What’s With All The Grammar Shaming?



Something’s making me super cranky lately. It’s all over Pinterest. It’s all over my Facebook feed. Quite frankly, it’s all perpetuated by people who should know better:

Grammar Shaming.

And don’t worry, I recognise the irony: I’m shaming the Grammar Shamers. Oh, and I also know I started this paragraph with a conjunction, like a badass.

Here’s a fictitious example of what makes my cranky flames roar:

Liz: Oh Beiber, your so beautiful!
Jack: *you’re

Really, Jack? Do you find it necessary to publically shame someone every single time they make a mistake? Well done, you. You learned how to differentiate between two homophones! Do you feel superior just because you were able to learn and internalise a grammatical rule that you encountered in primary school? Would you like a medal?

I’m a reforming ‘Grammar Nazi’*. And I can’t lie, there are times that I have wanted a medal for knowing my English. When I started postgraduate study in Applied Linguistics, I probably believed on a subconscious level that it would give me even more reason to deserve it.

But I was so very wrong.

I discovered this beautiful world where there are distinct groups: Prescriptivism and Descriptivism.

Descriptivists describe language use. Prescriptivists prescribe language use. So, the ‘Grammar Nazi’ who tells everyone how to write and what to do, shaming people for incorrect language use, sits firmly in the prescriptivism camp. Applied linguists, however, are opposed to this behaviour because they understand that language is political and language is social.

Language evolves and changes throughout history. There are so many different dialects of English alone that it blows your mind. And it’s a power play. One particular way of speaking and writing always holds the prestige position in any society and all the rest are considered inferior. Rules are only rules because someone decided that they are.

But… and this is where it gets exciting… There really is only one purpose of language: To communicate.

That. Is. It.

I became really uncomfortable with the notion that one group of people can make another group feel unequal just because of the way they communicate. And suddenly, all this online shaming makes me sick. I’m not talking about the hilarious typos that everybody loves. I’m talking about the arrogance it takes to constantly discuss grammar as if it is something that you own and can dictate to others.

It’s really very simple: Did this person’s use of language get the message across? If the answer is yes, then be done with it and stop correcting them publically.

Yes, some uses of English are 100% incorrect. Many other points of grammar are negotiable. Even so, is it necessary to publicly correct?

As far as I’m concerned, unless you are teaching in a classroom environment, producing text for professional purposes , or privately instructing children in the home… there is no other forum in which it should be necessary to correct.

It is not okay to publically criticise someone because of their physical appearance.

It is not okay to publically attack someone because of their race or religion.

And thank God it’s finally not okay to shame because of gender or sexual preference.

So why is it admissible to publically shame the way that someone uses language? After all, language is the deeply personal expression of the inner workings of your mind. Even well intended public correction places the recipient in a position of inferiority.

This culture of Grammar Shaming is incredibly unhealthy. It smacks of, “I’m smarter than you and I’m better than you.” And I don’t know about you, but I want to confront this sick superiority complex that lurks inside of me. There is nothing wrong with using English well. But there is something wrong when we belittle another human being in order to prove our own superiority.

Your intelligence does not diminish when you allow someone else to make a mistake, without comment.

So maybe it’s time to stop posting all this crap about grammar just to prove that you’re part of some elite group of people who learned their words. It’s self-promoting, at best.

How about asking yourself before you Grammar Shame: Is this respectful? Is this loving? Is this necessary?

Because damaging someone else’s self-esteem to inflate your own is never okay.

Have you been a victim of grammar shaming? Are you guilty of doing it? 

Image Credit

*At KiKi & Tea we do not approve of the phrase “Grammar Nazi” however it is the commonly used phrase and therefore we have used i within quotation marks. 

  • http://kikiandtea.com/ Tamsin Howse

    Ouch. This is so incredibly true. And while I don’t tend to publically correct someone’s grammar, I certainly do it in my mind. Shame on me.

  • Mitchell Osmond

    I know that a lot of the time, people correct other’s grammar to troll and little else, but maybe someone who misspells words online are always misspelling in the real world? This could be something that is holding them back from finding better employment, as people cast aside their CV’s due to spelling mistakes. Perhaps, people who do correct others may actually help people in real world applications?

    You say that instructing someone in the correct use of grammar should be limited to the classroom, or providing private tuition, but with the mass social media that we have in our world today and the rate at which people, including children who are still learning, are using these social media tools, instruction in the use of grammar has shifted well beyond formal education. People are learning their written language from interactions with others in an online world, but these interactions are coming from sources where, perhaps, grammar is not as strictly taught.

