Good Grammar and Bad Manners: Writing Tips for Handling Mistakes Made in Public
I’m a writer, but before I’m a writer, I’m a human being. And as a human being, sometimes I make mistakes.
Let’s face it, we all make mistakes–some big, some small. Today, I want to talk about what happens when we, as writers, make a mistake in our work: a typo, an incorrectly structured sentence, or a misspelling.
When writers make mistakes like these, it can be embarrassing. Occasionally, when I’m going through old posts here at Writing Forward, I’ll come across some typo or mistake and I’ll fix it. I do everything I can to ensure that this happens as rarely as possible; I proofread everything I write from my blog posts to my comments, tweets, and emails. But sometimes, mistakes slip past.
There was a time when I’d catch one of my own (published) mistakes and be completely horrified. I could feel my neck and face turning red from embarrassment and even though I’d fix the mistake, it would haunt me for hours. Did it cause me to lose a reader or a client? How many people noticed it? I just wanted to crawl under a rock — even if was just one little tiny typo.
In time, I learned to be more forgiving. After all, a typo is not the end of the world. I’ve found them in some of the most prestigious publications in print and online. And in the larger scope of the world, getting bent out of shape over a grammatical, orthographical, or typographical error seems pretty petty.
Sometimes, my mistakes are brought to my attention by someone else — a friend, a friendly reader, or a complete stranger. These corrections have arrived via email or a comment on the post where the perceived mistake appeared.
The first time this happened in the comments here at Writing Forward, I didn’t know what to do. This was years ago, not long after I started blogging. Of course, I immediately made the correction but wondered whether I should delete the corresponding comment on the post. Did I want to leave permanent proof that I’d made a (gasp!) mistake?
I decided that yes, I would leave the comment in place, thank the person, and move on. Let that stand as evidence that to err is human and I’m okay with being a mere human.
To Err is Human
Usually, when someone tips me off to a mistake, the message is thoughtful; I get a clear sense that it’s just one writer trying to help another writer out, which I greatly appreciate. One email I received recently had the subject line “Because I’d want someone to tell me…” I appreciated this person’s tact, understanding, and most of all, his candid approach.
Since I started this site, I’ve received such corrections occasionally, maybe once or twice a year.
Not long ago, I started receiving an onslaught of corrections — several in a single week. Oddly, most of them were wrong. They were confused about the difference between grammar and style issues or were nitpicking over semantics. Very few of these had a helpful or thoughtful tone. In fact, they mostly came across as chastising (Ha! You made a mistake, and I found it. Therefore, I’m better than you!).
Um, aren’t we all writers here?
To me, the whole reason for practicing good grammar is to show respect for the craft and for one’s readers. Publicly correcting other writers with a berating tone is contrary to that spirit. Why bother with good grammar if you’re going to run around insulting other people with bad manners?
The Internet provides anonymity that we’ve never seen before on public forums. Most impolite comments, tweets, and emails that I’ve received have definitely been anonymous. So, I get the feeling these people know they’re being rude.
Conversely, just about every time someone has sent me a thoughtful and friendly heads-up to let me know something was wrong with my site — whether it was a typo or a broken link — they’ve used their real name and email address and often included a link to their own website.
To Forgive is Divine
In today’s increasingly interconnected world, I think these situations will continue to arise more and more frequently, especially for writers and bloggers who put themselves and their work in front of the reading public.
As with any critiques, our initial response to a thoughtful or friendly correction might be defensive or emotional. You might think you didn’t make a mistake, or you might be offended that someone is criticizing your work even though you didn’t ask for their advice or feedback. And when the correction is wrong or the delivery is nasty, there’s an even bigger likelihood that you’ll be offended (and rightly so).
On the other hand, as you travel around the web, you might see mistakes on other people’s blogs or you might come across them when you’re reading books. Should you stay mum or help a fellow writer out?
Good Grammar Manners
How can we handle nasty or haughty criticisms that are incorrect, uninvited, or just plain rude? And what do we do when we are faced with the question of whether to let someone know that we’ve found a mistake in their work?
To answer some of these questions for myself, I did an online search, wondering if there were any protocols in place for this sort of thing. I was pleased to find that Grammar Girl has addressed the issue quite well in her post “Grammar Manners.” The first question is whether you should correct someone at all.
If the person whom you wish to correct is your child, student, or employee, you should, of course, feel comfortable (if not obligated) to correct his or her grammar…
That makes sense. But what if it’s someone you don’t know or barely know? What if it’s someone who is your peer or even your boss or teacher?
If you do wish to correct the grammar of someone whom you truly believe would welcome and appreciate the correction, then start by asking them if it is OK to offer a suggestion…
I think the key phrase here is “someone whom you truly believe would welcome and appreciate the correction.” Most sensible and serious writers want to know if they’ve made a mistake in their writing. But most people, especially non-writers, don’t particularly like to be criticized or corrected.
With writers, I don’t think it’s necessary to ask whether it’s OK to offer a suggestion. Actually, I think sending a friendly email (instead of leaving a comment or issuing a tweet) is the way to go. This keeps the matter private and will help you build a relationship with the person in question, who will likely appreciate your approach.
Grammar Girl makes another important point:
And of course, be certain that you understand the specific grammatical rules and how to apply them before making a correction.
Normally, I wouldn’t even mention this because it’s unimaginable to me that one would go around correcting people without being 100% sure of the rules. Yet, I’ve received several such corrections. I have also seen incorrect corrections in the comments sections of other blogs. I imagine the only thing more embarrassing than making a mistake is being wrong when you try to publicly correct someone else for making one.
Coping with Corrections
How can we deal with people who offer corrections and criticisms?
Personally, I always try to be polite, whether someone is friendly and heartfelt in their correction or rude and snobbish. Of course, if the correction is wrong (and I’ve looked it up to double-check that my usage was proper), I will defend my work and explain the rule and my source to my critic.
I’ll leave you with a few final words from Grammar Girl:
A more subtle approach can be just using correct grammar yourself—not in a pedantic way but just as a good example.
That’s my motto!
How do you feel about making public or uninvited corrections on other people’s writing? Has anyone ever corrected you or have you ever corrected someone else on a blog, social media, or public forum? How did you handle it? What do you think is more important — good grammar or good manners? Leave a comment and pitch in your two cents!