Is ever "right" to point out incorrect use of a word to a friend?
April 27, 2012 7:13 AM   Subscribe

Is ever "right" to point out incorrect use of a word to a friend?

The case in question was use of word "penultimate" to mean "most ultimate." (This is actually pretty common and I've seen it in newspapers, but I don't think it's actually accepted as a new meaning.)

I realize this is completely rude in a professional setting (someone told me they thought correcting someone's word choice in the office was like farting in public), but what about with a friend? Just let it pass, or is it OK to playfully tease them? I think sometimes "playful teasing" might always come across as passive-aggressive...
posted by Jon44 to Human Relations (91 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
 
Just let it pass, or is it OK to playfully tease them?

I think a quiet aside is the right move here. An astute friend will recognize that the mockery was there, but it's better unsaid.
posted by mhoye at 7:18 AM on April 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


If it's a good friend, I think that's totally okay. In fact, if I were using a word incorrectly, I would really want a friend to let me know.
posted by barnoley at 7:18 AM on April 27, 2012 [4 favorites]


From How To Win Friends and Influence People:
I was attending a banquet one night given in Sir Ross's honor; and during the dinner, the man sitting next to me told a humorous story which hinged on the quotation "There's a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will."

The raconteur mentioned that the quotation was from the Bible. He was wrong. I knew that, I knew it positively. There couldn't be the slightest doubt about it. And so, to get a feeling of importance and display my superiority, I appointed myself as an unsolicited and unwelcome committee of one to correct him. He stuck to his guns. What? From Shakespeare? Impossible! Absurd! That quotation was from the Bible. And he knew it.

The storyteller was sitting on my right; and Frank Gammond, an old friend of mine, was seated at my left. Mr. Gammond had devoted years to the study of Shakespeare, So the storyteller and I agreed to submit the question to Mr. Gammond. Mr. Gammond listened, kicked me under the table, and then said: "Dale, you are wrong. The gentleman is right. It is from the Bible."

On our way home that night, I said to Mr. Gammond: "Frank, you knew that quotation was from Shakespeare,"

"Yes, of course," he replied, "Hamlet, Act Five, Scene Two. But we were guests at a festive occasion, my dear Dale. Why prove to a man he is wrong? Is that going to make him like you? Why not let him save his face? He didn't ask for your opinion. He didn't want it. Why argue with him? Always avoid the acute angle." The man who said that taught me a lesson I'll never forget. I not only had made the storyteller uncomfortable, but had put my friend in an embarrassing situation. How much better it would have been had I not become argumentative.
posted by griphus at 7:19 AM on April 27, 2012 [70 favorites]


(That being said, if it's a one-on-one conversation and a good friend who isn't touchy, I doubt it would do much harm.)
posted by griphus at 7:20 AM on April 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


My mom did this to me constantly while growing up, and as a result I do it all the time to my wife, son, friends and family (and back to my mom, who often says "good" when she means "well"). I try to avoid doing it at work, but sometimes can't help myself. I've seen people get annoyed with me, but not akin to farting in their face or anything.
posted by slogger at 7:22 AM on April 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


If it's a pronunciation or usage that is so odd as to expose your friend to ridicule or loss of professional status, yes, you should correct them. I was glad when someone told me that "Walter Benjamin" is really more like "Valther BenyaMEEn" because I hang around with theory types all the time, for example.

But if it's something incredibly common, don't bother. It's not worth making your friend feel bad or awkward, and it's bad for your character to fall into the habit of nitpicking. You don't want to turn into the sort of person who can't listen to the spirit or content of a comment because they get derailed when someone says "flout" instead of "flaunt".
posted by Frowner at 7:24 AM on April 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


"You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."
posted by Kandarp Von Bontee at 7:24 AM on April 27, 2012 [23 favorites]


Is ever "right" to point out incorrect use of a word to a friend?

Yes, under the following circumstances:
1) If they ask. ("Ask" here can be broad, like "how would you phrase this?")
2) If they are rehearsing a speech for an important event and the incorrect usage will embarrass them and you are confident that they would want you to point it out.

Even then, it is important to phrase the correction gently and to do it privately since you are, ultimately, pointing out someone's ignorance about something (their native tongue) that they feel, and should feel, pretty damn entitled to use how they see fit. Something like, "Hey, it seems like you're using 'penultimate' to mean 'most ultimate'. I am pretty sure that word means 'next-to-last'."
posted by gauche at 7:24 AM on April 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yes, but never ever in front of anyone else. And, you can take the responsibility of telling them you were not sure what it meant, that you always thought it meant xxxx and looked it up and it does mean xxxxx. Or that you were never sure exactly what it meant yourself and it means xxxx
posted by rmhsinc at 7:26 AM on April 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


You can also just do the old--"Penultimate? Which do you mean? Technically, it means second-to-last, but I see it used sometimes to mean last--I want to make sure I'm following your story!"

Or something like that. Saying that you (op) are confused is more gracious than saying friend is wrong (though he is).
posted by Admiral Haddock at 7:27 AM on April 27, 2012 [11 favorites]


"Is it ever right"

with the ftfy out of the way, it can be. If I use a literary term wrong with my friend James, the poet, and he doesn't correct me, it increases the possibility that I embarass myself in the future in front of strangers, so if he gently corrects me I am being done a favor. But it is better done one on one.
posted by idiopath at 7:29 AM on April 27, 2012


Friends don't let friends misuse words! Or at least, I've been corrected on a couple occasions and I was very grateful. You shouldn't openly mock the person, of course, and I for one HATE "playful teasing." But just say something like, "Oh, I think you meant to say ultimate."
posted by DestinationUnknown at 7:32 AM on April 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


But I also agree with Gauche--it's not really "right" to point out someone's failings unless (1) they ask or (2) you're saving them from harm. There's lots of room for interpretation in (2), though, so use your judgment.

