For most of my adult life I have had a pretty bad addiction, and I am trying to put it behind me. Whether it is in the context of a conversation in person, over the phone, or conducted over any of a number of digitial media, I have wasted too much time correcting people — it has to stop now.
Wherefore Do I Correct?
I don’t even know how long I have been doing it — to me that means that I have been doing it for too long. As an example, I was once having a conversation with a woman I was dating at the time. She was talking about the way she used to be in the past and at some point mentioned that she “did a 360” and everything was better. I immediately pointed out that if she had done a 360, she would have gone back to where she started and would not have progressed at all. That threw the brakes on the conversation as she said she felt stupid. Did I understand what she had meant? I absolutely did. Was it necessary for me to correct her given the circumstances? Probably not.
My friends and wife have all given me various reasons why they think that I have this strong tendency to try to correct people when they make mistakes like this. Most of them think that it has something to do with parenting, and that my parents must have corrected me a lot when I was growing up.
I think it goes a little beyond that, though. It genuinely bothers me a little when I hear somebody state something that is completely false as though it were factual. I saw a couple of people in a supermarket debating over which size bag of potato chips was a better deal. Somehow this went on for a few minutes and neither of them was able to reach any sort of agreement with the other person.
Moreover, neither of them used any sort of reasoning that would properly calculate which size was a better deal. That is to say, given a certain weight, one could calculate the relative price of each. The good thing is that most supermarkets print this sort of information on the shelf — one bag of potato chips will be listed as being twenty cents per ounce whereas the other bag is twenty five cents per ounce. It is not difficult to choose the better deal based on this. The bag of chips with a lower per ounce price is a better deal — this cannot be debated. It took a lot of strength and a lack of wanting to get punched in public to stop me from pointing this out to the two individuals in the heat of this debate.
The biggest problem with correcting people, I have found, is that it really bothers people. For the most part, this comes because my intent is completely misunderstood. For example, I would have wanted to tell the two people about how to easily calculate the better deal based on price per ounce, but they would have most likely seen it as my acting in a condenscending and judgemental manner.
Similarly, when I tell people that they mean their instead of they’re, they frequently act as though I just ran over their puppy with a truck, and they’re almost never appreciative of being corrected. (See what I just did there?) It has gotten to the point where people will not talk to me and then I find out from a mutual friend that the person is upset with me for correcting them too frequently.
It would be one thing if the people I corrected then went on to say or do things differently — it would be as though I managed to teach somebody something. I have found, however, that the only people who genuinely learn something are the ones who are seeking that education in the first place. When someone approaches me and asks me what the proper way to pronounce my last name, for example, they are considerably much more likely to then pronounce it correctly than if I just blurt it out after someone says it incorrectly. Hearing my name said incorrectly is something with which I have grown used to dealing — that, and people thinking that my name is David because my last name is Davidescu.
Take also, for example, most of the examples in my 2007 article Grammar Man Returns — almost nobody I corrected changed the way they said things. People who said PIN number in the past would continue saying PIN number, and every single incorrect foreign pronunciation continued being pronounced incorrectly.
Factoring the two things together — that it is bothersome to people when I correct them, and that people are unlikely to change when they are being corrected, it seems that correcting people is not only a tremendous waste of time but doesn’t actually help people — and is likely to get people upset with me.
To start, I am going to try not correcting anyone for thirty consecutive days. It will be like one of those experiments that AJ Jacobs does on himself, to try out different things and see how they affect him. All I have to do is not correct anyone for thirty days. How hard can that possibly be? For me, it will be extremely difficult. I will try to take notes on the process as it should be a fairly interesting experience.