    I don’t correct grammar online, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t think that their grammar shouldn’t be corrected, and I certainly don’t believe that every person who corrects another’s grammar is being disrespectful.

    • Imogen Topp

      You make a good point here. Social media is creating a huge shift in the way language is used. And you are right, many people are being exposed to language at a young age on sites like Facebook. They are being exposed to real, active language use, and are likely to absorb a lot from it. My personal opinion is that it would be nicer to teach by example, i.e., using positive examples of English in our own posts, rather than correcting others. I’d rather consistently use well-constructed language in my own interactions with others than point out the flaws in work that is not mine. But it would be naive for me to assume that all people learn best that way. You are right, some people may learn important lessons from social media correction and it may help them in their lives.

      I also don’t believe that all people who correct are disrespectful. I believe that, more often than not, people are well intentioned. My article was mainly written with concern for those who do not learn well from public correction, regardless of intention. I know that if it was happening to me, I’d feel an instant loss of confidence and be afraid to speak out again because of being corrected and embarrassed in clear view of hundreds of my acquaintances. I think the best kind of learning happens in a supportive and encouraging environment, without feeling like each word you write is on trial. I do not expect everyone to share this opinion. :-)

      • Mitchell Osmond

        I completely agree with teaching by example and take great pains to make sure that my posts don’t contain any mistakes (I even use full sentences when texting with my wife).

        It’s funny that as kids, parents and teachers correct you while you are speaking, but after a certain age they just stop. It was sometime during high school that mum finally stopped correcting us by loudly emphasising the ‘-ING’ on the ends of words everytime we ‘dropped our g’s’. As a young kid, you never seemed to mind being corrected, but as an 18yo living and studying a foreign language overseas, I remember getting really frustrated by my host sister constantly correcting my grammar. In hindsight, it was all for the best, but it often got annoying. Why then, do we find it so easy to constantly correct people’s written grammar online, but rarely seem to tell people ‘actually, it’s pronounced …’? And it would certainly never be in a public setting – could you imagine people yelling out at the PM giving a speech ‘it sounded like you said ‘your’, but I think you meant to say ‘you’re’. Might want to get a better handle on that before YOUR next speech!’

        Anyway, enough from me!

        • http://kikiandtea.com/ Tamsin Howse

          It’s my understanding that research into teaching has shown correcting children’s grammar is decidedly unhelpful when it comes to teaching them proper English and the best way for them to learn it is from reading.

          That said, if your child won’t read, what do you do?

          • Imogen Topp

            I find it all so fascinating, Mitchell. I teach ESL to adults and I find it very hard to correct their language because there is so much more going on than just an incorrect pronunciation. It would probably be easier to give classroom correction to children because of the age difference. When I’m with adults, however, there are so many other bigger things to consider. They are experiencing a life shift to a new country, they are battling with the phonemes of their language and are trying hard to hear and produce English sounds, and they have huge syntactical barriers to cross. If their native language wasn’t in Subject Verb Object structure, they have to process word order as well. So I’m rejoicing if they even use ‘your’ at all. The ‘your/you’re’ battle happens when they are ready to truly understand the difference.

            I think you’re right, Tamsin. I think grammar correction is really only helpful when they are ready to understand the necessary difference. If they haven’t discovered it yet, there are more foundational language elements they are yet to grasp. It can be a difficult topic because every individual learns at their own pace.

    • xanderdyson

      Correcting another person’s grammar is rude, UNLESS you are their close friend.

  • pt

    I am guilty of this, like T it is restricted to the inside of my head.
    But where is the line? Is it ok to participate in the shaming people who choose alternative spelling for their child’s name but not the their/there/they’re or should/could/would of?
    “language is political and language is social” < I love this language is also fluid and I hope it remains so.

    • http://kikiandtea.com/ Tamsin Howse

      No, I don’t think it’s OK to participate in shaming people who choose alternative spellings for their child’s name. I think that’s worse because, as Melissa recently pointed out on Cupcake’s post about alternative name spellings, it can quickly escalate into classism or racism.

      • pt

        Thanks for the reply, it wasn’t a dig at you personally T (or Cupcake for that matter) but a general hey lets all make sure that we see the similarities between the two :)

  • Casey

    I don’t correct grammar online because I know that I also inadvertently make mistakes and spelling errors, and sometimes a simple typing mistake is to blame. I think it’s really bad manners to correct someone’s grammar when you’re having a conversation, and it’s rude to do the same online. Everyone thinks they are superior when it comes to the use of language, and I agree that there are significant class implications and power plays going on. I try to remind myself of this whenever I internally critique someone’s use of language. It also makes me cringe when I read “and I” when it should be “and me”, and I definitely indulge in a little criticism and feeling better-than in my mind. That’s something I’m going to work on, so shame on me too.