No one like a know it all, which is a shame, because I know it all.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 7:33 AM on April 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


It all depends on the situation and the friend. If they can take criticism ok, then go ahead. If not, let it go. Even if you do mention the correction, then keep in mind you probably can't pull that crap all the time, 'cause then it gets annoying.

If said friend is an editor, writer or just a lover of words it might turn into fun, as you discuss the meaning, original and how its changed over the years.

The case in question was use of word "penultimate" to mean "most ultimate." (This is actually pretty common and I've seen it in newspapers, but I don't think it's actually accepted as a new meaning.)

If it's a pretty common usage, your pointing it out sounds petty.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:43 AM on April 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


I would avoid playful teasing but I think it's OK to gently correct someone's usage. Helps to do it in the form of a question ("penultimate? Is that the right word? I thought that meant xxx.").

My other typical deflection in that kind of situation is "I do stuff like that all the time." Which is true--more often about pronunciation than usage because I'm more likely to read a word than hear it and therefore I don't always get it right--and I'm usually grateful for people who tell me about it, a la Barbara Kingsolver and Senator Daschle. (I swear I did the EXACT same thing!)
posted by dlugoczaj at 7:44 AM on April 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


But just say something like, "Oh, I think you meant to say ultimate."

I find that some people use "penultimate" when they mean "quintessential."

I'm not going to stop someone I don't know that well who's in the middle of telling a story just to correct their grammar, but if we're having a one-on-one conversation, then I'd probably do it.

If it's a pretty common usage, your pointing it out sounds petty.

No. Someone has to stand up for civilized norms, and lines need to be drawn.

That said, some people find making a correction of fact to be some kind of personal attack on them and/or their egos. I don't know what can be done about these people, except to remind them that their grammar and their facts are not them, personally, and having them corrected is not a personal assault.
posted by deanc at 7:46 AM on April 27, 2012 [10 favorites]


In my experience, unless you are saving them from embarrassing themselves, people do not take being corrected on their word usage well. They automatically get very defensive.
posted by theuninvitedguest at 7:48 AM on April 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


Generally if it's something that might embarrass them in the future or really bugs me I'll attempt to question the meaning rather than assert the correct meaning.

"Penultimate? For some reason I thought that meant next to last. Not sure why."
posted by Quack at 7:53 AM on April 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


Ive done this many times with a particular friend. I usually say "wait, what's X?" or (true story) "who's General Paulsey?". Then she explains and I go "ohhhh do you mean Y?" or "oh do you mean cerebal palsy?" Friend agrees with me and repeats the word the right way.

But if your friends are likely to be offended (my friend is not easily offended), I would suggest playing dumb and going "ohhh i got confused, I just thought that that word meant ... Right??". If they argue, you counter with "no, I really thought it was ...". If they don't get the hint at that point, then just give up and let them use the word however they want.
posted by lovelygirl at 7:54 AM on April 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think there's a way that it can be done that isn't rude. You can simply say, "What do you mean by ____?" and perhaps follow with "I thought it meant ____?"

But I am not friends with anyone who is easily offended or cares whether I correct them (or vice versa). Nor are we particuarly keen on etiquette.
posted by sm1tten at 7:56 AM on April 27, 2012


If your friend cares about using words correctly, then yes. Just use tact.

Not telling a friend they're using a word wrong because you're afraid of upsetting them seems self defeating to me. If they tend to be upset when they use a word wrong, that's a reason to correct them. You shouldn't care more about your friend's immediate emotional reactions than their interest in speaking correctly. If you do, you are treating them less like a friend and more like an acquaintance.
posted by Hume at 7:58 AM on April 27, 2012


I think you're allowed to correct people once, without making a big fuss about it. After that, you've just got to leave well enough alone. If they care, or if they were paying enough attention to register a seed of doubt about the word, then they might ask you next time: "Is penultimate the word I'm thinking of?" If they keep using it the way they always have, then you've just got to let it go. The more time you spend correcting your friends, the more it seems like you care more about proving how smart you are than about the actual conversation. This gets annoying very quickly.
posted by colfax at 8:02 AM on April 27, 2012


Yeah but pose it like a question when you say it. "Penultimate? Wait... Doesn't that mean x? Does it also mean y? I'm confused.. I thought y was expressed by z..."

And then hopefully they take the hint. If not, let it go. Not worth coming off like a priss for it. I used to correct people all the time and I am majorly disliked (but also somewhat appreciated occasionally) for it.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 8:07 AM on April 27, 2012


The temptation to playfully tease is where you run into trouble. To me it would seem like you don't want to make yourself look like a pedantic type who takes this sort of thing really seriously, so you make a joke out of it. But the problem is, you do it at someone else's expense, risking making them feel bad instead.

Keep the joke on yourself. "Because I am an insufferable pedantic dick who can't leave even the tiniest stones unturned, I am forced to ask whether you actually meant 'ultimate' instead of 'penultimate.'"

You need to be able to do these things in a way that lets other people still feel smart, or helps them see that the joke is not entirely all on them. Otherwise, let it go.
posted by hermitosis at 8:07 AM on April 27, 2012 [12 favorites]


This thread and the bad singing thread make me think that there may be a cultural/personality divide between people who would very much want to know if they're doing something badly or wrong, so as to improve and save themselves from embarrassment, and those who would be far more mortified to be corrected or criticized openly, because that would offend them more than anything other people might be thinking about them without telling them. If you can identify which side of that divide your friend falls on, that would tell you whether or not to correct him.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 8:10 AM on April 27, 2012 [12 favorites]


No. Someone has to stand up for civilized norms, and lines need to be drawn.

