Stop correcting other people’s grammar



I used to be the teen who would correct my friends' grammar when they talked. When I walked into my first intro to editing class at uni, I was confident that I knew my grammar. I was then given a quiz of ten questions — I only got three correct.

Newspaper with corrections in red pen (Nic McPhee/Flickr)What I thought were hard and fast rules were actually not that important, and then there were grammar rules I had never heard about in my life. I realised that when I was correcting people, the root of it was about what I thought was the correct way to speak rather than actual standard grammar rules.

Though our education system has made a shift to a more descriptivist style of teaching grammar, there is still a segment of the internet that seems obsessed with enforcing 'correct' grammar: the self-styled Grammar Police. Look at social media, website comment sections, even mugs. The Grammar Police are everywhere. This type of prescriptivist would have everyone use standard grammar and usage all the time, leaving little room for change or context. To them, the point isn't whether the message is communicated effectively or not — it's the way in which it's delivered.

In communicating with others, grammar provides clarity, and Australian standard grammar is one way of accomplishing that. However, what often isn't acknowledged is that knowing the standardised rules is a skill that not everyone has the same access to.

I only know the rules because of the various levels of privilege in my life. Australian English is my first language and the first language of my parents. I don't have any learning, hearing or visual disabilities. I literally have a degree in writing and editing hanging in my bedroom. I'm interested in how words work because I was given every opportunity to be.

The relationship between grammar and privilege is important to point out because the people most hurt by sticking to a hardline prescriptivist viewpoint are minorities. In spite of increasing acceptance for singular 'they' and using gender-neutral pronouns, there is still staunch opposition on the basis of correct grammar usage, which is hard to read as anything but a not-so-subtle attack on non-binary and gender non-conforming people.

Young women are often mocked for overusing modifiers, quotative 'like' and creating slang. However, it's recently being pointed out that mocking girls for how they talk isn't just rude, it's inherently misogynistic. It's well established in the linguistic field that young women are at the forefront of language progression and have been for centuries. What then happens is that these changes become part of the cultural lexicon. Meaning that while most people end up using these new modes of speech, it's mostly young women who are singled out for scorn.


"How we police language isn't about nobly saving the standards of English, it's about institutional power. Good grammar is a form of gatekeeping that can bar people from anything from job opportunities to public debate."


Aboriginal English has a different syntax to standard Australian English, so its often misinterpreted as being ungrammatical, when in fact, according to Ian Malcolm, professor of applied linguistics, 'the irony of the situation is that Aboriginal people, in most cases, are managing two dialects in the course of their everyday living and the people, very often, who criticise the way in which they use language are themselves mono-dialectal ... Aboriginal people are managing a more complex linguistic situation than those that criticise them sometimes.' And of course, the same applies to others who have learnt Australian English as a second language.

The crux of it is that how we police language in others often isn't about nobly saving the standards of English, it's about institutional power. Good grammar is not a neutral concept, but a form of gatekeeping that can bar people from anything from job opportunities to public debate. And since grammar and linguistic variation tends to be passed on through upbringing and proximity, those with entry points to people who hold institutional power end up receiving cultural capital, while those who can't successfully codeswitch are left out in the cold.

Everyone's grammar is a little different because our mix of experiences and influences are unique. Grammar is a fluid entity we create and change and improve upon; it can't be contained in a box called 'correct grammar' and left to collect dust in a schoolroom.

The irony is that the more I have learned about grammar — how wild it is and how arbitrary it can be — the less I feel the need to correct other people's grammar in my day to day life. When I put on my editor's hat, it's because someone has asked me to.

So before you make that snarky comment about how 'that really isn't a word' or how someone didn't know the difference between less and fewer, consider how important it really is. You wouldn't give unsolicited advice about how someone dresses, so why correct how they speak?



Neve MahoneyNeve Mahoney is a student at RMIT university. She has also contributed to Australian Catholics and The Big Issue

Main image: Nic McPhee/Flickr

Topic tags: Neve Mahoney, grammar, language, discrimination



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Existing comments

Good grammar is basically about effective communication. Words and how they govern one another can save time and lives. English itself is a vastly vast hybrid. As we know from watching sitcoms from anywhere, it can delineate class and education and nationality in a trice. However, effective communication remains critical. Learned people with an overreaching vocabulary can render themselves incomprehensible while wisdom still comes from the mouth of a babe.
Philip Harvey | 20 February 2019

St Ignatius of Loyola - from what I remember reading about his draft of his Spiritual Exercises. Was not concerned with his grammar. Someone else edited it for him....Spell checking is boring.
AO | 20 February 2019

