“Less” or “Fewer”? What Does “Correcting” Language and Grammar Do?

“I think you mean fewer, not less.” “It should be compared with, not compared to…” When’s the last time you remember someone correcting your language or grammar? How often have you had this experience as an adult? Perhaps you use a cultural vernacular which seems to generate a particular reaction in your work community. If your feelings in response to those experiences are negative, you’re not alone. You might have felt foolish, or ostracized, or ‘less than’ in some way. Or maybe you felt like you were being ‘put in your place’. But what happens when we correct someone else’s language and grammar? How recently have you done that?

If you’re an academic who’s working to support a student, or you’re paid to proofread work or correct grammar, this kind of correction is accepted, and maybe even expected. But if you find yourself correcting a colleague or team member’s grammar without an explicit request from them, it’s likely that you’re doing more harm than good. Any learning that happens comes with some cost to the relationship, and perhaps a memory that will resurface for the other person every time they use the same words in future. (I still distinctly remember being corrected by my high school principal in my only interaction with him, when I used the word “envious” instead of “enviable” – so to this day I never use either…)

If someone’s meaning is clear, there is no benefit in correcting their language or grammar if they haven’t explicitly requested it. Policing someone else’s language sets up, or highlights, a hierarchy – that the person correcting is, well, correct, and can be believed or trusted more than the person being corrected (the label of a ‘correctional facility’ here is no coincidence, of course). This creates a power dynamic that is unnecessary, and only serves to make one person feel good about themselves at the expense of another.* It also detracts from what the person was actually saying, putting the person down rather than listening to the substance of their argument. Writer Matthew J.X. Malady goes so far as to label these people “language bullies,” and summarizes “[t]hose who use their advanced knowledge to embarrass or humiliate others are the absolute worst.”

* Of course, an additional wrinkle is that many words that we use subconsciously in the English language stem from and/or reinforce a colonial patriarchy of supression, racism, and slave labor, so we would be well served by looking at our own use of language before correcting others; we’ll look more at this in future articles.

Whether or not you find yourself correcting others, how can this be useful for you and your team this week?

This Week’s Tip:

Untangle comprehension from language and grammar. Focus on understanding someone’s meaning, and on building a relationship with that person. Unlearn the compulsion to correct someone’s language and grammar, especially when that does nothing to enhance comprehension:

  1. If you are someone who corrects others’ language and grammar, consider if you are genuinely trying to help, or attempting to gain the upper hand. Have those people asked for your help? If not, consider apologizing to them for correcting them in the past. If they have appreciated it, they will let you know, and may even ask for your help in future. If not, they will appreciate the apology.
  2. Focus on comprehension. If the meaning is not already clear, use open-ended questions to clarify and learn more rather than making assumptions.
  3. Consider your own cultural language norms. Reflect on what kind of language norms were part of your culture when you grew up, and are part of your culture now. What is considered acceptable? What language use would be frowned upon or seen as problematic? Begin a conversation with friends from different cultural backgrounds or identity groups about this to hear their perspectives and reflections, and how they overlap and differ from your own.
  4. Start to reflect on your own use of language. Pay attention to the words you use, and the meaning they carry. Is your intention clear to others? How do you know or not know? What might you do to find out?

Try this out this week and let us know how it goes in our Facebook group – and feel free to share this post with others! You can subscribe to our feed here, or sign up for our weekly newsletter to get these articles directly in your inbox!

Published by Ian Jackson

Ian Jackson is the founder of Building Bridges Leadership, which works with individuals, teams, and organizations to create authentic community in the workplace. He also writes children's fiction and teaches creative writing.

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