While I agree with Ladysquires and Stephen Fry that it’s annoying and self-serving to correct other people’s grammar in casual conversation, I do feel compelled to stand up for those who point out grammatical errors in the appropriate circumstances and out of a desire to be helpful (as opposed to wanting to gloat over other people’s mistakes and feel superior). As writing tutors, we exist in a sort of limbo—we’re not copy editors, professors, or even the intended audience of students’ writing assignments, yet we’re responsible for reading the assignments and giving as much constructive feedback as we can. When is it appropriate to comment on students’ grammar, and how can we do so without turning into the smug pedants that Ladysquires, Fry, and many others abhor?
I personally find it hard to ignore grammatical errors, especially when I’m working with a student whose paper is otherwise well-written. If there’s enough time in a session after discussing higher-order issues, I can’t resist pointing out recurring grammatical errors and reminding the student to proofread carefully before turning in his or her final draft. Maybe it’s because I’ve done a lot of copy editing for my internships, but I also remember several other members of our class bringing up specific grammatical and spelling errors when we discussed our “writing pet peeves” at the beginning of the semester. If mechanical errors are really so unimportant, why do we care so much about them?
I think the trivial nature of grammatical errors is actually what makes us so eager to correct them; it’s so easy and takes so little time that it’s hard to resist the temptation. “In this sentence, you need a comma after the introductory element. See? All better!” It’s like sticking a Band-Aid on the paper—an easy fix that takes hardly any effort. However, when there are larger problems with the paper it’s actually a disservice to the student to comment on grammar. You wouldn’t put a Band-Aid on someone’s scraped knee when they also have a sprained ankle!
Still, I don’t think it’s so bad to use a grammar Band-Aid when the problem really is just a scraped knee. As Fry points out, there are situations in which proper grammar is important, such as an exam or a job interview. In these situations, you don’t want to give the impression that you don’t care; instead, “you slip into a suit for an interview, and you dress you language up, too.” I believe a formal college writing assignment is also a situation in which grammatical errors and typos sometimes give the impression that the writer doesn’t care about the assignment and probably dashed it off at the last minute. So while I won’t copy edit a student’s paper, I will try to help students recognize and correct recurring errors so their readers won’t doubt that they put a great deal of thought and effort into their writing.
Fry, Stephen. “Language.” n.d. Lecture. “Stephen Fry Kinetic Tyography – Language.” Ed. RogersCreations. YouTube.com. YouTube, 30 Sept. 2010. Web. 2 Oct. 2011.
Ladysquires. “Why I’m Not Proud of You for Correcting Other People’s Grammar.” Shitty First Drafts. Shitty First Drafts, 11 May 2010. Web. 2 Oct. 2011.