Prescriptive English grammar seems to be one of those things that either impassions you or inspires some level of dread. Lovers of English grammar and usage are energized by mastering the rules of a messy and disorganized language. For the rest of us, our feelings run the gamut from indifference to loathing as we muddle through a seemingly arbitrary organizational system and apply it to something as individual as language. There’s pride. There’s resentment. There’s a lot in between.
Most of us live in the “in between.” We understand that following traditional grammar and usage rules helps us succeed at work and in our communities. It makes us better communicators. We do our best to write and speak well and to help our friends and loved ones do the same. It would be great if we could leave it as that—just a bunch of well-meaning people trying their best. Unfortunately, there is an ugly side to this pursuit of grammatical correctness.
Some people take it upon themselves to “police” grammar online or at work. When they use restraint and tact, these people can positively contribute to their communities. Sadly, many people miss the mark and consider “foolish” grammar mistakes justification for making others feel bad. These are grammar trolls. They are language bullies. And as well meaning as they think their efforts are, all us in-betweeners (56 percent) pretty much agree that peer grammar correction is not such a good idea. Language bullying destroys trust, hurts communities, and is just plain mean. (#StopGrammarTrolls)
Understanding Who Grammar Trolls Are
It’s likely that you know one or two people who infuriate others with their pedantic and vocal approach to grammar. It’s possible that you’re worried you might be a grammar troll. (Here’s a hint: if you have ever wished you had an app for correcting people’s texts, you are probably a grammar troll.) Language bullies are everywhere and come in all shapes and sizes, but they’re easy to spot because these trolls have some typical characteristics.
Hyper-corrects self and others
Focuses on relatively minor grammar and writing mistakes (e.g., typos)
Makes broad statements and exhibits black-and-white thinking
Insults, mocks, or shames others over writing mistakes
If we break each one of these down, you’ll get a clearer picture:
First, grammar trolls have a (compulsive?) need to correct grammar and other linguistic mistakes. This alone makes them scientifically proven jerks. This perfectionism can stem from a general need for control or from a desire to impose control on one sphere of influence when other areas are perceived as chaotic.
Trolls also tend to call out minor language errors as a front for a lack of deeper understanding. They rely on typos, missing words, and stale grammar myths (e.g., never end a sentence with a preposition) to prop up their “contributions.”
Trolls have a flair for generalizations and overstatement, particularly of their own opinions about grammar or writing—it’s all or nothing with them.
Finally—and this shouldn’t be a surprise—language bullies lack empathy for other writers. They often assume that all writers have had the same experiences with language that they have had and, therefore, have “no excuse” not to “know better.” It seems lost on trolls that while it’s easier now than ever to improve your grammar, we’re still not all starting at the same place. Nor do we necessarily want everyone to follow the rules all the time.
Drawing the Line Between Trolling and Helping
As a language lover, you might look at that list and think, “Geez, this looks familiar.” There is a fine line between a language troll and a helpful grammarian, which is why we’ve made the case before that you shouldn’t ever correct others’ grammar. However, there are some differences that deserve attention.
The critical differentiator is motivation. Trolls and bullies correct people for their own gratification—to vent anger, to feel superior, to connect with others, etc. Grammar samaritans offer advice and corrections for others’ benefit—to notify the small business that tweeted a typo or to help that co-worker who keeps using “their” incorrectly in company memos. If you’re not sure which bucket you fall into, ask yourself this: Why are you correcting this person’s or group’s grammar? Think seriously about this one. If you’re doing it for any other reason besides helping that person or group, you’re bullying. If you’re so sure that you’re doing it to be helpful, ask yourself this final telling question: how are you going to correct them? If you considered anything other than a tactful private message or conversation, you’re probably bullying.
Why are you correcting this person’s or group’s grammar? Think seriously about this one. If you’re doing it for any other reason besides helping that person or group, you’re bullying.
To be clear, bullying
Is for the troll’s gratification
Focuses on petty errors
Destroys trust within the community or group and creates an us-vs.-them dynamic
Often degrades others
Is often public
While helpful correction
Is for others’ benefit
Deals with substantial errors or small errors that have a strong, cumulative influence
Creates trust within the community or group and is inclusive
Is tactful and considerate
Grammar trolls are pedants whose love of language and being correct trumps their love of community and people. Grammar samaritans are those who use their passion and love to build community and trust. For the majority of us on the fence about grammar, we can all come together around our frustration with language trolls. When it comes to helping with grammar and language bullying, there is no in between. You’re helpful or you’re not.