Nobody likes a pedantic, particularly when there's a larger subject and the usage is common, as the OP indicated.

Be nice, unless you have sort of friendship where those corrections are ok. Civilization is strong enough to handle words being possibly misused in casual conversation.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:12 AM on April 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


I would be very careful as to how you do this. I have a friendship that ....is just not as enjoyable as it used to be because my friend's husband also likes to correct grammar.
posted by Lord of the Sock Puppets at 8:15 AM on April 27, 2012


If you're alone with them, and they're the kind of person who cares about that kind of correctness. I love language, and so do many of my friends so I correct them and accept their corrections in turn. This is true even for words and pronunciations where the incorrect pronunciation is *more* common.

Don't forget that correctly using words is a social status marker, even if it's clear what the speaker means when they use the "less correct" meaning or word they may still prefer to use the higher status, "correct" word. If you correct someone in a group setting, they may think that you're playing a status game and respond defensively.

I was glad when someone told me that "Walter Benjamin" is really more like "Valther BenyaMEEn" because I hang around with theory types all the time, for example.

A good example, if someone corrected me while we were in close company I'd thank them. If they were to do it in public in an attempt to play status games I'd start speaking to them in German in the hope that I spoke it better than them - a good bet with younger Anglo academics. (I'm often outnumbered, but never out-sneered.)
posted by atrazine at 8:16 AM on April 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


In general, I would say no, unless said friend has asked you to proof something or is preparing a speech. It is a delicate thing, correcting some one else: I have met very few people who are prepared to accept that they are not perfectly fluent in their native language.

And it is odd that you mention penultimate, because it is notably misused: while I hear it ever more frequently used as a synonym for ultimate, the standard correction is that it means "second to last." Etymologically, it means "nearly last" (L. paene-, "near" + ultima, "last"). For maximum pedantry, the real word is for "second to last" is proxultimate (L. prox- "next to" + ultima, "last"). See what I mean about it being annoying?

We learn only through death of the ego, and friends should not tear down one another's egos unnecessarily.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 8:17 AM on April 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


First off, great discussion--thanks everyone for comments.

Nobody likes a pedantic, particularly when there's a larger subject and the usage is common, as the OP indicated

I'm really on the fence on this one. There's a difference between a MISTAKE being common, versus a colloquial phrase or something. In this case, "penultimate" has a clear meaning, and those who use it to mean "most ultimate," are just making a mistake (and to be more pedantic, a tautology as well.) So, I guess I feel there should be some effort to promote clear use of language.

I like the reinforcement of the idea of being self-effacing when making a correction. (What I said in the actual circumstance was "to be a typical pretentious ivy-leaguer...," but then I worry about being patronizing (kind of like people who say "I went to school in New Haven," rather than the more direct "I went to Yale")
posted by Jon44 at 8:20 AM on April 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


"Penultimate" bugs me particularly, because people say it to sound smarter and treat it like "ultimate, but fancier." I would probably make a remark like "well, if thats the penultimate reason, whats the ultimate one?"

But I'm a horrible person, so...
posted by modernserf at 8:24 AM on April 27, 2012 [16 favorites]


I'm really on the fence on this one. There's a difference between a MISTAKE being common, versus a colloquial phrase or something. In this case, "penultimate" has a clear meaning, and those who use it to mean "most ultimate," are just making a mistake (and to be more pedantic, a tautology as well.) So, I guess I feel there should be some effort to promote clear use of language.

In lots of cases (mispronounced words, for example) I'm inclined to let mistakes go, but penultimate is such a useful word with no one-word synonyms that I'm wicked loath to let it die out. In this case, I would gently correct my friend, probably with an attempt, as hermitosis suggested above, to keep the embarassment focused on myself.
posted by Greg Nog at 8:30 AM on April 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


I'm really on the fence on this one.

That's the larger point, IMO. This is a small issue, but by turning it into a larger one, you're making the conversation about you, under the guise of helping civilization or doing things the correct way.

I don't mean write this to disparage you personally or anyone. Most of us have our personal tics about language. I'm currently fuming over someone saying "The War Between the States" instead of "the Civil War" and it's all I can do to not call the person and start screaming "WTF, WTF, you revisionist ass?!"

But what's the important thing here, making the correction or keeping the relationship. Usually it's keeping the relationship. Rather than getting caught up in the smaller points, maybe think of the larger picture that contains you and your friend, with society in the background.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:32 AM on April 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


What I said in the actual circumstance was "to be a typical pretentious ivy-leaguer...,"

Ooh. This is me, coming from my place of having a kind of admitted chip on my shoulder toward things like the ivy league, but I'd really, really avoid making it sound like you know what penultimate means because you went to Yale (or wherever).

It is sometimes helpful to correct someone's misunderstanding. It is never helpful to show off.

I know that's not how you think of it, but there's a non-zero chance that you're saying it to one of the vast, vast majority of people who didn't go to an ivy-league school and you just don't know what associations that may have for them. At best, it comes across as a humblebrag, and -- while humblebrags certainly can have their place among friends and even in the greater world -- they should not be deployed in the same sentence as making someone else self-conscious about something that they did.
posted by gauche at 8:33 AM on April 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


Some of my friends are know-it-all smarty-pants like me, and I'll correct them when they're wrong, but I'm usually intentionally doing it to needle them, because they'd do the same to me. For most people, I just let it go.