Thanks Neve. I'm thinking like I sort of needed those words! The pedants in our society ponder such intricacies. Though some time ago I did read a delightful, and learned, article by Robert Dessaix about The Subjunctive. 'Excuse me! Hullo! Subjunctive! I want to call out. It's not dead yet, you know! Why not use it for once, when it really matters?' he implores as he hears the words, at the beginning of a flight (we've all heard them). 'It's important to us that you are aware of the safety features on board this aircraft.'
Pam | 20 February 2019

Nice piece Neve. "I ONLY got three correct." ... you put that in as bait, didn't you? I'm not biting.
HH | 21 February 2019

At the risk of being describe as snarky, I think in the context you meant "I got only three correct". But hey, don't mind me and you can blame the local editor for not picking up "... so its misinterpreted as being ungrammatical."
Frank | 21 February 2019

If I were to be picky, I would have thought that they have made at least three fundamental grammatical errors in this article.
john frawley | 21 February 2019

If Ignatius had not had his manuscript corrected we would never have heard of it.
Philip Harvey | 21 February 2019

I'm more worried about people only knowing one language. And having only ever lived in one country all their lives. When people know more than one language. They will often use the grammatical patterns of the language they know best when writing the others. They may also be not so great at writing in any of the languages they know. Reading is a different story. I once knew a lady from Alexandria who spoke 5 languages. We always had great fun speaking to each other in the languages we both knew. Using a jumble of different words from different languages in the same sentence. Whatever.
AO | 21 February 2019

"Grammar Police" aren't "self-styled": the term is usually applied to them by those who misuse grammar and resent criticism of their aberrations; and by those who advocate Trotskyist linguistic inventions such as Systemic Functional Grammar, employing it primarily as a tool for 'conscientizing' its users in analysis of power and relations in society.
John | 21 February 2019

I came as child to Australia and had non-English-speaking parents. I don’t pretend to understand all the various grammatical rules, tenses etc. I had to learn English by being placed at the back of a first year class and told to just listen by someone who they found could talk my language. That was the last I saw of her. After 3 months, the teacher told me to read out a passage from a book in English to my parents. Looking back, I believe that they wouldn’t have understood a word, but praised me for it anyway. Later I found it to be an advantage not to have incorrect English learnt from parents, which was the case for many of my classmates. But I don’t have a problem with starting sentences with prepositions. I do get hung up with people using “l” when they should use “me”, to the extent that one colleague used “X and I’s blah blah...”. Instead of X’s and my blah blah...”. My daughter tells me that as long as people understand the meaning, using “me” or “l” doesn’t matter, so she must be in the young women’s vanguard that Neve is talking about. My main issue is whether a sentence is logical, i.e., means what is stated, is clear and is not a convoluted mess.
Frank S | 21 February 2019

Many of the commenters miss the fundamental point Ms Mahony makes about grammar authoritarians: "it's about institutional power" and the privilege that flows from it. Once, employed as a media adviser for an Aboriginal politician, I was earnestly advised by an ABC reporter to coach my boss in "standard English" so he would be taken seriously. It would be unfair of me, perhaps, to remark on the toffy accent of that reporter, but I found it astonishing to be told I should coach my minister in "how to talk right". Needless to say I ignored this attempt to assert language correctness. It might be noted, this was a reporter who consistently mispronounced the names of Aboriginal communities and people--despite many attempts to "coach" the person in "how to talk right". What's good for the goose comes to mind.
Chips Mackinolty | 22 February 2019

I would have thought that these days unsolicited criticism (in both senses) of how a person dresses was becoming the norm. And yes all too often there is a hidden agenda in that.Do I really want to remember Julie Bishop for her shoes? But grammar is a deeper issue (yes really...).Precise thinking is genuinely important in some contexts (and less so in others). When we say something is different it really is helpful to be reminded that it therefore differs FROM. And when we lose the meaning of DISiNTERESTED we are the poorer from it. We should all have an interest in grammar because, however boring it may seem, it does matter.
Margaret | 22 February 2019

Maybe its not about 'institutional power and the privilege that flows from it", Chips. It might simply be that some, who appreciate the unmatched beauty and expressive fluidity of the English language with its many options and nuances both in words and grammar, dislike the ugliness and increasingly frequent inanity of its misuse.
john frawley | 22 February 2019

