  Instead, let’s send a little message, nicely worded, to let the person know we want their words to be as clear as possible because we value their message more than we do either correctness or our own ability to point it out.  In short, let’s stop being jerks.

How about you? Any stories about when someone pointed out your mistakes publicly?  Any wisdom on how we can do better? 

*Merciful heavens, I hope I proofread this post well, or for sure, the grammatical wrath of the universe will descend in the comments.

  • Jamie Kocur

    I love this. I have a FB friend that tends to go off on random rants, and went off on a grammar rant one day. My husband noticed a grammatical error in her grammatical rant. So, he politely pointed it out in the comments. I don’t know that she appreciated it. Perhaps our laughing at it wasn’t a good response, but we couldn’t help it.

    Thanks for a good reminder. I sometimes get all high and mighty in my grammar and I would aspire to not be a jerk about it.

    • Andi

      I’m definitely high and mighty about grammar – although you probably can’t tell that from my numerous posts with errors – but I just don’t think it’s polite to point things out publicly. It humiliates people . . . although in the case of your friend, if she’s going off, well, then . . . she kind of has opened herself to correction right . . .

      Again, please let me have proofread this post well, please. 😉

  • LarryTheDeuce

    Nothing specific. My sister was an English major and is also getting a Ph.D in Linguistics. I feel judged every time I communicate with her.

    • Andi

      People say that to me all the time, that they’re afraid to make a grammar mistake in front of me. . . and yet, I NEVER correct someone’s grammar unless they’re in my class or have asked me to edit for them. I wonder if your sister is the same.

  • Nate Shields

    Am I an online grammar jerk? I have been.
    Do I do it with malice? I have pondered this in my tiny little heart. I don’t think so.
    Can I do better? Yup.
    Will I? Hopefully.

    I’m often agitated by obvious grammar mistakes that are made where I work. Many are written, most are spoken. I tend not to point them out, because I value my job. It is extremely frustrating when these mistakes are made by Director/VP level employees where clear understandable language is needed or required.

    In regard to online conversations, I had a friend recently raise the question of being a grammar snob. I related back to him that when I see things that are poorly written (full of misspellings and the like) I often move on right away because, to me, whatever the message of the post/blog/thing of the moment is undercut. I guess he thinks I’m elitist. I guess I am. I’m glad he and I are still friends.

  • Andi

    I’m with you, Nate. Clear, correct communication is crucial . . . my issue is with how we help people improve. I just don’t find that calling out mistakes publicly is kind or effective – it just makes us all defensive.

    But I have worked for people who can’t write or speak, and in almost every case, I’ve found a way to slyly suggest that I edit their work. I’m not perfect, but I do believe I can do better . . . and I don’t think that’s being elitist . . . I think you’re asking for effectiveness.

  • Kris

    I love this, Andi. Really and truly. Thank you for this! 😉

  • debra

    This question has nothing to do with public correction, but I have an online literary friend whose ‘award-winning’ novel was laden with grammatical errors – mistakes that were blatant to my eyes. Though her writing voice was superb, I feel that the errors detracted from her credibility as a writer. Now that she’s working on a sequel to the first book, I’ve been wondering if I should bring to her attention the mistakes I discovered in the first novel. I’ve been pondering this for weeks. What would you do?

    • Andi

      Wow, Debra, that’s hard. But sometimes, I think, being a good friend requires saying the hard thing. I would probably write this person a very nice email, explaining what I loved about the book . . . and also suggest gently that they hire an editor before they publish it. She can get a good proofreader for a few hundred dollars, and as you say, that small thing could really make a difference in how people perceive her book.

      Still, so hard. I hope that helps.

  • Shannon M. Howell

    I try to do what you suggest, or at least offer it up as a question such as:

    I’m sorry, I got a little confused – could somebody please tell me what an “hour boat” is?
    When they meant to say “our boat.”

    Okay, that’s an awful example, but that’s all I could think up! Frankly, if I do that it’s because the error genuinely caused me to stumble and then I look like the silly who couldn’t figure out it was a mistake and everyone can have a laugh at typos.

    I’ve never been called out publicly online, but then again, I’m pretty honest about my firm but basic grasp of grammar (and my total inability to spell).

    The ONE place I’ve been known to publicly out errors is in school. It doesn’t have to be grammatical, but if there’s a poster that says, “Respect other artists work,” in a school, we’ll that’s setting a bad example in the place that’s supposed to set a good one. I will, of course, try to point it out discretely and kindly.

    • Andi

      I think signs are different, Shannon. We want people to be correct on things that are rather permanent, especially, as you say, in a school. But gently pointing things out, that’s what matters. And privately. :)

  • tim gallen

    a little late to the party, i know, but was just taking a look at some posts i missed and had to smile at the example you have at the beginning, andi. never have i ever come across an example of someone actually misusing you’re for your. it’s usually the other way around.

    your welcome. 😉

  • Stevie

    I think that with so many ways to post, typing, voice command, swipe texting… errors can occur without the person being unknowledgeable, and to even private message them is rude. Is it THAT important to call a person out? I recently used the swipe feature on my phone as I posted a photo. I didn’t notice any misspelled words, so I sent it. I was “reprimanded” via private message for not using the proper form of “your”. As rude as I think that is in and of itself, the person stated, “I thought you’d want to know since you teach your kids and I really just want kids to know how to spell.” So it went beyond just a polite, “hey, you made a mistake” (which as I’ve said, is rude ANYWAY) to borderlining attacking how I teach my kids. When I replied that it was a typo and my kids can spell just great, she came back with, “Since you homeschool it’s important for your kids to know the difference.” Again… going to far. I DO know the difference, but uh, thanks anyway. It went on and on with how these things are the downfall of society, and that she didn’t want me to add to it… insult after insult after insult. Private message or not, it’s just plain rude! ( I did not go over this with a fine toothed comb and proofread, please forgive me my imperfections! :) )

    • Andi

      I hear you, Stevie. Sounds like your friend had an axe to grind about spelling and took it out on you. That’s so hard.

      For me, since I write professionally, I do appreciate a correction in private because I want my public writing to be as correct as possible.

      But yes, simple errors that have no long-term bearing need not be noted, and they definitely don’t need to be made “teachable moments.” Thanks for reading.