Language police: check your privilege and priorities

Earlier this year published an article titled “15 signs you’re a word nerd”. Alongside a couple of unobjectionable items (You love to read; You know the difference between “e.g.” and “i.e.”) and some that didn’t apply to me (You have at least three word games on your phone) were several that I got stuck on:

Typos and abbreviations in texts drive you a little crazy.

No, not even a little. There are more than enough things in the world to be bothered by without getting worked up over trivial mistakes and conventional shortcuts in phone messages. (I assume texts here is short for text messages: obviously the “good” kind of abbreviation…)

It’s a question of register. How formally correct our language is, or needs to be, depends on context. Text messages seldom require standard English to be fully observed, and most people who text me have no difficulty code-switching appropriately. Nor do I have any difficulty coping with this informal variety of the language. Next!

You can’t look past spelling and punctuation errors on signs and restaurant menus.

As a word nerd I find it very easy. I’m not editing these signs, or correcting them for an exam. Sure, some mistakes are glaring. But maybe the person responsible for them wasn’t blessed with as much education or training as the peever, or isn’t a native English speaker.

Even without such an excuse, it’s no big deal so long as the intended message is clear. Obviously businesses should have their printed material proofread – I do this professionally, after all. But when I’m out buying fruit and veg and see grocer’s apostrophes, I may notice but I really could(n’t) care less. There’s no confusion, and I’m off-duty.

what the duck - everyone's a critic - apostrophe punctuation cartoon

cartoon via

Other “signs you’re a word nerd” include the following:

If you don’t already own these grammar correction stickers [commercial link], you just added them to your wish list.

You may or may not carry a red pen to correct egregious errors on the fly.

“May or may not carry a red pen” covers all possible scenarios, so it’s not a sign of anything. Disregarding the hedge: Some people add apostrophes to official signs. Others diligently amend handwritten notices. I think doing this without invitation, whether with red pen or stickers, is presumptuous at best, and quite possibly rude.

Making a song and dance about minor errors in unedited and informal writing seems to serve the self-righteousness of the complainer more than the edification of the writer or the good of the language. English needs no protecting, and can be celebrated without fussy judgement of trivial mistakes. (When I tweeted this, an editor in the US told me erroneously that I’d misspelt judgment. Read into that what you will.)

Sticklers are precious about correctness, often seeking to impose a narrow conception of it universally. They see nothing wrong with casually disparaging anyone who makes a mistake (i.e., everyone) or who doesn’t meet their exacting standards. I don’t claim to understand the motivations for this severity, though I have some ideas.

alan watts - what is zen - incorrect correction

A library book in Galway (Alan Watts’s “What is Zen?”) defaced by a misguided stickler-turned-vandal

It’s a popular stereotype, the language lover or word nerd or grammar geek who is comfortably contemptuous of error and even of legitimate variation. A more recent article on, “12 most unforgivable writing mistakes”, peeves about singular they and misspellings like affect/effect. To call these unforgivable is preposterous and cheap.

This is one reason people are nervous and diffident about grey areas in language and “grammar mistakes”: they associate them with petty pedantry over obscure distinctions and derision over trifling slips. Copy editors, as John E. McIntyre remarked today, are familiar with the unfortunate “I’d better watch my language” reaction to our tribe.

Language learners and less educated native speakers especially can feel anxious and self-conscious about usage, and this is made worse by the antisocial intolerance and condescension that pass for mainstream sociolinguistic attitudes.

Linguistic mistakes are not shameful. Quite the opposite: they may shed light on the physical or cognitive machinery of language production, or broaden our understanding of non-standard usage (and, indirectly, of cultural etiquette). So why be a grouch?

stan carey - Indo-European Jones meme - grammar nazis - i hate these guys

[via: Introducing Indo-European Jones]

33 Responses to Language police: check your privilege and priorities

  1. Mrs Fever says:

    One thing about not be able to get past spelling/punctuation errors: I am hard on *myself* about this, not on other people. When I find an error in something *I’ve* done, I have a tendency to mentally forehead-thwap myself. I work hard to avoid mistakes, but I make them. That considered, it would be presumptuous for me to project an expectation of perfection on anyone else.

    And I applaud you for pointing this out: “Language learners and less educated native speakers especially can feel anxious and self-conscious about usage, and this is made worse by the antisocial intolerance and condescension that pass for mainstream sociolinguistic attitudes.”

    I work with second-language populations, and disparaging attitudes are a terrible barrier to overcome.

  2. Roger says:

    The apostrophe might disappear and the language keep on trucking.

    Cp. how German gets along without it.

    But not Dutch, where it appears to have a few uses, according to

  3. Elizabeth says:

    Fear of the red pen runs deep, and sometimes friends apologize to me even for typos because I’m an editor and they think I can’t turn it off. I may notice, but I don’t hold with editing what is essentially typed conversation. It’s as rude as correcting someone’s speech.