There is no virtue in having excellent grammar. Though the virtue of patience is given to those who fight their urge to become annoyed by the bad grammar of others. Only the virtues are desirables. When sunset comes. No one will care about our perfect or imperfect grammar. past or present. Only the kindness we have shown.
AO | 22 February 2019

Aquinas said, "I can write no more. I have seen things that make my writings like straw." Perhaps people who do not care for 'perfect grammar', have also seen what Aquinas saw. Perhaps perfect grammar, or the English you so admire JF, seems straw to such people. I would rather have a 'glimpse' of what he saw - hidden in the ugliness and increasingly frequent inanity of its misuse- Than see 'nothing' in the perfect English you so idolize. If you are so attached to perfect English grammar. You haven't had a 'glimpse'. Clearly.
AO | 22 February 2019

English belongs to anyone who needs to be literate in it for the sake of earning a livelihood or for some important personal purpose. It doesn’t belong only to those who are genetically British. Nor can it be appropriated by any social subgroup (eg., Aborigines, motorcycle gangs) to be turned into a patois to the complete exclusion of some version of standard English. If a Toyota dealer in Rawalpindi can’t share a subset of English with a Toyota marketing manager in Tokyo, how will they communicate by letter, phone or email? The subset is a form of standard English. If one form of standard English makes no sense to another, how will a dealer who speaks an African form of standard English participate in a Toyota phone conference with dealers who speak Chinese, Venezuelan, New Zealand and Puerto Rican forms of standard English? Consequently, all forms of standard English can be understood by each other because they follow rules held in common and because the necessity to be understood restricts the freedom of each subset to evolve on its own terms. You need to speak standard English if you want to eat because other ethnicities also own your English.
roy chen yee | 22 February 2019

Context matters. Play with dialect when it’s fun or appropriate to do so, in informal settings or even in formal settings if there’s a point to be made. But if a language is to be a unifier, how can it be balkanised? Barack Obama would not have become president if he could or would not speak an acknowledged standard form of English. That’s not to say that he mustn’t use the word ‘woke’ to mean ‘socially aware’ when speaking to black schoolkids but it certainly means he should consider whether to use ‘woke’ instead of ‘socially aware’ in a speech to an international gathering of progressives. I’m not sure codeswitching is a problem if you’ve received a standard education. I’m sure any product of Australian secondary schooling can swing from standard to Strine at the drop of a hat.
roy chen yee | 23 February 2019

When I completed my HSC overseas. In a foreign language. I was the third with the highest score that year in that school. I was congratulated on the analysis of the work of a literary figure in that country in one of my essays. Sure, they pointed out my grammatical errors. But they said that had no relevance, as they understood my limitations writing in that language. As a result of my high score, I was accepted to attend one of the oldest Universities in Europe, that was accepting only 36 people to do the degree I was interested in that year. Hundreds of students with perfect grammar applied. But failed. It's not about seeing outside of the box. It's about getting rid of the box.
AO | 23 February 2019

I am just emerging from a load of essay marking, and I can absolutely testify that poor expression -- in which I include dodgy grammar -- is inextricably connected with careless and inadequate thought processes. The students who use language ungrammatically are typically those who do not know what (if anything) they are saying, or who are are trying to say ridiculous things. Bureaucrats are prone to innovative grammar and vocabulary for the same reasons. And so are people who want to deseminate nonsensical ideas, which would be seen for what they were if the ideologues would to use clear English. It is probably not wise or polite -- at least in casual conversation -- to correct the linguistic expression of either managers or ideologues. But in writing, and the serious work of intelligent discussion, grammar is a system for making meaning happen, and to ignore it is to allow all varieties of non-meaning to flourish.
Greg Tanner | 23 February 2019

Should you correct your interlocutor's solecism or barbarism? Sometimes it would be immensely helpful. You would let it pass only if he is your enemy. On other occasions, it would be improper. Similarly about table manners--it helps newcomers from certain other cultures to be told that slurping is not the done thing here. All this is about manners, and not particularly related to language. In spite of Ms Mahoney's denial, there is such a thing as correct use of language. When she or a friend of hers ends up in court, it makes a difference whether the judge--or her own lawyer--is disinterested or uninterested. Making a point like that, am I being a linguistic authoritarian? If you observe court proceedings, and want to praise the judge's impartiality, be careful in your choice bween the two words.
Thomas Mautner | 23 February 2019

"I can write no more. I have seen things that make my writings like straw." Maybe Aquinas was a crook writer, AO. Perhaps he saw writings so superior to his own in the use of language, words and the grammar that infused them with enhanced meaning that he realised that he should give it away!
john frawley | 24 February 2019

