• Annie Tucker
  • Grammergency #14: Is It Ever OK to Be a Grammar Snob?
Grammergency #14: Is It Ever OK to Be a Grammar Snob?
Written by
Annie Tucker
June 2015
Written by
Annie Tucker
June 2015

People’s responses to the fact that I’m a professional editor span a broad spectrum. Some don’t know what an editor even does. Others say, “I’m hopeless with grammar and punctuation; that’s why I pay a copy editor to fix my mistakes for me.” And I often hear, “I’m sure you’ve spotted typos in my e-mails to you—don’t judge.”

The operative word in this last case is “judge.” Do I find typos in everyday communications? Do I pick up on grammatical errors in conversation? Yes, all the time (as do plenty of people who don’t even edit for a living). Does that frustrate me? Sometimes, although I try not to let it drive me to distraction. Do I wish that everyone in the world knew the difference between “your” and “you’re”? Of course I do—but that’s never going to happen.

More important, do I look down on anyone simply because he or she makes an error in speech or writing? Absolutely not. To assign a less-than status to someone who doesn’t have absolute mastery of the very nebulous English language would make me a jerk. All kinds of factors—place and family of origin; exposure to diverse reading materials; educational systems; even basic interest—play a part in everyone’s aptitude for this stuff, and those factors have very little to do with how much native intelligence or integrity a person has.

However, this does beg the question: When is it okay to correct people's grammar? My advice is, only when someone asks for feedback. If a friend tells me, “Please let me know as soon as you notice me making a grammatical error,” I say, “Are you sure you want me to do that?” If she responds with an emphatic enough yes, I’ll follow through. But if I just happen to hear someone who hasn’t asked for my input using some phrase or construction incorrectly, I tend not to speak up, because it’s not my place to drive around in an unmarked grammar-police squad car and bust innocent civilians who are just trying to connect with one another. I’d rather keep the friends I have and provide advice in a more constructive fashion to an audience that’s genuinely interested—such as the She Writes community.

On that note, I’m always happy to hear you out if you have specific questions that I might be able to answer on this site, so leave your requests in the comments below. I promise I won’t judge.

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  • Creative vs literature writing are there different rules or should both be treated the same when it comes to some grammar usage,structure, and something you may get away with if this makes sense?

  • Paula Lozar

    I worked as a technical editor for 35 years.  I encountered a few authors who felt that grammar didn't matter as long as the content was correct, and others who felt that I was being overly picky when I questioned something because "Everyone knows what THAT means!"  I had to point out repeatedly that using bad grammar is like going to a job interview with a grease spot on your shirt front:  Maybe it has nothing to do with your technical competence, but it reflects badly on you.  Also, most of the authors I worked for were writing for non-scientists and non-engineers -- government agencies, Congress, etc. -- and if they didn't ensure that the document was understandable by that audience, it could affect their funding.  (That usually got their attention!)

  • Lorraine Swoboda

    Annie, I'm English and live in France. My French isn't perfect, and the people here will correct me. That's fine - in fact it's a help. They are protecting their language from my mauling of it, and they are teaching me as we all go along. They love it when I correct myself

    However, if I were to do the same to English-speaking people, I'd be considered rude - and rightly so. I'm not there to teach people their own spoken language, and wouldn't try it.

    I blog about grammar and punctuation, not to be didactic, but because there's a difference between how people communicate in the spoken and the written word. A speaker is using more than just the words: she uses posture, gestures, expressions, tone of voice - in short, animation. The written page relies entirely upon its own appearance to do the job of all of that. Therefore it has to work harder to be understood.

    What the writer forgets is that only she knows how her words are intended to sound; the reader hears them in their own voice, like a dubbed film. Get the grammar and punctuation wrong, and what the reader picks up could bear no relation to the original. That's where an editor comes in - as has been the case since publishing for public readership began.

    There's a difference between judging and assisting the writer to communicate - which is what writing is all about, after all. To be a good editor, you have to be more than a word-wrangler: you need to be a psychologist too.


  • Carol Blonder

    Annie, appreciate your post and recognition of some of the factors contributing to an aptitude for perfect grammar. Please add learning and processing disabilities to the list. Some of us struggle with spelling and punctuation errors which have nothing to do with culture, education, interest, or exposure to reading material. The shift in journalism and publishing from print to Internet has left editors unable to edit the volume of posts required by their publishers. So not only should editors not judge, writers need to invite correction and feedback.

  • Mardith Louisell

    Several years ago, my and  mother and friends were out to lunch. One friend (sister-in-law to a well-known writer and mother-in-law to a well-known poet) corrected my mother, who made what is these days an oh-so-common error, even among people who used not to make this error. The friend went on to say, "If ever I make an error, I hope you will tell me." My mother said, "I just bet you do."  

  • Pamela Fender

    Thanks for the laugh, Zetta.

    It is very tough for me to keep my mouth shut, but I do, so as not to appear like a know-it-all.

    Last night we were watching a t.v. show and either the script writing was incorrect or the actor was wrong.

    "As a person of royalty, I wouldn't recommend..."  She wasn't royalty; she was speaking to someone of royalty.
    I was taught that when one says, "As a person...", the following words should be "I..." or "you" if you're referring to that person. I'm probably not making myself very clear, but I'm guessing you probably understand what I'm trying to convey here. I actually had to stop the t.v., and mention it to my husband, because once she said that incorrectly, I couldn't follow anything else after that. It completely distracted me. 

  • Ann Anderson Evans

    Grammar is arbitrary and always changing; otherwise we'd be speaking like Beowulf (well, he wasn't exactly human, so like Shakespeare). The trick is knowing which grammar change is going to stick with us and which is not. Personally, I think "Me and Mary went to the mall" will become acceptable. Language is always streamlining, and since the subject always (don't remind me of all the exceptions) comes first in English, we are a Subject-Verb-Object language, unlike many others, it is clear that "Me" is the subject

  • A "grammar snob" worked for me, when I was VP of Quality.  She'd send corrections to VP of R&D.  Grammar/spelling errors drove her mad.  She felt poor VPR&D had no credibility because he didn't know when to use advice and advise, which or that.  Although I counseled her to put her rage on a silent simmer, she has a point.  Our words often communicate more than we think.

    I've made my own share of grammar mistakes, some humorous, especially with the help of autocorrect. I tend to cut a lot of slack when it comes to comments, email, text, or speech.  In a book? oh ugh.

  • Annie Tucker

    Thanks for the dose of humor, Zetta—always appreciated!

  • Zetta Brown

    I saw this on a Facebook page and had to swipe it. It's fine to have standards, but perfection is hard.