Legal Articles

STOP GRAMMAR POLICING

Here’s the thing: I’m all for the preservation of the English language. People should know correct grammar and usage if they want to sound smart, capable, and attentive. Think of all the times one wants to use correct grammar: resumes, cover letters, term papers, exams and interviews. . . really, in all of those cases, the only person who’s harmed by your poor grammar is you.

I generally prefer good grammar, but I feel that we shouldn’t police other people’s less-than-perfect grammar. I think that when we do spend time pointing out other people’s poor grammar and/or spelling, or picking apart their word choice, we miss the substance of what they are saying/writing in favour of policing how they said/wrote it.

Policing grammar stifles true and open communication. The people who are being “corrected” at every turn no longer want to speak up (and the people correcting them weren’t listening for anything but errors anyway). Essentially, correcting grammar says, “Your contributions to this conversation are worthless, unless you can communicate in a way that I deem acceptable.” The corrector becomes not a lover of language, but a language snob. I also believe that there are too many unknowns about the person being corrected: is English their first language? Do they have a learning disability? Are they as educated as the corrector? Did they maybe just miss the auto-corrected words on their phone/tablet? Perhaps they use text to speech technology to communicate. We can’t be sure. My personal rule for this is that unless I am specifically, and directly, asked to correct someone’s grammar, I keep my criticisms to myself. Besides, my grammar is likely not 100% error free, so I have no business being a pedant about other people’s.

There are convincing reasons to correct one’s grammar. Normally you should be hesitant about correcting co-workers’ mistakes. If you spot an error in a casual email, for instance, leave it. But, if you see a mistake that could have major consequences, politely point out the error when you have a moment alone with the colleague. One example of when it’s okay to explain an error would be if a co-worker asks you to look over a PowerPoint for a quarterly update meeting with the big bosses and you see they used affect when it should be effect. If you’re talking to a non-native speaker and you’re genuinely confused by their communication, it might be fair to clarify some grammar to make sure you understand the meaning correctly. But unless you’re a language teacher or have been explicitly asked to help, please spare the grammar lessons in general conversation.

That brings us to why it’s generally rude to correct the grammar of others. It’s simply not appropriate to correct other people’s behaviour (unless you are his/her parent). Period. Full stop. It’s not polite to tell anyone they’re doing a bad job of, well, anything — communication included. One theme of being a polite person is being able to show that you are not distracted by the conventions of what’s being said but are actually interested in the meaning of what’s being said. It’s extremely rude to imply to others that — far from being an appreciative audience — you were simply listening for “mistakes”.

And one more thing. The grammar obsessed nerds should tread very, very carefully. Grammar is a notoriously fickle and changing field and prone to confusing even the most confident grammarian. Don’t assume your knowledge of language is immutable. You might find yourself on the receiving end of a lesson from someone in your fraternity who knows even more than you do.

We all want to use words in a way that makes us sound professional, so that they’ll perhaps have a positive impact on our long-term success. Yet caring too much about words can lead some of us to fall into an easy trap: becoming overly critical of the words other people use. If you’re a teacher, maybe this doesn’t apply to you; it’s your job to correct students’ grammar.

A very interesting interview I saw of a psychologist talking about lowering your stress. He said that the more we try to correct other people, and in fact, the more we make ourselves responsible for correcting the mistakes that everyone makes on a daily basis, the more we experience high levels of stress, and the more people will dislike us. So, he suggested that we let people be. Don’t correct them. Unless you know for certain that the person will appreciate the critique, just leave it alone. And, unless it is part of your profession to teach someone a skill and to make sure they make no mistakes, just don’t correct people. If you think that “let them be wrong” is too arrogant-sounding, you can replace it with a similar phrase, which is “live and let live”.

I urge the elitist, superiority complexed nerdy people to get off their high horse. Enjoy the conversation (with or without grammatical errors). Language is a means to an end, not the end, the end being meaningful communication. So always ask yourself, do you genuinely want people to be better writers and speakers, or do you want to be right? Check within yourself to see if it is the latter, because it is almost always the latter. A sense of humour goes a long way when correcting others. The tone in which the mistake is pointed out and the context can lighten any matter. Like this secretary.

Boss to Secretary – There are so many mistakes in this draft. Are you not careful while typing? Secretary – Boss, it’s a confidential letter anyway. How does it matter?

In our legal documents, there is no scope for errors, whether the documents have to be submitted to court or it is a private agreement between the parties. The context of this article definitely does not apply to the legal profession as such. It is written keeping the general interest in mind, something like a Public Interest Litigation (PIL).

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