Less Arseholes Please

A little rant about grammar pedantry

There’s a Twitter search that I love. Maybe it’s odd to have feelings for a search term, but I do. I love “its there not their”. Yes, that’s “its”, not “it’s”. There’s something wonderful about all those people correcting someone else’s grammar but getting it so wrong themselves. A lovely real-time stream of schadenfreude.

Last year I wrote a Twitter bot to search for anyone who used that phrase. Every time a matching tweet popped up the bot would reply to it offering a little correction. Sometimes people would reply to the bot, and never in a particularly friendly way. It seems they only cared about grammar mistakes when someone else was making them.

In the end my wife made me shut the Twitter bot down. I resented it a little at the time, but she was right. It wasn’t doing anything that made people’s lives better or improving the internet. All the bot was doing was making people angry. Really angry.

The question of correcting grammar has been simmering away in the back of my mind since then. I’ve come to the conclusion that correcting someone’s grammar in public makes you an arsehole. There’s never any excuse for it.

Why? Because when you correct grammatical mistake in public it’s all about making you feel superior. In that action there isn’t a shred of respect or consideration for the person who got it wrong. You simply want to show that you know more than them. That selfishness makes you an arsehole.

If you really cared about them at all then you’d correct them later, in private. No need for public humiliation. No need to stop conversations in their tracks. No need to put people on the defensive or make them angry.

Does that description not sound like you? Perhaps your grammar corrections are an involuntary spasm. Do you blurt out “it’s fewer!” before you even know what you’ve said? If so, you need to stop that — because it’s making you look like an arsehole. Have a look at the Twitter search. Read down that list of tweets. That’s what you sound like. Stop it.

I was going to finish there, but I know that (for me) this problem goes deeper. Although I’ve managed to reign in my instinct to correct other people, that little judging voice is still there in the back of my mind — my inner arsehole.

I’ll be reading an article or blog post and I’ll stumble across a grammatical mistake. My instinct is to stop reading and move on. One mistake will unsettle me, a couple more and I’ll be gone. Not because the writer wasn’t saying something interesting, and not because I couldn’t understand what they meant, but because I’m an arsehole.

There’s nothing more depressing than getting to the end of an inspiring piece of writing and seeing that the first few comments at the bottom are all complaints about errors in grammar. They’re not grappling with the ideas the author has taken the time to commit to words. They’ve dismissed all that and gone straight to complain that one word was wrong. What annoys me is that, even though I haven’t posted a snarky comment about it, I’ve probably also dismissed the article for the same reason.

Is it the author’s fault? Maybe a little. But have a think about the sentiment that’s at the heart of what we do.

“This person is less well educated than me, so what they have to say isn’t worth my time.”

I genuinely think that’s the signal our brain is giving us. That doesn’t make me feel good. Let’s fight it. Let’s be accepting and welcoming. Let’s hear people out even if they don’t write proper. Let’s do everything we can to avoid being arseholes.