I never want to be thought of as an annoying individual who likes to point out other people’s mistakes. With that in mind, when my husband recently said “…for you and I,” I stopped myself from saying, “You mean, ‘for you and me.’”
In that brief moment between hearing the mistake and wanting to straighten it out, I decided that I wasn’t about to trade marital bliss for a lofty disposition.
Does anyone—even a supportive husband—ever really appreciate unsolicited grammar advice? It may be meant as constructive, but when it’s directed at you, the unexpected input seems like full-blown criticism. As if you failed a test that you didn’t know you were being graded on. You feel disrespected by the Grammar Police, insulted and stifled from saying whatever was on your mind.
A member in one of my online writing groups recently posed a question to the rest of the group. I immediately noticed that his question contained a common error: using “there” instead of “their.” Pretty much everyone is prone to making similar mistakes. We forget to apply certain rules or are guilty of little typos. In those instances, we simply lower our guard and something slips, unchecked and uncensored, through our fingertips. I wasn’t about to publicly point out the blogger’s mistake since it wasn’t important to the ensuing conversation.
Another writer, however, was excessively harsh. This stickler rudely asserted his opinion that “someone ought to be using a dictionary to improve THEIR spelling.” Ouch! Point made, although it wasn’t really a spelling error but more of an error in word choice. Notably, no one—myself included—seemed bothered enough by that faux pas to make an issue out of it.
Similarly, there was no good reason that the there/their matter couldn’t have been addressed in a friendlier, less offensive, and perhaps even private way. By politely ignoring the situation altogether, the rest of the group sent a subtle message to the one outspoken member that perfection isn’t always necessary, especially in informal settings.
I was glad I had sided with the discerning writers who let both the original mistake and the poor response go unaddressed. But it’s hard for me to subdue my persnickety nature. I admittedly harbor some intolerance towards common grammatical mistakes. There are standards, and writers are expected to lead by example. We’re judged not only by our ability to tell a story, but also by our mastery of punctuation, spelling, word usage, and sentence structure.
We have decisions to make over the tiniest details. For example, do we use a numeral or spell out the number itself when referring to a centennial home as being one hundred years old? (Usually it is spelled out, but there are exceptions.) Should e-mail be hyphenated? (Yes.) Can we abbreviate okay as Ok? (No. Capitalize the entire abbreviation, as in OK.) Is the title to a blog italicized or placed within quotation marks? (The name of the Web site is italicized and an article posted on the site is placed in quotation marks.) Do we trust our phone’s spell check when it inserts an apostrophe into our family’s last name…when we’re not showing possession? (No! The Bixbys don’t like that.)
A writer’s ability to convey clear and concise thoughts is dependent upon all these things, in addition to understanding the basic parts of speech. It is our job to expertly unite a myriad of facets—nouns, pronouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions, and interjections—so that our work reflects both definitive grammar and intuitive usage.
There is a lot to remember, so let’s find support in reputable guidebooks, like The Chicago Manual of Style. Then understand that despite our best efforts, occasionally, you and I are going to mess up. We should strive for—but not expect—personal perfection, be kind when offering advice to others, and relax with the people we love.