  4. Stan says:

    Mrs Fever: ‘I am hard on *myself* about this.’ Oh yes, I can relate to that. Proofreaders and editors need to be a bit obsessive and perfectionist about spotting errors, but blind spots arise more easily when we’re reviewing our own text. Realising that we’ve let one by, even in, say, a tweet or an informal email, is not a pleasant feeling! Thanks for confirming the problem with disparaging attitudes for L2 speakers.

    Roger: It might come to be dropped more from some of its less vital functions (e.g., signalling possession), but even that would meet with fierce resistance from the instinctively anti-change troops.

    Elizabeth: Yes, I’ve experienced the same, and like you I would notice but feel no tendency to judge or correct in such a context. Often, though, people can’t help feeling shame or embarrassment even over inconsequential mistakes. It runs deep, as you say.

  5. astraya says:

    When I worked as a publishing editor for a legal publishing company, I pointed out all my mistakes to my colleagues, fearful of anyone else noticing and pointing them out to me!

  6. Jen says:

    Excellent points. I never thought about punctuation mistakes or typos are a result of cognitive function. I just thought people were stupid or lazy or uninformed. Since moving to Israel, however, I have lightened up on this. You have to! Typos in English abound, and rather than get irked, it’s a great opportunity to laugh.

  7. Lynne says:

    It’s interesting how the language of text messaging has changed now that so many people have a phone with a QUERTY keyboard – making it much easier to type ‘great’ rather than ‘gr8’, for example. It seems that what we think of as ‘text speak’ is on the decline as the technology changes.

  8. Stan says:

    astraya: I hope you caught them all!

    Jen: It certainly can be. I’ve lightened up on language use (and misuse) over the years too! An old post I wrote on what causes different kinds of typos may be of interest.

    Lynne: That’s a good point. The proportion of txtspk in text messages was never as high as alarmists claimed (David Crystal has good data and analysis in his book Txting: the gr8 db8), but there may be a trend back towards longer forms now that the physical and spatial constraints are changing.

  9. Brian Meeks says:

    Editing is hard. My novels are sent to my editor, who writes a blog about grammar and punctuation, and then to my beta readers. The beta readers (usually 4 – 6) all find a handful of mistakes we had missed.

    What’s interesting, though, is the beta readers rarely find the same mistakes.

  10. […] Language police: check your privilege and priorities […]

  11. Surely, it should be “grocers’ apostrophes,” unless you’re talking about one specific grocer. ;-)

  12. Stan says:

    Brian: I don’t find editing hard, though obviously texts can be more or less demanding. More interesting to me than the fact readers find different mistakes – this is to be expected – is that they find so many after you’ve had the books edited.
    (I shortened your comment as it was mostly off-topic.)

    Edward: No, it can be either, and it’s more usually (green)grocer’s. Maybe…look it up?

  13. astraya says:

    Stan: Umm, no, otherwise there would have been nothing to show my colleagues.

  14. JesseV says:

    I mostly read books from the library, and it’s sad how many come with the added edits of prior readers (such as the example shown in your post). What motivates one reader of the book to “correct” what they view as the errors of the author? They seem to want to show how smart and educated they are, even though we subsequent readers don’t know who they are. Puzzling.

  15. Sally says:

    When I first joined Twitter I followed a ‘grammar police’ account as I thought it would be amusing. I very quickly unfollowed them as the tweets just made me feel uncomfortable – endless pictures of notices with unapostrophised or misspelled words. Where is the joy in poking fun at people who don’t know these are errors or have made a simple mistake? Fun-pokers: did you understand the message? Well, then: consider a mechanic laughing at you because you can’t fix your car, or a doctor laughing at you because you don’t know whether you have indigestion or are suffering a heart attack. I can’t cook – I don’t like people chuckling over this, and I haven’t starved yet. So their.

  16. Stan says:

    Jesse: What prompts adults to deface library books is a good question; children at least have the excuse that they know no better. I mentioned self-satisfaction earlier, and I think that may sometimes apply here. People are proud to have learned (even if really mis-learned) some aspect of language use, and by being publicly pedantic about it they get to indulge in that feeling. The anonymity of this one-upmanship over an author might even suit them. (Is there a gender-neutral equivalent of one-upmanship?) But I expect there are various and differing motivations for the behaviour in each case.

    Sally: Every time I look there are more of those accounts. There’s quite a variety, and I might dedicate a post to them later. Some are amusing, even polite and helpful, while others are rude, tedious, or otherwise unpleasant. Many are automated. Regarding the sneering sort, of which there are plenty, I would hesitate to call it joy, but I imagine those responsible derive a certain petty satisfaction out of playing “gotcha” with unwitting strangers.

    On a slight tangent, there are Twitter accounts that focus on aspects of language use but are politically neutral and serve to concentrate material of sociolinguistic interest. I wrote about one, the nixicon account, in a post about the common claim that something is “not a word”.

