For my birthday one year, a friend gave me a card that had a picture of two women sitting in a diner talking. One woman says to the other, “Where’s your birthday party at?” The second woman says, “Don’t end a sentence with a preposition.” You open the card and the first woman replies, “Sorry. Where’s your birthday party at, bitch.” My friend and I both thought this was hilarious, as we had found ourselves in similar conversations many times throughout our long friendship. We’ve managed to stay friends for so long because she ignores my corrections and I ignore her dangling participles.
And while my friend and I have an understanding, I often wonder what the larger implications are of correcting someone when they mispronounce, use incorrect syntax, or just plain say something wrong – not inaccurate, but literally say something the wrong way. Is it helpful or is it douchebaggery?
Personally, I like to be corrected. As long as it’s done nicely. I feel like mispronouncing words and/or using incorrect grammar, is the intellectual equivalent of having spinach in your teeth. You want someone to kindly and discreetly let you know. If not, you end up walking around all night smiling at people (or ordering ex-presso), looking like a fool.
For example, the other night I attempted to sing the first line from the Journey song “Don’t Stop Believin’,” and I belted out – a capella nonetheless – “Just a small town boy!” It took me a few seconds to realize I had gotten it wrong (she’s just a small town girl), and I immediately corrected myself. My sister-in-law who was sitting next to me, laughed – obviously embarrassed for me and said, “Yeah, I didn’t want to correct you.”
But what if I hadn’t caught myself and she didn’t correct me? I would be doomed to live the rest of my days singing the wrong words to that song. That would be tragic, right? Think of the embarrassment at karaoke night. Or at the piano bar. Or in my car driving my kids home from school. (That song comes on a lot, no?)
On the other hand, there are certain times when you should not attempt to correct someone – even if you think you’re being helpful. Your boss, your in-laws, your parole officer, the large dude in line in front of you – they all get a free pass. I don’t care if they order the Poe-low chimey-chaaaangas with a side of tor-till-la chips and then say they are chomping at the bit to eat it. You keep your mouth shut. In order to correct someone, there has to be a certain relationship in place. Otherwise, you’re just looking for an ass-kicking.
But even among friends, correcting someone can get sticky. After all, some people feel chastened or embarrassed when they get something wrong. And sometimes people’s mistakes are so bad that you can’t really correct them without looking like a total snob. Gaffs like saying supposably, acrost, heighth, drownd, irregardless, and orientate – to name a few – cannot be corrected unless the person you are correcting A.) asks you directly if they said it right, B.) Is your student, or C.) Is your kid. Otherwise, you will look like a big ol’ D-bag. And nobody wants to do that.
I was recently reminded of a story about the Queen of England who noticed one of her foreign guests at a formal State dinner sip from the finger bowl, believing it was soup. So rather than correct him, she drank from her finger bowl as well – so as not to make her guest feel embarrassed. Now that is gracious. I guess they teach you things like that at Queen school.
But for the rest of us, the lesson here (if there is any lesson here) is if you choose to correct -and some of us are genetically incapable of stopping ourselves from it – pick your time and place. And be nice about it. Otherwise, just keep your big mouth shut.
Or, if you want to be classy like the Queen, drink from the finger bowl before you eat your case-a-dill-a.