Policing people’s grammar online is never really about grammar

Sharpening your grammar to a fine point can just make you dull.
Sharpening your grammar to a fine point can just make you dull.
Image: Reuters/Benoit Tessier
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When I think about good manners, I go straight to my favorite scene in the 2001 Anne Hathaway movie The Princess Diaries. When Hathaway accidentally takes a huge bite of a cold palate-cleanser at a formal dinner, she gets instant brain freeze. Her two kindly dinner companions—eager to save her from any sense of embarrassment—follow suit, shoveling frozen green stuff into their mouths and wincing in pain.

What a wonderful pair! They know the young princess has made a mistake, but rather than make her feel ashamed, their instinct is to make her feel less alone. In this way, they are the exact opposite of people who make other people feel bad about their grammar and punctuation on the internet.

One of the many unexpected side effects of the internet is that it’s shown us just how many people appear to lose the capacity for emotional self-regulation when confronted with a misused semicolon. Scroll through the comments section of any publication or simply sign on to Twitter, and you’ll find plenty of examples of people who treat typos and grammatical errors not just as ordinary mistakes, but as a kind of moral offense.

“People love tweeting mean-spirited things to BuzzFeed when they see a typo or an error, sometimes not even by one of our writers or reporters but a community post, which can be written by anyone,” says Emmy Favilla, BuzzFeed’s copy chief and the author of the forthcoming book A World Without ‘Whom’, a book about language and the internet. “They’ll tweet at us, ‘BuzzFeed sucks,’ or ‘Do you even have copy editors?’”

Whether they’re correcting publications or individuals, hyper-vigilant grammar nerds are often out to prove their own intellectual or cultural superiority, as Matthew J.X. Malady writes in a 2013 Slate column. “When people, especially publicly, correct others’ mistakes, a lot of that has to do with signaling to other people,” psychology professor Robert Kurzban tells Malady. “People are trying to signal their expertise, because being able to identify mistakes indicates that you know more about something than the person who committed the error.”

In other words, maybe the shock and fury expressed by some online commenters over a misspelled word is actually performative. It’s one thing to notice and even feel pained by a typo; it’s another to announce your pain to the world.

Mastery of grammar, spelling and punctuation is a class signifier. Proper online usage is a sign that you know—and care—about playing by the rules. In Jane Austen novels, women show potential suitors that they can paint and speak French and they force party guests listen to them sing dreary songs at the piano. On the internet, know-it-alls show off to other know-it-alls that they can differentiate between use cases of “that” and “which.”

“It’s also why things like grammar quizzes do so well,” says Favilla. “People love evidence that confirms they know more than everyone else.” BuzzFeed now offers a healthy supply of grammar quizzes, and the New York Times last year debuted a “Copy Edit This!” quiz that offers readers a new way to enjoy one of their favorite pastimes—spotting the tiny flaws in recent news articles.

There’s nothing wrong with taking online copy editing quizzes. In fact, this seems like a great way to channel one’s extra energy! And it’s certainly useful to correct a publication’s errors, although ideally you’d message the author privately instead of shouting subject-verb conflicts from the Twitter rooftops. Grammar can change the meaning of a sentence, and mistakes often make a person’s point harder to understand.

The big problem with ostentatious online correcting is that it often winds up shutting down conversation. When a grammar stickler obsesses over the proper placement of an apostrophe in a Facebook status or a blog post, they’re not engaging with the actual content. How many times have we seen an online commenter whose only remark on a post about the author’s struggles with body image is “It’s their not there,” or a Twitter acquaintance who proudly screenshots a typo in a New York Times article on science education? The instinct to publicly criticize and police linguistic errors is also a way to avoid wading into the muck of other people’s thoughts and feelings, and redirect the conversation back toward oneself.

Moreover, because young or poor or immigrant populations are often among those who may not conform to traditional English grammar and spelling and punctuation usage, focusing on linguistic deviations can reinforce the barriers of privilege. Consider the language-ability requirement in US Republicans’ proposed immigration bill, and its underlying sentiment: Until you talk the way I want you to, I don’t have to care about you. 

Of course, this problem predates the internet. Virginia Woolf captured the crux of the issue in the preface to her 1928 novel Orlando:

Finally, I would thank, had I not lost his name and address, a gentleman in America, who has generously and gratuitously corrected the punctuation, the botany, the entomology, the geography, and the chronology of previous works of mine and will, I hope, not spare his services on the present occasion.

Here’s my guess about what was going on with Woolf’s gentleman in America. Clearly he was somewhat interested in her ideas—he was reading a bunch of her writing. But he didn’t quite want to believe that she might know some things that he didn’t. And so he turned himself into the Inspector Javert of modernist literature, doggedly pursuing Woolf in search of opportunities to point out her mistakes.

He did find some. Even brilliant novelists slip up here and there. But what a boring way to interact with the world! Think of how much more he might have gleaned from Woolf if he’d been more like those two diners in The Princess Diaries, and swallowed a dangling modifier or two in sympathy—choosing connection instead of isolation, with the understanding that mistakes are only human.