How To Correct People Without Being Pompous
There is a time and place to summon the grammar police. If you’re always correcting people on their misuses and misspellings, then you become that guy. And no one likes him.
But there are times when people need to be corrected, both for their own self-improvement and for the sake of the written word. Oftentimes, however, we’re in a delicate situation where calling someone out does more harm than good — a boss, teacher or other superior, for example.
So, how do you pay your dues to the grammar police while remaining diplomatic towards the incorrect? Here are a few tips on how to kindly and elegantly correct people:
Let’s say a co-worker continuously makes the same error in their emails. They use there instead of their, for example. If you want to correct by demonstration, you can use the same phrase they did in your response, only spell it correctly: Why, yes, I did see their presentation. This method works in spoken word, too. Only it applies to the arrangement or pronunciation of words rather than spelling: You could care less? I couldn’t care less either. If you’re lucky, they will see your correct example and continue to use it from that point on. Now, this method may prove to be a little too subtle for our more oblivious counterparts. So, if that’s the case, you need to take it to the next level.
By asking questions
At this point, we’re still at a stage of correcting where we want to be subtle. In asking someone questions surrounding their mistake, you’re bringing attention to their error without explicitly telling them they’re wrong. This questioning puts them in a position where they need to think about what they said, hopefully to arrive at the correction by themselves.
Let’s say someone throws out the phrase, “For all intensive purposes.” You can respond by asking, “Are you sure that’s how it’s phrased? I’m pretty sure I’ve heard it said as all intents and purposes. I’m not 100% sure which one is right. Let’s look this up and see once and for all. I’d like to know for my own sake.” See how that works? By spinning it around to put you both in the vulnerable position of being wrong, you remain discreet yet accomplish the correction. If this method fails too, you need to bring in the big guns.
By politely straight-shooting
Sometimes the only way to get through to people is by being direct. This can still be accomplished while remaining polite and keeping up your good graces. So, let’s say your boss is delivering a presentation in front of all the employees. Right at the brink of his closing remarks, he uses the word irregardless (with conviction, no less). Now, you definitely don’t want to draw attention to that in front of everyone — it would make him look like a fool and you like a complete SOB. In this case, you would wait until after the meeting was over. Depending on your relationship with the guy, you could either get someone closer to him to send the message, or you could do it yourself: “I noticed you used the word irregardless in your presentation. I know it’s a common mistake, but it’s actually regardless. Just thought I’d give you a heads up.”
In situations like these, you have to be careful in how you craft your wording. The incorrect need to be told so they don’t make the same embarrassing mistakes again. And as difficult as it may be to withhold from physically cringing when people do make these mistakes, it proves worthwhile for everyone to be subtle about correcting.