Canada
3 min

Correct me if I’m wrong?

Everyone has one, that friend/co-worker/parent who tends to echo your mispronunciations with “correct” ones, who responds to your emails with the typos in your original smoothed out. We’ll call him or her The Corrector.

It’s the same friend who consistently second guesses your Scrabble plays and points out the inconsistencies in your favourite movies, what geographical/scientific errors were committed in the Matrix and so on. It’s likely also be the same friend who bemoans the general decay of the English language, who can’t go to malls because of the crappy stuff that gets written on t-shirts, “BITCHEZ IZ HERE!”, and on signs in stores.

“Did you see that? That sign in Lush?”

LUSH, soap that’s ‘to die for.’

Single quotation marks!

Egad!

As a writer and English teacher, I know many Correctors and know them well. They come to my parties. They cringe at my attempts to use a semi-colon. They fix my paragraphs. Overall, life is hell for some of them and amusingly annoying for others. Depending on your take on this practice, hanging with Correctors can also be either amusingly annoying or hell on earth.

In a perfect world, a Corrector provides clarity. A misused word, after all, is a misused word that communicates, likely, something the writer or speaker did not intend. Allusions and illusions are not the same things. If you are describing something as an allusion, inappropriately, I’d think you’d want to know that.

As Xtra columnist and girl-about-Europe Abi Slone notes, “Sometimes a typo can be comical. It can perfect sense to the writer, and many readers, but without proper punctuation, using inverted sentences or leaving out information can create a hilarious outcome. My personal favourite: It was display copy for a contest where you needed to fill out a form. Or, ‘Enter 9 of your friends for a week in paradise.'”

The problem with the correctors and correcting has little to do with the merit, or even the intention, of the advice itself (a bad comma is a bad comma after all), and everything to do with the context of delivery. This is to say that there are very few places where people, adult people, expect to be given advice on their words, especially when it comes unsolicited.

There are exceptions; people go to school and take classes with the hope or understanding that these are spaces for the improvement of language skills. Additionally, there are some adults who live for verbal corrective sparring. Graduate school is the perfect place for Correctors because Graduate school was designed for the imposing of structure (grammatical or otherwise) and graduate students, as a rule, thrive on the practice explicit and combative verbal editing (“Oh so you have EMPIRICAL evidence, do you. How interesting it is Daryl, that you would use THAT word.”). The only other group I know who enjoy the practice of correcting and correction as much as graduate students are people who work with text, including letterers, editors, and typographers. You just CANNOT get anything by a letterer. I don’t know why but they’re just that way.

Aside from these freaks of nature, for most people, the experience of having someone unpack their delivery is like having a strange person lick a tissue and wipe dirt off their face.

Most Correctors, I think, know this.

The solution, if we need one, and if I might suggest one, to the conflict and contention that can arise between the Correctors and Correctees is one that requires some give and understanding on both sides.

Correctors need to understand that even if the information they are providing is accurate, it functions, socially, outside the context of a classroom, as advice. So, telling someone they’ve pronounced a city capital wrong, especially if you don’t live there, is a little like telling someone how much fat is in the cupcake they’re eating. It might be RIGHT, but it’s not always wanted nor HELPFUL.

As artist, author, and filmmaker (and disliker of incorrectly punctuated adjectival phrases) Michael V Smith notes, “If in school or at work, [correct with a] red pen. If in conversation, only amongst friends. Otherwise, outside of those contexts, you’re being a prescriptivist grammarian, which is classist. I’m all for good grammar, but if I know what someone’s trying to say, why am I correcting them?”

At the same time, Correctees need to understand that in a world wallpapered with text and conversation, the Corrector is sometimes a lone knight of CORRECT at odds with a whole world of INCORRECT (or “uncorrect,” depending on who you ask). It can be a frustrating existence, like living your life out in a crappy mall surrounded by people wearing clashing outfits or jeans that show too much crack. Sometimes, when they lash out at you the best response is to pull up your pants, tuck in your comma, and smile politely.