Error Etiquette

Is it OK to point out people’s language mistakes? You can argue it both ways. On the one hand, overlooking syntactic slipups (of the “I speak English pretty goodHB etiquette #5” variety) seems part of common courtesy, like disregarding someone’s use of the wrong fork at a sit-down dinner with Prince Andrew. I’d also rather avoid being seen as a grammar cop and leaving my conversational partners terrified to open their mouths lest the wrong words come out, like my former English students in Tokyo.

A therapist I used to see (after returning from Tokyo, in fact, my life a mess by any standard) offered an alternative point of view. I was complaining to him about a guy I was casually dating, whose stunning looks didn’t quite offset his arrested vocabulary and propensity for malapropisms. I’ll call him George. I explained that I found myself restricting my own use of language to avoid hitting George with words he didn’t know, and smiling politely when he identified himself as a “vivacious reader” or declared his “arid interest in motorsports.”

Error Etiquette #3According to said therapist, my self-censorship betrayed a lack of consideration for George. His reasoning: I was depriving George of the opportunity to improve his language skills and clearly thought him too dumb to care. Taking the therapist’s insight to heart, I used the word “hedonistic” on my next date with George and took his blank look as an invitation to define it. “I can look it up in the dictionary if I want,” George said curtly. So much for that experiment.

Since then, my general policy has been to keep mum about people’s English errors – except if they’re writers, editors, English teachers, or my husband. Of course, my husband can get back at me by pointing out my flagrant incompetence in getting computers, cell phones and DVD players to do my bidding. Given how many areas of modern life require these skills, he’s several eye-rolls ahead of me.

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