I don't mind when people correct me, as long as I'm actually wrong, but I'm kind of unusual that way, I think.
posted by empath at 8:34 AM on April 27, 2012


I don't mind when people correct me, as long as I'm actually wrong, but I'm kind of unusual that way, I think.

So totally true. Honestly, this comment in the green many months ago was a total revelation to me about how "normal people" think:
I was having a conversation with scientists and we were talking about framing issues and I said something about how prevention is usually cheaper than treatment, for example, mosquito nets are probably cheaper than treating malaria. The guy next to me said, actually, I had malaria, it's pretty cheap to treat. Maybe that wasn't the most intelligent thing I've ever said but that one comment made me feel stupid and hurt. So, on behalf of non-scientists everywhere, please don't do that.
When someone corrects me when I'm wrong, my reaction is, "hm. That's a good point. I hadn't realized that." But for lots of people, it's like you stepped on their pet kitten.

Plus, when you lead in with, "to be a pretentious ivy leaguer, I'm compelled to correct you," what you're doing is saying, "stop trying to even think that you can intellectually compete with me." (plus, that adds a layer of "I am acting like I'm being self-deprecating while actually bragging"). Instead try something a little kinder and more self-effacing.

If someone was the sort to use $10 words, use them incorrectly, and take personal umbrage when gently corrected about it, frankly that's not the sort of person I'd be friends with.
posted by deanc at 8:42 AM on April 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


My friend corrected me when I pronounced 'requiem' to rhyme with dream! (After making me repeat it 3x!) She just sounded so surprised which I took as a good sign that I am not usually embarassing myself grammatically in public. Anyway, I appreciated it, and think of her everytime I see the word! (Often voracious readers know word meanings but may mangle pronounciations (esp when young). I realise you are taking about correcting incorrect usage but anyway, there's my story thrown into the pile.
posted by bquarters at 8:43 AM on April 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Well, I would get a bit annoyed if I was trying to make a serious point, and said 'penultimate' instead of 'ultimate' and someone corrected me midstream, because A) it's ancillary to the point I was making and B) it shows that they weren't really thinking about what I was saying.

But if I'm just shooting the shit with one of my friends and someone pointed that out, I'd be like, okay, thanks that's good to know.
posted by empath at 8:45 AM on April 27, 2012


Do you want to promote the clear use of language, or do you want to have friends? Since you don't seem to have a good sense of when such corrections would be welcome, it's probably better to avoid them. It's annoying that words like penultimate lose their usefulness as they're misused, but going through life irritating the people around you won't turn back the tide.
posted by betweenthebars at 8:45 AM on April 27, 2012


What I said in the actual circumstance was "to be a typical pretentious ivy-leaguer...," but then I worry about being patronizing (kind of like people who say "I went to school in New Haven," rather than the more direct "I went to Yale"

Ouch. Probably don't do that, it works fine if the other guy went to Harvard or something but otherwise it can be considered patronising. I used to jokingly call myself the dumbest child in the family because I "only" have a master's degree until a friend told me that it made them (w/ no degree) feel like I looked down on them.
posted by atrazine at 8:48 AM on April 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


I recently met with a prospective client and I remarked about getting the local Goethe Society involved. She blinked, ask if I meant Go-ee-thee and the conversation went downhill from there. Some people don't know the correct use or pronunciation and don't want to know.
posted by Ideefixe at 8:49 AM on April 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


(What I said in the actual circumstance was "to be a typical pretentious ivy-leaguer...," but then I worry about being patronizing (kind of like people who say "I went to school in New Haven," rather than the more direct "I went to Yale")

See, to me, your use of "pretentious" is irritating. "Pretentious" suggests pretending something, which you are not. No, your use may not be red-light wrong-- if you look through the dictionary definitions of the word for justification-- but it suggests that you don't know where the word comes from. To me, it is similar to "penultimate" used in the wrong sense.

Maybe if you correct people once in a blue moon, it's OK. But doing it as a habit gives you horrible social B.O. Make no mistake, people will laugh at you behind your back for doing it. And the people who do it habitually always seem to do it with a coy little apology like that "ivy league" one. Which, as someone said above, makes it about you and is a strong sign that you should be keeping quiet.
posted by BibiRose at 8:50 AM on April 27, 2012


My friend corrected me when I pronounced 'requiem' to rhyme with dream! (After making me repeat it 3x!)

There's some old advice from that pamphlet on how to write well ("Strunk and White"?) that if you don't know how to pronounce a word, say it LOUDLY. I always thought that was kind of cute and speaks to the idea that none of us should be ashamed to be corrected.
posted by Jon44 at 8:51 AM on April 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's more or less okay to do if you know them really well and you're pretty sure they'd want to know if they were using a word in the wrong fashion.

It's not okay to do, at all, ever, if your motivation for correcting them is that they're wrong and you think they should be right.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 8:52 AM on April 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yeah, only correct friends if you know they're the type that would like to know. For instance, I'm one of the classic "has read this word a trillion times but has never heard it out loud" horrible mispronouncers and I really do appreciate it.

Also, where you went to school has no bearing on this conversation.
posted by estlin at 8:54 AM on April 27, 2012 [5 favorites]


I say, in private, "Hey, if I think I hear you making a mistake in grammar / word usage / pronounciation, do you want me to tell you?"

Most friends have said yes. If i hear them make a mistake in public, I bring it up later in private. Last month I emailed to one of them, "Sorry to be a pedant, but I think perhaps you meant 'Hear, hear' not 'Here, here' ?" Which let her go look it up for herself.

