Yesterday, I watched a video of a guy who I follow in the writing and online business world in which he blasted all of the people in "The Grammar Police” for taking aim at the trivial matters that they take aim at in other people’s writing. Numerous thoughts and responses came to my mind as I first read his email about it and then watched/listened to his video.
My first response was, “I’m sorry.” As an English teacher in various venues over the last 35 years, I have been a staunch member of what has come to be called, The Grammar Police. Whatever you call me or those who, like me, tend to point out mistakes in other people’s writing, I understand your frustration with us. Who the heck are we to point out your mistakes?
I get it. I get where those of you who struggle with us are coming from. It’s not easy finding out you’re not perfect as a writer. Nobody likes a critic. Teddy Roosevelt’s famous quote comes to mind –
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
I do not believe I am one of those “cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” I have been in all sorts of arenas with critics hurling their critiques at me or about me. I fully embrace the concepts in that quote and have passed its message on many times, especially to my teams. It is one of the quotes I will discuss in a future episode of my new “Great Quotes for Coaches” podcast.
But I also know that at times people need to be told where they are falling short in order to help them not fall short again. I also know that I get into the arena of writing all the time, and I open myself up to criticism every time I start typing or writing.
So, it’s true – nobody likes to be critiqued, especially when they aren’t asking for it. At least when you critique the performance of your players or your students, they are there trying to learn and improve. They have basically asked you to critique them, so you have a right to do that, right?
Hmmm . . .
Consider that for a minute. How much do they really want to be criticized? How much do they really want you to point out their flaws?
Of course, our first response to a question like that is, “Well, don’t they want to get better? Don’t they want to help us win?” Of course they do. And a big part of coaching is pointing out their strengths and weaknesses and then teaching them how to maximize their strengths and improve on their weaknesses. That is the only way that they (and you) are going to get to the success you seek.
So how is it that those of us in the Grammar Police are any different? After all, we are merely pointing out a flaw in someone’s writing in order to help them write better.
Okay, I know exactly where your mind went as I wrote those last two lines. “Yeah, but it’s the condescending way they do it. They aren’t trying to help me. They’re trying to prove their superiority to me and everyone else like me who makes mistakes in their writing."
I totally agree with you on that sentiment. I can’t stand those people who seem to be scouring the Internet, looking for “there” when the person meant “their,” fixing someone’s “affect/effect” error, or correcting any other mistake they find. They seem to take pleasure in pointing out those mistakes.
I, too, can’t stand them. And for a while in my life, I was one of them.
But I have changed. I have stopped pointing out every mistake that I see in people’s writing. But it's a hard habit to break.
It’s a Curse
Let me tell you what people like me go through. We are cursed. And I know many of you curse us when we point out your mistakes, but I don’t mean “We are cursed” that way.
I mean we are cursed with this gift. I’m sure you don’t think it’s a gift, and at times I know I don’t think it’s a gift. That’s why it’s a curse.
What happens to me when I read something is mistakes or potential mistakes literally jump off the page at me.
(Grammar Police side note: I italicized “literally” because it is used incorrectly like that so often, that I felt the need to point it out to you. The only way the words could literally jump off the page is if they actually fly off whatever you are reading and land in your lap or hit you in the face.)
But do you see what I’m getting at? Those kinds of things happen to me all the time. I constantly see mistakes in other's writing. I imagine a lot of it is from all the years of teaching English and looking for those kinds of things in my students’ papers.
I don’t do it to pick on them or to hurt their self-esteem. I do it to help them become better writers. My whole goal has always been to point out the things in their writing that need to be fixed, so they don’t do it again.
Just like when you coach or teach or lead people in any way, you are helping them to improve. I am doing that with my students.
The problem is that I read a whole lot more than just my students’ essays. And because everything that I read is written by a human being, there are going to be mistakes in what I read.
My goal in pointing out the mistakes has never been to humiliate or embarrass someone. In fact, my goal is to keep them from being humiliated or embarrassed. I want to let them know ahead of time that there is a mistake, so that other people don’t judge them in a negative way because they have errors in their writing. I want to save them from the Grammar Police.
It's Your Business
I see these problems a lot on business websites and other forms of communication, and I cringe. I think, “Why didn’t you proofread that?” or “Why didn’t you hire someone to proofread that?”
This is your baby, your business. It’s what puts food on your table. You are trying to market and sell yourself to people and have them purchase from you or work with you in some fashion. You need to put forth your best self. You don’t want to have careless errors or errors that you don't even know you are making.
There is a famous line that says, “You don’t get a second chance to make a good first impression.” Well, for most businesses, their website or their marketing materials are what people are making their first impressions from.
If you have mistakes in your writing, some people will be turned off and not consider buying from you or working with you. As petty as that may seem, it is true. Many people will think, “If they’re this sloppy and careless with their website (marketing materials), they’re probably sloppy and careless with their product or service. I’ll find someone else.”
Of course, how you write is not necessarily an indication of the work you do. But people are judging you by your writing. So, you need to be careful. And you need to hire someone who knows how to write and knows the rules of writing. You NEED the Grammar Police!
Cursed on a Different Level
Here is the other way that we who are in the Grammar Police are cursed. As of that last sentence, I had written over 1,400 words. Many of you will not notice my errors or not care about them.
But there will be some of you who will see mistakes. And many of you will say, “Who does he think he is telling us about our errors? Look at the errors he has in this post. He ended some sentences with prepositions. He put a dash where he should have had a colon. He started sentences with 'and'.”
That is my curse. If my writing isn’t “perfect,” I’ll never hear the end of it. At least, that’s what I imagine will happen. In all honesty, it probably won’t, but that’s what is in my mind.
So, I proofread EVERYTHING I write MULTIPLE times. Even when I am texting, I always try to follow the correct usage rules for capital letters, spelling, grammar, and punctuation. Crazy, right? Welcome to my world.
So you see, it’s a curse. It never leaves me. I wish I could just throw commas, lower-case proper nouns, and sentence fragments into my writing willy-nilly, but I can’t. Or at least I struggle when doing so.
It’s like I say about coaches – “Once you’re a coach, you’re always a coach.”
Well, once you’re an English teacher, you’re always an English teacher. Therefore, you’re also going to always find errors in writing and, at times, feel the need to point them out to people.
But I have resigned from being a member of the Grammar Police. I am now in a 12-step recovery program called GPA – Grammar Police Anonymous.
The first meeting I went to started like this:
Me: “Hello, my name is Scott.”
Members: “Hi Scott.”
Me: “Hey, people. You forgot to put the comma after ‘Hi’ when you just greeted me.”
My gosh, I’m doomed to relapse, aren’t I?
*If you are someone who needs a Grammar Policeman to help you with your writing or your website, I’d be happy to help. Email me at [email protected] to discuss how I can help you.
**If you’re a middle school/high school student or have a student who needs some help with writing skills, check out the free FB group I run for my SlamDunk Communicating membership site at https://www.facebook.com/groups/slamdunkcommunicatingstudents/