  17. […] Language police: check your privilege and priorities. Cracking post from Stan Carey […]

  18. astraya says:

    (Long, sorry – please bear with me, I hope it’s interesting and I need advice)
    I have just completed my Masters (Honours) in linguistics (that is, eight coursework subjects then a research project and 15,000 word dissertation) after a last-minute hitch. I have been negotiating with the professor about a PhD topic. For different reasons, we have both been vacillating about my first choice of topic, in historical linguistics, which I did for one coursework subject and the dissertation, and which has a PhD’s worth of material left in it. However, my chief interest has always been ‘real language spoken by real people here and now’, and I had been pondering a topic based on language on the internet but couldn’t think of a way to constrain such a large and changing source.
    Then while I was supervising one of my classes for their fortnightly test a few weeks ago, I typed ‘Grammar Fail’ into Google, and got a workable amount of suitable material, which I have been pondering recently. Some academic questions are ‘What ‘errors’ do people make? Why? What is it about English that that makes it an ‘error’? Is communicative intention preserved (that is, do we ultimately understand what they are trying to say)? How do other people ‘correct’ them? Why? (See Sally’s comment and Stan’s reply) What happens when the correcter themselves makes an ‘error’? (How) Does the original writer respond?’. Some ‘errors’ are genuine variation, some are word play or irony which the correcter has totally failed to notice. Some ‘errors’ may yet prove to be genuine variations of the future (eg the spellings ‘ermahgerd’ and ‘amirite’ are now standard within their contexts, but are unlikely to displace the ‘real’ spellings. ‘Teh’ has developed nuances of its own.) (Indeed, ‘grammar’ and ‘fail’ have both undergone changes of meaning and usage in this regard. Many ‘grammar failures’ have nothing to do with ‘grammar’ as linguists use the term – including spelling and punctuation. Spelling ‘grammar’ as ‘grammer’ is not a ‘grammar failure’.)
    In the professor’s second-last email, he was the most equivocal about the historical topic. In my last email, I defended the points he’d raised and said ‘this is still my first choice of topic’, which it was at the time. I also outlined the internet topic briefly, but it was still new territory then. Since then I have been thinking less about the historical topic and more about the internet topic (which also more closely overlaps with my job as an ESL teacher). In the professor’s last email, he said ‘Right, now the last-minute hitch has been overcome, let’s get started on the historical topic’. I am about to write to him (ie, I have been procrastinating by typing this) to say ‘Ummm, can we at least consider the internet topic before we put it aside?’.

  19. Stan says:

    astraya: You have a clear preference for continuing your studies with a focus on internet linguistics, but your professor seems to consider this a passing fancy or diversion, or perhaps a topic of limited scholarly interest (to him, or more generally), or something like that. Embarking on a PhD in one area when you have a strong wish to explore another area sounds to me like a recipe for frustration at the very least. If your professor can be convinced – which there’s no guarantee of – you’ll have to try and do so. I don’t know if I can be of any real help here, since it boils down to the relationship you have with your professor, and how best to make the case to him, and other such local factors. But I wish you the best of luck.

  20. David Morris says:

    Stan – Thanks for your reply. I will now post by my real name, but I notice that my WordPress gravatar is following me.
    I emailed the professor just after I posted the comment above, and am now waiting on his reply.

  21. Amazing Ampersand says:

    Thank you – I very much enjoyed reading this corrective to language snobbery and self-promotion.

  22. […] that ignorance with a licence to sic, throw in the popular habit of triumphalism over minor and imaginary mistakes, and the trouble may […]

  23. […] Are you a word nerd? Further to an article published on, “15 signs you’re a word nerd,” we head to Irishman Stan Carey’s latest blog entry on the language police. (Sentence First) […]

  24. myblogmyfeelings says:

    Thank you for saying this. I’m often confused when a person thinks that knowing proper grammar makes them more intelligent than the person who wrote the article. Knowledge and intelligence are two different things.

    One grammar mistake never invalidates what the writer or speaker is saying, so why do people think this way.

  25. Stan says:

    Amazing Ampersand: You’re welcome; thanks for your visit.

    myblogmyfeelings: “Knowledge and intelligence are two different things.” Indeed, and neither is well served by a lack of kindness and empathy.

  26. […] Language police: check your privilege and priorities […]

  27. […] Language police: check your privilege and priorities […]

  28. […] it is historically and linguistically naive, and it can be socially toxic. I’ve written about privilege and the language police […]

  29. […] nitpicker, fusspot, grammar grouch, authoritarian, grammaticaster, ideologue, language police, and others, some of which are […]

  30. […] dialect or have learned English as a second language or have been blessed with less education. They forget their privilege and their manners. […]

  31. […] with self-anointed experts and bots presuming to fix other people’s usage. Some readers even deface library books to air their wrong-headed […]

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