    • Imogen Topp

      I do it in my head too. All the time. That’s why I had to stop and think about it. I wanted to know why it made me feel so good when I saw a mistake that I could fix in my head. At the very least, it has been an exercise in understanding why I think the way I think. :-)

  • Monique Fischle

    I spend a huge chunk of my working day correcting English and grammar as it is part of my job. This can sometimes make it hard to switch off. But, like Casey has also said, I don’t correct grammar online because I make mistakes as well and sometimes the keyboard is to blame.

    I am guilty of correcting DG when he speaks, but it is generally when it is a conversation we are having alone, I don’t want to “shame” him. I know it’s something I should stop doing. I correct people all the time in my head, but I don’t say it out loud.

  • Ash

    A brilliant post! Studying Classical Latin has pretty much destroyed any faith I had in my grammatical skills, and now I’m free! I’ve stopped looking at letters and now look at words.

    I believe it was a saying in earlier English that “If you can’t spell your name more than one way, it’s a bit of a rubbish name” (paraphrased)

    • Imogen Topp

      haha Thanks! I know how you feel, Ancient Greek did that to me too. It’s easier to just pretend you don’t notice how complex it all is!

  • jrronimo

    I don’t think that all grammatical correction is inherently “shameful”, which is what your post seems to suggest; I would hope that most of the time it’s educational. To me, it doesn’t say “I have more power than you because I remember a rule”, but it might say “Hey, you used the wrong word there, you might want to polish up on that so you know for next time.”

    I agree that language is malleable but how far do you let it go? Do you push all judgement out of your head when someone types “wht r u doing 2 nite”? What about if someone spells your name wrong? Do you let it slide and hope they notice the proper spelling when you type it out sometime or do you say “Hey, this is my name and it’s actually spelled this way.” Or what if someone pronounces your name incorrectly because they similarly don’t remember a grammar rule or because your name comes from a language whose rules the speaker doesn’t know? Does that make it shameful that you’re correcting them, or is it educational?

    When I see misuses of homophones that says to me: “This person either doesn’t know any better or actively does not care about the difference between these words.” If it’s the former, then, at least in my case, I prefer to be educated. If it’s the latter, I think it reflects badly on the person. One can never tell which the case is, so correction or letting it slide is a fine line.

    I used to correct people online, but have since reformed my correction-nazi ways, largely because most people showed active indifference; they don’t care to learn to do it properly. That said, I still can’t turn off the editor in my brain — misspellings and incorrect usage of words are like nails on a chalkboard to me. Unfortunately, some people take correction and move into willful misuse, and everything spirals badly. If people are unwilling to make the effort to learn language properly, I can’t help but judge their usage, whether they know what they’re doing or not. I just try to be as proper as I know how to be and hope others will see my example and learn. From experience, I know they won’t, but I continue to hope anyway.

    • Imogen Topp

      I really appreciate this comment. I agree, it is a fine line. It’s also hard to predict which side someone falls on and if they will accept or react to correction. My perspective is likely the way it is because I am not an assertive person, and thus, never correct anyone when they spell or say my name incorrectly. My name is one that has suffered drastic misspelling and mispronunciation, but I always let it slide because I don’t want people to feel embarrassed. I’m particularly sensitive about correction and wish that the web was a kinder and safer place to express yourself. In the end, I just wanted this article to provoke thought about the motivations people have to correct, and to think about the implications of those decisions. :-)

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  • xanderdyson

    Grammar Nazi’s often miss the giant Elephant in the room which is that their holy grammar ‘rules’ were created as a result of grammar rule breakers of centuries past, which through consensus of use became the rules they follow today.

    I see them no differently than I would a fundamentalist. They are focused on rules and words, instead of ideas.

  • A Blog Called Henry

    I’ve never publicly shamed anyone, but I definitely judge people! I have a friend who is studying primary teaching and her facebook status updates are riddled with errors…basic ones – to/too, son/sun, you’re/your – and it really concerns me that one day she could be teaching my children!
    My cousin is an absolute bandit for ‘seen’ (ie. “I seen this thing at the shops today”) and it makes me cringe. I’ve never said anything, but I want to so, so, so bad! She has a blog and quite a popular instagram account as well and she has used the same sort of sentence a few times on that.
    I appreciate it’s rude to correct people, but at the same time, it makes me really sad to think that our language will evolve simply because people are too afraid to say anything for fear of shaming others.