Obviously, not setting oneself up as Smarter Than Thou (You Stupid Moron) is helpful.
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 8:58 AM on April 27, 2012


There's two separate questions you should ask yourself.

1) Are you correcting them to be a smartass or are doing it because it might hurt them in future sometime if they make the same mistake again? (More generally, are you doing it for you, for example to stoke your own ego, or are you genuinely doing for them?)

2) Is your relationship with them such that they will take it in good spirit, or not? For example, do they know you like and respect them, and want the best for them? Or do they think you're a know-it-all who is always putting people down?

For the most part if people know you care about them and are telling them something out of that caring, you can tell them almost anything.

Example: I once knew a guy who would always write "defiantly" when he clearly meant "definitely". He knew I thought a lot of him, so it was perfectly fine that I pointed that out to him. And when he thanked me for that, I replied something like: "No problem, we all have words like that we somehow got a blind spot over."

Generally you are being as much of a jerk if you don't tell people something they really do need to know, as if you take something unimportant as an opportunity to put them down.

Mostly these things will go smoothly if you are not inside imagining that you are vastly superior to them, that you don't also have plenty of your own shortcomings, or that their mistake says anything much about them overall.

Another useful test is: If it were you, would you want someone to tell you? Would you want them to tell you if they did it nicely, and without looking down on you?

Generally, most people will be happy you told them, providing you do it at the right time, in the right place, and in a nice way.
posted by philipy at 8:59 AM on April 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Personal anecdote, dunno how much this will help your situation but I think any situation will be unique depending on the persons involved...

I am born and raised in small town USA, and so picked up some odd colloquialisms or misuses of what are otherwise common words, and I am often corrected for it. If its done honestly and without judgement or disdain, I show appreciation for it, as it will help me not look like a dumbass if I use the word in my professional life. But often I'm corrected snidely, in which case I flip em the bird and say I'm from "Pixburgh."

On the flip, I work with many people of different cultures who's first language isn't English. Those I am friendly/comfortable with, I will let them know their mistake and they are generally grateful to learn more how to fit in to our culture. You'd be amazed how many English dictionary words are used differently or have different meanings in different parts of the USA. As such, they will question me when I let out one of my local yokel colloquialisms, and I explain my meaning, and also explain that they might not want to pick up on my particular slang, which is a mix of Redneck and Pittsburgh-ese (as I grew up a couple hours from the city, and live here now.)

Long story short, I think it depends on how sensitive your friends are, and more importantly, how you deliver it.
posted by el_yucateco at 9:00 AM on April 27, 2012


Yeah, I do this all the time with people who know me well enough to know that I am a pedantic asshole. I wouldn't do this in a mixed group of friends and unknowns unless I was maybe a little drunk n sassy. On the other hand, I absolutely expect people to do it to me when I err, and I kind of consider it a good test of friendship. I'd rather someone care enough to embarrass me momentarily than let me live the rest of my life embarrassing myself with a mispronunciation or incorrect word usage. On the other other hand, I will totally not correct someone I hate when they do this specifically to give them more opportunities to sound stupid for the rest of their life.

tl;dr I am a jerk, basically.


Nobody likes a pedantic

Ahem. I believe you mean "pedant".

posted by elizardbits at 9:11 AM on April 27, 2012 [11 favorites]


I always thought that was kind of cute and speaks to the idea that none of us should be ashamed to be corrected.

Well, sure, you can live by that principle if you want to. And if it turns out that your friend feels ashamed by something you've said in correcting him, you can just say, "you shouldn't feel ashamed. I'm just trying to help you."

But I'm of the mind, and I think I can back this up with reference to the authorities (i.e., the etiquette books, when I'm not at work and can lay my hands on them) that drawing attention to the errors or shortcomings of another, in a social situation, is a faux pas of the speaker. It's not an error of usage, it's an error of politeness.

I'm further of the mind that this principle -- I should not draw attention to the errors of other people -- often trumps the principle that other people should never feel ashamed when I correct them, if for no other reason than that I can control whether I am living up to the first principle but not whether others are living up to the second principle.
posted by gauche at 9:25 AM on April 27, 2012 [4 favorites]


Well, I would want a good friend to tell me. I don't want to walk around using a word wrong. I'd want them to tell me if my fly was down, too.
posted by beccaj at 9:26 AM on April 27, 2012


I once actually shamed a friend whose company I value quite a lot by pointing out that he was either saying "ideal" when he meant "idea" or sort of slurring the word. Unknown to me at the time, my friend had in the past had some issues with dyslexia and (I think) some issues with stammering or another speech problem.

I had corrected him because the misuse bugged me and, I think, because of some unconscious competition in our friendship. It was a stupid, undisciplined and petty interruption in an otherwise interesting conversation.

I am not on earth to be a cop or a freelance pedagogue. Acting like my job is to watch others for petty mistakes so that I can "fix" them (by humblebragging about my smarts, no less!) is not something I want to do.

And I don't think it's a good way for people to learn. I've learned most language and pronunciation through repeated exposure by listening and reading. The words I'm comfortable with have come to me without pain. Petty, sniping corrections on a one-time basis don't contribute to learning, unless they're so spectacularly unpleasant and painful that they sear themselves into the brain.

If you really want to correct someone, you can just use the word correctly in responding to them - I believe that's Miss Manners's advice, anyway.

And honestly, when I meet a freelance pedagogue who's constantly jumping in with "it's 'flout', actually" in that tone of voice, I am embarrassed for them.
posted by Frowner at 9:27 AM on April 27, 2012


I'd want them to tell me if my fly was down, too.

Yes, I keep thinking of walking around with toilet paper stuck to your shoe, and everyone just letting you go obliviously on your way.

