The Grammar Police: Mind Your Words Or They'll Mind Them For You

07/01/2016 07:34 am ET Updated Jul 02, 2017

Nearly everyone makes grammatical mistakes from time to time. After all, the English language is said to be one of the most difficult languages to learn and master.

Take irregular verbs in modern English, such as lie and lay. These verbs can take unpredictable and confusing forms. For instance, would it be correct to say, "I lie down on the sofa to read The Huffington Post" or "I lay down on the sofa to read The Huffington Post"? If you selected the first version because you know the grammar rule for lie and lay or because it sounded better, you'd be correct.

Those people who master every grammar rule contained in Fowler's Modern English Usage are to be admired. Among them, however, is a contingent, commonly known as the grammar police, who wield their English grammar skills like Thor's hammer by going around and correcting people's grammatical mistakes. Let's learn more about what makes them tick.

Who Are the Grammar Police?

The grammar police are people who have a compulsive urge to correct other people's grammar, often in public.

Now we're not speaking of people who work in "grammar jobs," such as editors, librarians, and English teachers and tutors. Nor are we alluding to well-meaning grammar lovers, whose sole aim is to be helpful when they give grammatical feedback, in private, by using "modeling."

Rather, we're talking about those individuals who cross the line by dishing out public corrections, with the intent of making themselves feel superior while putting others down. Such pedants seek out opportunities to brandish their grammar skills in an attempt to embarrass or humiliate anyone who commits a grammatical blunder. Not surprisingly, then, the grammar police are commonly perceived as rude, annoying, and even bullying by others.

What Studies Say About People Who Correct Other People's Grammar

A research study looked at the personality traits of people who react to errors in written communication. Study participants read email responses to a housemate-wanted ad that either was error-free or had been modified to include typos or homophone errors (grammos), such as confusing to, too, and two. Participants were then asked to employ an evaluation scale for each message, which gauged their reactions to the writer, in addition to completing other research instruments. The study concluded:

"More extraverted people were likely to overlook written errors that would cause introverted people to judge the person who makes such errors more negatively. Less agreeable people were more sensitive to grammos, while more conscientious and less open people were sensitive to typos."

Birds of a Feather Rectify Together

As a noisy flock, the grammar police are inclined to forage for grammar gaffes in cyberspace, with a specific hunger for "Comments" sections. In his article titled "Are You a Language Bully?" Matthew J.X. Malady, an attorney and a writer, says: "Comments sections, for instance, are to language bullies what the Cheers bar was to Norm Peterson, or what murky waters at twilight are to the bull shark."

Malady quotes Robert Kurzban, a University of Pennsylvania psychology professor who specializes in evolutionary psychology, as suggesting that people who correct grammar errors "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."

Why Good Grammar Matters

Good grammar helps to ensure that our thoughts and opinions are being expressed completely, clearly, and concisely. In addition, proper grammar is a sign of intelligence and educational attainment, as well as enhancing credibility and contributing to professional advancement -- and there's evidence to prove this.

The results of a study conducted by Grammarly appeared in the Harvard Business Review. Using a sample of LinkedIn profiles of native English-speakers who work in the consumer packaged goods (CPG) sector, the study found that professionals who committed fewer grammatical errors in their profiles tended to attain higher positions and experience more promotions, as compared with their grammatically-challenged colleagues over the same time period.

To grammar lovers and grammar police alike, if you find a grammar mistake in someone's communication, think before you correct. In a blog post titled "Correcting People's Grammar: Just Don't Do It," Ann Edwards writes: "Above all, remember that communication -- correctly formatted or not -- is all about understanding. Give a little grace when it comes to grammar mistakes, and you'll find that your communication improves overall."

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