Social media has created a huge outlet for predatory nitpickers desperate to correct bad English – but has it gone too far? Gizzelle Sandoval investigates.
Nothing shows the growing public interest in grammar more than t-shirt slogans arguing for the Oxford comma. But is this grammar-centric movement doing more harm than good? Fights on Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms have erupted over grammar usage and spelling, where people are resorting to pointing out written mistakes – sometimes as a way to humiliate and victimise other people.
The Grammar Police, a popular Facebook page and seller of grammar-related merchandise, is one example of how serious people have become about grammar (see below). One study from the University of Michigan was even conducted around grammar pedantry, and found that it is related to certain personality types (see below).
Judging by EL Gazette’s searches of chat rooms and social media platforms, grammar policing, or correcting other people’s grammar and spelling in public internet spaces, looks to be a well-established practice.
On Twitter, for example, there is a proliferation of accounts claiming to be ‘The Grammar Police’. One claims it will ‘fix your pathetic spelling mistakes’, while another says it will ‘stomp out’ bad grammar. There is even a ‘bot’ account that automatically calls people out on the grammar mistakes they make in their tweets. Perhaps a humiliation too far for some, although its inventor says it is there ‘to serve the public interest by educating users’.
But there is a fine line between being helpful or asking for clarity and what has been dubbed ‘grammar bullying’. The Megan Meier Foundation, an anti-bullying organisation, says that grammar policing could – if done in an insensitive way – amount to ‘a relatively new form of cyberbullying’.
To probe the issue of growing online grammar pedantry, the Gazette tracked down the well-known linguist Professor Geoffrey K. Pullum, professor of general linguistics at the University of Edinburgh. ‘The grammar bullies are in nearly all cases thoroughly ignorant of the facts’, says Pullum via email. Their bullying of other people’s writing is ill-informed. ‘It’s a real tragedy.’
Pullum will be giving a number of talks in the upcoming months on this subject, including: ‘If doctors knew medical science like writing critics know grammar, you‘d be dead.’
‘You can tell I have an interest in this topic,’ says Pullum. In some cases, he explains, there are ordinary informal ways to say things (‘Who were you talking to?’) and more formal, ‘pompous’ ways (‘To whom were you talking?’). He says, ‘The grammar bullies try to suggest that the ordinary informal version is incorrect when it isn’t. ‘In other cases, they’re just talking about spelling (don’t spell “its” as “it’s”; don’t spell “affect” as “effect”; and so on).’
Because English is riddled with inconsistencies and is always evolving, the majority of grammar rules are obsolete, according to Pullum. One example is the rule that ‘less’ can’t be used with things you can count. This is false, Pullum points out, because ‘less than five years’ is much more normal than ‘fewer than five years’. Another rule is that ‘between’ can only be used with two things, but it’s totally acceptable to say, ‘She has sand between her toes’ even if she has the standard five toes on each foot.
‘Making occasional mistakes with the miserable, complicated, chaotic English spelling system does not mean you’re stupid. It means you slip up sometimes,’ says Pullum. ‘If someone is wrong about politics, deal with their politics, not their spelling.’
Perhaps then, while it is tempting to correct someone’s grammar online, it might be worth considering how the internet has become a medium for presenting non-standard grammar, contributing to genuine creativity. Bullying, in whatever form it is presented, needs to be treated with the contempt it deserves.
After all, why are we more inclined to judge someone for their grammar and not for forgetting second year French?
Better to educate than to berate: ‘tone matters’ for grammar police
The trend for grammar nitpicking is seen everywhere. It is shown in the growing popularity of grammar-focused Facebook accounts such as The Grammar Police.
And what else would explain the market value for software programmes such as Grammarly, which claims to help its current 6.9 million subscribers make ‘clear, mistake-free and impactful’ messages, documents and social media posts?
Rachel Magargle, creator of The Grammar Police Facebook account, started the page in 2010 because of her strong interest in grammar. The account gained massive popularity within its first year.
It currently has roughly 145,000 likes and followers on Facebook and sells its own merchandise. Once known for mocking people who use incorrect grammar, it has since shifted to sharing educational memes, jokes and other content about ‘correct’ grammar.
‘Tone matters. It’s possible to correct someone gently, to educate them instead of berate them for a mistake,’ says Magargle. ‘You need to be careful correcting someone over the internet because the tone in which you intended to write and the tone that your audience read could be completely different.’
For some social media users, pointing out misspellings and bad grammar usage is a type of social responsibility.
‘You would want someone to tell you there’s toilet paper on your shoe, wouldn’t you? You should want someone to tell you when you’re using the wrong form of your/you’re or to/too/two,’ said Emily Abshire, a frequent user of social media.
Abshire admits that, while it could come over as condescending and rude, she would rather people learn from their mistakes than keep making the same ones unknowingly.
The personality of nitpickers
The way you react to other people’s grammar and spelling mistakes may reveal something about your personality, according to a recent study.
Researchers asked participants to read email responses to a housemate advert that either contained no errors or included typos or homophonous grammar errors (to/too/two).
Participants then completed a questionnaire about how they perceived the writers of the emails, including questions such as ‘Do they seem friendly?’ and ‘Do they seem conscientious?’
The 83 English native-speaker participants also filled out a questionnaire to assess their own personalities.
Authors Julie Boland and Robin Queen, from the University of Michigan, found that more introverted people tended to think less of their prospective housemate because of their typos.
More extroverted characters didn’t care so much about the mistakes.
‘If you’re an introvert, you are likely to care more about variability and therefore pay more attention to mistakes such as spelling “hte” instead of “the”,’ explained McQueen in an interview.
See study ‘If you’re house is still available, send me an email: personality influences reactions to written errors in email messages,’ Boland and Queen, University of Michigan