I do agree that interrupting someone in a public or social setting to correct their word usage is extremely impolite. But I would feel less intelligent, ashamed even, if a friend let me go on using a word incorrectly when they could easily and politely have told me. It would be as if they felt I wasn't even smart enough to bother, as if I wasn't their equal.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 9:36 AM on April 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


I would prefer to be told. I think genuinely intelligent people are happy to admit that they do not know something, because it means they can open up the way to learn. There are a lot of words I mispronounce simply because I rarely say them out loud, and if a friend tells me, it means I don't end up doing it in a meeting.

That said, the Dale Carnegie story is a good one. If it's a choice between letting someone be wrong and telling them but embarrassing them, in company, I think the former is more important. Just like it's impolite to use certain words about others in company, it's impolite to embarrass somebody in front of others. I have had people try to do this with me, and usually I've been in the right anyway (someone telling me how something connected to my job works without actually ever having done it. Or: 'it's button down the hatches, actually!' No. No it isn't.) That puts me off. You have to be pretty damned confident to correct somebody in public - both that you are right, and that they will not take offence.
posted by mippy at 9:38 AM on April 27, 2012


"You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

If someone said this to me, it would upset me, because I think better of my friends than their resorting to cliche. Also, it sounds well snarky.
posted by mippy at 9:39 AM on April 27, 2012


If it's a pretty common usage, your pointing it out sounds petty.

No. Someone has to stand up for civilized norms, and lines need to be drawn.


I agree with this. I'm no prescriptivist, but I work in a job where semantics is important, and this is why I keep having to tell people I do work for that there is no such thing as 'almost unique' or that 'literally anything' does have to mean, literally, anything.
posted by mippy at 9:42 AM on April 27, 2012


There's another way of looking at this. The word means one thing (the correct thing) to you. It means something else (the incorrect thing) to the friend. So, rather than framing it as a correction, frame it as a clarification:

"Big Red is the PENULTIMATE waterslide in Ohio!"

"Wait, it's the second-last waterslide in Ohio? What does that mean?"

This will force the friend to say, "No, it's the BEST waterslide in Ohio. Why would you think second-last?"

You say, "Because you said 'penultimate' - that means second last. I guess we're on different wavelengths." [laugh, chortle, move on]
posted by Mrs. Rattery at 9:42 AM on April 27, 2012


I like the responses in this thread. You have to pick and choose which corrections to make based on your relationship with a person, your knowledge of how they'll react, and your desire not to be rude. You also need to do this out of a desire to save them embarrassment, not to cause embarrassment, or to prove something about how smart you are. When in doubt, I'd err on the side of keeping quiet, especially if you're not in a one-on-one conversation with the person and could be humiliating them (gently) in front of their peers.

I was once in an office discussion with maybe a half-dozen people where the question of "your favorite Martin Scorsese movie" somehow came up. Someone said, "The Godfather."

"Not a Scorsese movie," I responded.

"Martin Scorsese didn't direct The Godfather?" she said, looking at me quizzically.

"Nope," I said. "That was Francis Ford Coppola."

"I really think The Godfather was directed by Martin Scorsese," she said.

"Definitely Coppola," said I.

The conversation continued for a bit, but eventually my colleague returned to the subject of The Godfather. "I'm sure Martin Scorsese directed The Godfather."

My response was starting to get peevish. "Well, you're wrong. He did not direct that movie. Coppola did. He won an Oscar for it, then he directed The Conversation, and then he made The Godfather, Part II."

A pause. The room was quiet. Then came her reply: "I think that was Scorsese."

The discussion continued. My cheeks flushed and my dander rose, not just because she was unwilling to accept that she was mistaken, but also because I took her argumentativeness as a lack of respect for me, clearly the most knowledgeable fellow in the office when it came to classic and contemporary American cinema. And this wasn't even difficult trivia! (We're talking $200 Jeopardy question here.) My voice got louder and my exasperation became apparent. I'm pretty sure I eventually insisted on the ritual IMDb look-up when we were back at our desks — this was years ago, before everyone carried Wikipedia around in their pockets — so that it could be proven on the record and for posterity that I was correct when it came to the Great Scorsese/Coppola Kerfuffle.

But when I look back on that day, I wish nothing more than that I had let it go after the first back-and-forth exchange. For one thing, I'm pretty sure I'm the one that came off as a humorless, pedantic buffoon. For another, I'm not entirely convinced that my co-worker wasn't at some point deliberately pushing my buttons, just to see how easily she could goad me into cartoon-nerdishness.

Anyway, you don't want to be That Guy.
posted by Joey Bagels at 9:55 AM on April 27, 2012 [7 favorites]


Ummm I never thought about the rightness or wrongness to be honest. I have a friend who I correct every so often, but he's a foreigner (English is not his native language) so he always takes it in stride (he's probably used to being corrected or even welcomes it). can someone help me explain to him why hipster and hippie are not interchangeable?

Also I have never, ever heard of penultimate meaning 'most ultimate'.
posted by The Biggest Dreamer at 9:55 AM on April 27, 2012


You know, I think you can pull off "hey man, that's not what that word means, you know" without turning into Dwight Schrute or Stannis Baratheon. Just be cool about it, and only do it if they're actually using a word to mean something it really doesn't, and not one of those standard grammar pet peeve things.
posted by furiousthought at 9:55 AM on April 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


I used to correct people when they used the wrong word, pronounced something incorrectly, or whatever until a couple of things happened to me in college. I started hanging out with international students who knew far more about grammar than most Americans I knew (even me) though their pronunciation wasn't the best, and I took several courses in Linguistics and the History of English. That's when I realized that as long as the meaning is there, who cares how it's said, and language changes. What a word means now isn't necessarily what it meant in the past and no matter how hard people "stand up for civilized norms" they can't stop language from changing. I, for one, don't want it to.

