If you spend any time on websites where comments are enabled — either news sites, blogs, or social media — you’ve probably run into the grammar police.
They are an informal brigade of self-appointed, often cantankerous constables, who have set their sites on the lofty goal of pointing out all online errors. They use various tactics, ranging from polite to blunt to downright rude. Sometimes multiple guardians of the English language will gang up, employing ridicule through bad cop-bad cop ridiculing tactics.
I understand the urge. Oh I do.
I used to proofread menus for a large restaurant chain. The work was tedious and tense, as it was my job to make sure no mistakes made it through to the client. The high point of my day was finding a mistake.
A wrong price, a missing letter, a “fillet” that should have been a “filet” — identifying and eradicating these errors brought me joy. During those days, I proofread every printed item I ran across. It became my self-imposed (and completely useless) rule to not order any menu item with a mistake in it. I would not eat a pan cake, and would turn down a strudle, no matter how delicious it sounded.
My concern for immaculate grammar faded, however, with the rise of the smartphone. Those silly phones are so smart that they know what you’re thinking — and they’ll correct your typing for you! However, sometimes they guess wrong, changing whatever you type to something that is completely wrong.
For instance, I was recently included on a texted dinner invitation that included a number of our neighbors.
“That sounds fun,” I typed. But my phone had other ideas, changing my comment to, “That sounds dumb.” I hit send, just as my phone changed my gracious reply to an insult. Fortunately, everyone found this hilarious, and I was not uninvited from the dumb party. Er, I mean, fun.
But with texts, it’s usually someone we know, and we generally have a chance to palm-slap our foreheads and explain what we meant to say, usually through laughter.
It’s in more public settings where the grammar police patrol the public’s innocent mistakes.
A while back, my daughter spent several nights in the hospital. Both of us stressed out and bored, we sought entertainment and distraction in online surfing.
I happened upon a live newscast covering a fire at my daughter’s school. I hopped into her hospital bed, and we both peered at the tiny screen of my phone in excitement. I watched live comments, many posting incorrect information about the school’s whereabouts and other details. I hurriedly commented to provide accurate crossroads and circumstances. My phone auto-corrected some words incorrectly, leaving my comment riddled with glaring mistakes.
Sure, I could have wrestled my smart phone from my daughter’s hands to correct myself, but this was the most excitement she’d had in several days. What kind of monster would keep a hospitalized kid from watching her school burn down?
I posted my comment, complete with a there/they’re/their error.
It was only a few minutes before someone replied to my comment with “they’re,” pointing out my wayward ways.
I suppose I was a bit emotionally fragile and stressed out, due to our circumstances at that moment, but the comment was hurtful. It was like being called “stupid” in front of a bunch of strangers. It felt mean-spirited — like someone propping himself up by making another look bad.
In today’s world, our words can travel far and reach those we don’t know. I don’t know the commenter. Maybe she was experiencing a lousy day and just needed the rush I once felt when finding an error. We get little glimpses of others, their brilliance and their shortcomings, and we react as if we know anything at all about the other person.
I love words. I value education and grammar. But none of those things takes precedence over general decency toward others.
Grammar police, carry on without me. I choose to look for the good in the person, not their errors.
Reach Overland Park mom Emily Parnell at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter:@emilyJparnell.