It all comes down to context Neve. There is a time and place for correcting someone else's grammar, and a conversation with friends is not the time or place. And of course you don't go around correcting the grammar of someone for whom English is not their first language. As for social media, there are a lot of things there that should simply be ignored! But poor grammar does need to be corrected when something is to be shared or published. You parallel correcting someone else's grammar with criticising a person's dress. Context matters there too. If someone turned up for a funeral in dirty old clothes or a swimsuit, of course they can - and should - be criticised. Substitute the word 'spelling' for 'grammar' in your argument. How would it be if we said spelling was fluid, learning correct spelling is a waste of time, we should be able to spell the way we want, and never correct someone's spelling errors? Yes, to become good at grammar you have to learn rules, practise, and be open to correction, but the same applies to cooking, sport - in fact - to life!
Elizabeth Harrington | 24 February 2019

Neve, not only have you been able to note the manner in which the "grammar police" act, you also have been able to read their minds and, dogmatically, nominate their motives. You are a bit of a genius. Well done
Terence Oberg | 24 February 2019

Good article, but hate to say it people do give 'advice' on how people dress!!!
Veronica | 24 February 2019

I prefer to be consider naive, dumb, and uneducated, really. Because of my very poor spelling and grammar. And compared to many people. I am. Being lowly is the safest place of all. And I like it down here. You meet the nicest people. People who have difficulties with writing also sometimes have had to stop furthering there education. Because of the feeling of unease, it can create for them. I stared a Masters Degree, years ago but because of this feeling I had to withdraw from attending classes. Of course grammar is important. But as it has been said here. It depends on what field of work your are in. It's not an indication of someones intelligence. Though the ability to understand others, no matter how badly they write or speak, is. And here the long history of the Jesuits' 'sensibility' to the rights of all and their tireless work to help the voiceless the uneducated and those most in need, comes to mind. Their real 'intelligence' is this 'sensibility'. You could say this 'sensibility' is the fruit of a very, very good education. So what's good grammar? A tool to help others with. Good grammar without good works is meaningless.
AO | 25 February 2019

Some of the references in this article are about vocalisations, such as uptalk and vocal fry, rather than grammar. Vocal fry, among other things a stratagem for appearing unimpressed, has been criticised for not being good for your throat but uptalk, the sounding of a statement like a question, is used to build rapport or not to appear overbearing. Insofar as girls and young women need finely attuned antennae to get along with their non-patriarchal, non-racist but still highly political social groups, all’s well that helps your daughter to go along to get along, as long as how she speaks is how she has chosen to speak on that occasion and for that purpose. If how she happens to speak is how she instinctively speaks, how is she different from her cat? If she speaks at the dinner table in the same way she speaks in a classroom corridor, because that’s how she knows to speak, you might want to tell her that autonomy is for humans and instinct is for animals. When there are several ways of speaking (as there always is), autonomy compares value against purpose. The same, after all, goes for that other obeisance to institution, dress.
roy chen yee | 25 February 2019

Hi, Neve: Excellent article. I was sitting in a lecture aged 27 at the University of Kent in late 1976. The lecturer - a noted "linguist" (I think a dozen languages at fluency level - Finnish and Japanese amongst them) who threw a structure question to the 50 or so present in the class. My hand was straight up - and I fell into his trap - what I said was, he pointed out - in his best Yorkshire-accented standard English - was something associated with the variant of standard English known as Australian English. I sharpened my eye and brain - soon heading off to teach standard English (UK) in Madrid and in Munich. Alert from that point onwards to standard forms (not only of English) but of German, French, Italian, Spanish - and Japanese, too - many years down the track. Aged 11 my Scottish teacher grand-mother had informed me that her paternal grand-father, James Murray (1837-1912) - was a first cousin to James AH Murray (1837-1915) the lexicographer editor and writer of the New English Dictionary (based on Historical Principles) which because it was published by the Clarendon Press - soon came to be officially known as the Oxford English Dictionary (The OED). Murray's vision was descriptivist - not prescriptivist in colour - to annotate each word from written records back as far as they might be found - revealing the many shifts and shades of meaning over the centuries. I have been an editor, too - of writing on a wide variety of subjects into the scientific and medical fields - and the only thing I have had to be truly aware of were the shades of difference from standard English (UK & Aust.) to standard English (USA). And then to wonder at the history of my language and at the kaleidoscope of non-standard dialects it has birthed and allowed to flourish!
Jim KABLE | 28 February 2019


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