So, I stopped correcting people with a few exceptions... if the meaning is lost, if they have a chance of embarrassing themselves by using the wrong word, or if they ask me to. Other than that, leave 'em alone. Most people would not welcome your correction or even remember it later anyway.
posted by patheral at 9:56 AM on April 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


FWIW, these are all helpful responses and making me realize how different people really are about things like this. As much as I like to think "people should be willing to be corrected," I realize others may see it different, so I'm tempted to just let stuff like this go in the future--unless it's someone with whom I regularly discuss word usage, seems too risky. (And it when it comes down to it, it's always possible to tell by context if someone is just trying to kind of add some "juice" to what they're saying--"super duper ultimate")
posted by Jon44 at 10:07 AM on April 27, 2012


One of my closest friends is constantly correcting people. Grammar, pronunciation, word usage, fact checking, you name it. It's one of his defining characteristics, being a smartass knowitall. He will interrupt you, derail the conversation, and publicly flog you for daring to be wrong in his presence. While to a certain extent I appreciate knowing my various mistakes, at this point I just roll my eyes at him and think to myself, ” jesus, I get it already, you're smarter than everyone else. Give it a rest already.”
FWIW.
posted by ApathyGirl at 10:22 AM on April 27, 2012


I always look at the potential positive / negative outcome in situations like this. What's the best that can come of it, what's the worst? The best being a person will be thankfully enlightened, and not make the mistake again; the worst being you make the person feel stupid and think you are a pretentious jerk and they'll never want to hang out with you ever again.

So, I still end up correcting most of the time (if I'm invested in the person, meaning I care if they continue making the mistake into the future). So I think, can I do it without making the person feel like an idiot, or make them not feel like I am a pretentious jerk, then I do it.

Just let it pass, or is it OK to playfully tease them?

This is a bad dichotomy. You're options are not to let it pass or make fun of it. That makes you options to either ignore it or to be an ass. There is middle ground here.

1. Empathetic Correction. For instance, with Joey Bagel's issue regarding The Godfather and Scorsese, you could approach it as "Oh, yeah! I totally used to think The Godfather was directed by Scorsese too. It's actually a really common thing that a lot of people think. It was actually Coppola though, weird that I know that. Random, huh." There, now you're in league with the mistaken person, and the person hopefully doesn't feel as dumb about making a common mistake.

2. Play Dumb. Sometimes I play dumb to correct somebody. I'll ask sincerely, "Are you sure it was Scorsese?" "Yes, positive." "I'm not sure. I think it was actually Coppola ... right?" "Nope, Scorsese." What you've done is made them party to solving your mystery. Then you can say something like, "Wait, wasn't Sofia Coppola in Godfather III? I remember there was an issue about Coppola casting his own daughter. I'm pretty sure he directed all three. I'll have to look it up later." If I've at least been able to make the person question their own mistaken belief, then great. And I've prompted them consider looking it up later for themselves.
posted by jabberjaw at 11:02 AM on April 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


MeTa, but in good way.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 11:32 AM on April 27, 2012


I correct my children's usage all the time, typically when they claim to "need" what they actually "want", and so forth. They are my children, and so that's my job (to a point; they're only six, and eventually they'll be on their own.) I choose my words carefully, and I hope they will learn to do so as well.

Would I do that with an adult, in a non-professional situation? Sure, if we were alone together, and I respected them, and if they had misused the word in my presence more than once, and if the word were something like "penultimate." Simple word misuse -- of which we're all guilty -- can be chalked up to regional and cultural differences, and there's no need to make the ecosystem of language less colorful; single word misuse -- of which we're all guilty -- is typically just a momentary lapse rather than a lack of understanding.
posted by davejay at 11:56 AM on April 27, 2012


and yes, I realize I misused a word in that comment, I should have previewed, blah blah blah
posted by davejay at 11:57 AM on April 27, 2012


> One of my closest friends is constantly correcting people. Grammar, pronunciation, word usage, fact checking, you name it. It's one of his defining characteristics, being a smartass knowitall. He will interrupt you, derail the conversation, and publicly flog you for daring to be wrong in his presence. While to a certain extent I appreciate knowing my various mistakes, at this point I just roll my eyes at him and think to myself, ” jesus, I get it already, you're smarter than everyone else. Give it a rest already.”

He's not smarter, just more of a know-it-all, and know-it-alls are frequently wrong (as well as obnoxious). One of the pleasures of having spent so much of my life soaking up petty details about language is that I know things the know-it-alls don't know, and if they're being particularly obnoxious I'll butt in and explain that they're actually wrong about the "correct" pronunciation of forte or the plural of octopus or whatever they were going on about. I really can't stand the use of language as a club to bully people with, and people like your friend need to be put in their place, if possible, so they'll knock off that shit. (And yes, I think it's OK to club bullies with facts, and no, I don't think I'm being a bully when I do so.)

And frankly, that goes for all you "lines need to be drawn" people—I guarantee you that there are times when you confidently say what is in fact false, and you should be aware of that and take a little humility from that knowledge. What's important is that people communicate well, not that they use the forms you personally think are superior. You are not the Guardian of the English Language; no one is, and that's the beauty of it. It's a collective creation, and all the more beautiful and various for that.

