This won’t take long. It’s like shooting fish in a barrel.
Mona Chalabi, a journalist for the British tabloid “The Guardian,” has asserted that correcting someone’s grammar (and presumably word use, sentence structure and other aspects of effective communication) is racist.
“Grammar snobs are patronizing, pretentious, and just plain wrong, ” she says. “It doesn’t take much to see the power imbalance when it comes to grammar snobbery. The people pointing out he mistakes are more likely to be older, wealthier, whiter, or just plain academic than the people they’re treating with condescension. All too often, it’s a way to silence people, and that’s particularly offensive when it’s someone who might already be struggling to speak up.”
Of course, correcting anyone to humiliate them, embarrass them, or make them hesitant to speak is cruel and wrong, as would be slapping them in the face and shouting, “Shut up, fool!” Neither of these, or other examples of bad manners and disrespectful treatment, is the conduct that Chalabi is condemning as a demonstration of white privilege, however. (Glenn Reynolds, the Instapundit, frequently quips, “White privilege—is there anything it can’t do?”) No, she is saying that the simple act of one human being pointing out to another that they have made a verbal mistake that may embarrass the speaker in the future makes the person offering the correction a “grammar snob,” and is unethical.
To the contrary, correcting anyone’s mistakes in speaking, when done with discretion and proper attention to the speaker’s feelings, is a gift, an act of social kindness and even a social obligation. Expressing oneself in a manner that causes others to conclude, possibly correctly, that you do not know correct meanings, grammar, construction and etiquette is a serious life handicap and an obstacle to success. A listener may conclude that you are badly educated, do not read, do not listen to those who speak to you correctly sufficiently to learn from them, are ignorant, are not very bright, or worse, know how to communicate but don’t have enough respect for the rest of the world to make an effort to do so. Unlike concluding such unflattering things about a stranger or casual acquaintance based on an accent or verbal regionalism, making judgments based on poor communication skills is not prejudice or bias. Communication is a vital life skill and occupational tool. Every individual has an obligation to master these as early as possible, certainly by young adulthood. Believing one has done this and being wrong is a dangerous and potentially tragic situation.
I would not hire a job applicant who used the word “ain’t,” or double negatives, “irregardless,” or vulgarity, to name three of thousands of examples. If such an applicant had a prestigious degree from a university, I would assume that the degree was meaningless, and the institution had engaged in education malpractice. I would not trust a business whose initial contact with me was a clerk, a secretary or any employee who made a gross verbal or grammatical error, either. Why would I, if that business would hire employees who don’t know how to speak, which is highly correlated to know knowing how to think?
When others have corrected me in the past (or when readers of this blog flag one of my infuriatingly persistent typos), even though it is difficult not to feel a pang of shame, I regard it as I do when someone tells me that I have a piece of snot dangling out of my right nostril, that there is a big blob of spinach on my tooth or that my fly is down, as it was during a recent two hour seminar in front of 400 people and being videoed. I am grateful. The communication correction, however, is a cause for much more gratitude, because it not only prevents immediate social disadvantageous but future ones as well. Unless, that is, if the speaker ignores it, which will explain why they talk badly.
Someone should have told Debbie Wasserman Schultz that the word “misled” wasn’t pronounced “myzeld” before she was head of the Democratic National Committee and the gaffe made her an object of ridicule. Somebody should have let President Obama know the the term “corps” is pronounced “core” before he inspired the contempt of many veterans. In college, I let a friend know that the animal was called a “hippopotamus” and not a “hippoponomus” as he had called the beast twice in a conversation. He turned bright red, and said, “What? You mean I’ve been making that mistake since I was a kid? Why didn’t anyone tell me before?”
Maybe because they had been listening to idiots like Mona Chalabi.
Be nice, but correct away. It is the Golden Rule in action, and part of societal duty not to let others hurt themselves. If you are corrected, the correct response is what my college friend said to me once his horror subsided.