English English language Grammar Usage

How to correct a friend’s English

Q: I have a friend who loves using interesting words, but he often misuses them. For example, he uses “to whit” in the wrong way when everyday language would suffice. I’d like to help him, but I don’t know how to do it without hurting his feelings. Any advice you can give would be greatly appreciated.

A: We often get questions like this, and they always make us uncomfortable.

“What’s the best way to correct my boss?” someone will ask, or “How can I keep my daughter-in-law from passing on her bad grammar to my grandchildren?”

This subject has more to do with etiquette than with grammar, which is one of several reasons it makes us squeamish (we are not Emily Post). Another reason is that there’s no good answer.

We’re in the business of giving people advice about their English, and in our writing we comment freely because we’re expected to. But in our “real” lives—apart from our blog, books, and other writing—we keep our opinions to ourselves unless we’re asked.

If someone we’re talking with tosses in a “should have went” or a “tough road to hoe,” we don’t interrupt to correct him. Neither do we clumsily insert the correct usage (“should have gone,” “tough row to hoe”) into our end of the conversation. This is not tactful—it’s still a correction, however oblique.

When the two of us meet new people, they often say something like “I’ll have to watch what I say around you!” We groan inwardly when we hear this, because nothing could be further from the truth. People are much more to us than the grammar they use. If they don’t ask, we don’t tell.

Now, some people get a kick out of debating points of grammar. It’s not unusual for office friends, or perhaps a married couple, to write and ask us to settle a good-natured argument. 

But your friend may be different. From what you say, he prides himself on his English (how many people use “to wit”?), and his ego may be easily bruised.

If he asks your opinion about his English, fine. But if he doesn’t, do you really want to risk hurting him and losing his friendship over something so trivial as an error in usage? (Here’s a self-serving suggestion. Tell him that as someone who appreciates language he might like to check out our blog.)

There’s another reason that it’s not a good idea to “correct” people’s English. You could be wrong.

We wrote a post a few years ago, for example, that explained why the phrase is “to wit,” not “to whit.” (When someone makes a mistake in a question, we usually fix it without comment, but we left this one in to make a point.)

Many so-called rules of grammar aren’t rules at all

For instance, the boss mentioned above might be “guilty” of nothing more than “splitting” an infinitive. But that’s perfectly good English, as we’ve written many times, including posts in 2013 and 2011.

And perhaps the daughter-in-law ends her sentences with prepositions. That’s no crime. either.

In short, unless you’re a teacher, the parent of a young child, or a mentor who’d be expected to correct someone’s English, think twice before doing so.

And if you do forge ahead, be sure you’re right. We’re all human and we’re all wrong at times—the “corrector” as well as the “corrected.”

We’re reminded of an exchange in Judith Martin’s book Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior (2005):

Dear Miss Manners: A friend of mine always corrects me when I say the word ‘drapes.’ She says that is vulgar, and that the right word is ‘draperies.’ Which of us is correct?

Gentle Reader: You are both hopeless. The word for material that hangs on the sides of windows is ‘curtains.’ ”

Our gentle readers are aware, of course, that there’s nothing wrong with using “drapes” or “draperies” for “curtains” in American English.  

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