> I correct my children's usage all the time, typically when they claim to "need" what they actually "want", and so forth. They are my children, and so that's my job

Yes, that is your job. It is not your job to do the same with adults, any more than it is your job to tell them to finish what's on their plate before they can get up from the table. It is a bad idea to extrapolate from children to adults.
posted by languagehat at 12:02 PM on April 27, 2012 [8 favorites]


I correct people if I like them enough that I would never want someone else to mistakenly believe that they are stupid because of misusing/misspelling a word.
posted by millipede at 12:02 PM on April 27, 2012


If it helps with whatever you decide for this specific word correction, a Latin teacher once told me, "You wouldn't know a penult if it spit in your eye!" Comedy gold in 8th grade.

Personally, it doesn't piss me off, but I do notice and correct people I know well. I'd want to know if Iw as misusing a word. Nobody's ever seemed put off, though. I don't do it in front of people we're not both close to, for one.

I might sort of play along: For a while one friend apparently thought "mortified" meant "terrified," so at some point it became appropriate to say something like, "why would a snake embarrass you?" which lead to a short conversation and, "Oh man, I've been misusing that word!"

So in your case, "So what's the best brand of meat pie, then?"
posted by cmoj at 1:11 PM on April 27, 2012


I was out with some friends and I mispronounced a common word that I really had no excuse for mispronouncing -- it was "trough" and I said it as if it rhymed with "cow," okay? It was just a lapse. Leave me alone -- and nobody corrected me, but one woman used the word herself later that evening, pronouncing it correctly. That was graciously done.
posted by The corpse in the library at 1:58 PM on April 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Like probably half of Metafilter, my girlfriend and I both tend to mispronounce big words that we've read but never tried out in conversation. We do correct each other (or make bets about pronunciations neither of us know*), and this probably saves me all kinds of embarrassment with strangers. So my first reaction was, sure it's fine to correct people you're close to.

But thinking more about it, I only really like being corrected when I know I'm doing it wrong -- I'll hit a word that I realize I've never heard out loud, and say it extra-ridiculously to ask for a little help. On the other hand, if I was trying to explain my awesome idea I would be annoyed to get sidetracked with a correction, because I would want her to be excited about my awesome idea. Conversely, I bet there have been times when I've totally made her self-conscious with a pointless correction and should have kept my mouth shut.

So ... it can be a good thing, but be careful about it.

* Actually, mutual ignorance is a great way to smooth this stuff out. Like, "you know I just found out that penultimate doesn't mean best, it means second to last? How crazy is that?"**

** Seriously, if "ultimate" means best and "pen" means next to, then "penultimate" should mean "nearly the best." Get with it, English.
posted by Honorable John at 2:35 PM on April 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


I do this, but pretty much only with friends and only if I hear them making the same mistake repeatedly. Otherwise, everyone misspeaks occasionally, it's no big deal. For instance, recently my friend was saying "I have no disillusions" when what he meant was "I have no illusions". The third or fourth time he said it, we were alone, and I said, "Hey, I think you mean 'I have no illusions.'" He blinked and said, "Oh, what was I saying?" In his head he knew the phrase, of course, he just got a wire crossed or something and was doing kind of an interesting noun negation agreement thing, which we talked about for a bit with some amusement. But I'm an English lit guy, he isn't, and crucially he knows that I don't think he's stupid or uneducated, he just misspoke. That's pretty key, I think.

Most of my friends don't mind, but they're my friends. I wouldn't necessarily correct a boss or coworker unless I knew them well. If they're being reasonably clear and are readily understood from context, it's not a big thing and it's not my place to preserve my version of the English language. For all I know, they're using an idiom or local colloquialism of which I know nothing, and then I sound, rightly, like I don't know what I'm talking about.

(Amusingly, the same friend earlier that day had asked me what the difference was between "ultimate" and "penultimate". So that's an interesting coincidence.)
posted by Errant at 5:14 PM on April 27, 2012


Is ever "right" to point out incorrect use of a word to a friend?

I do this regularly with one of my friends, and I do it strictly with the intention of annoying him. He is appropriately annoyed, as well as combative enough that the dictionary comes out on a regular basis. It's fun.

If that's the dynamic you're looking for, correct away. Otherwise I'd avoid it.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 6:16 PM on April 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


"And frankly, that goes for all you "lines need to be drawn" people—I guarantee you that there are times when you confidently say what is in fact false, and you should be aware of that and take a little humility from that knowledge. "

You know, that's a great point. As an example, I looked up "Strunk and White" (classic grammar book, people treat as a bible), and it turns out there's all sorts of factual errors in it...

(I think the thing with "penultimate" is, though, there is a sense that someone's putting on air's by using the word--so correcting them kind of has the feel of leveling things out...)
posted by Jon44 at 6:24 PM on April 27, 2012


I think this is something that is rude probably about 98% of the time. If someone has at some point asked explicitly to be corrected when they're wrong then I guess it's okay, but this is a scenario in which nothing can be assumed. In situations like this, I often ask myself - would I rather be right or would I rather be happy (or kind, or gracious etc.)? As people have mentioned above, I have mispronounced words in the past due to having spent my whole life reading words but never saying them out loud and while I guess I appreciate being nicely corrected, it's sometimes a little embarrassing, and the embarrassment can be worse depending on who is doing the correcting, how much I respect them and a whole number of other things.

I have also had people correct me jokingly and while I might appreciate knowing the correct way to say something, I secretly think that person is kind of jerky. People can be glad that they know but also secretly think you're rude at the same time. Oftentimes my irritation has nothing to do with my ego being crushed by being caught out saying something incorrectly (it's usually not) and everything to do with what I think is polite behavior and that, in my worldview, what this person just did is boorish and rude. So I think the question isn't necessarily "shouldn't everyone be willing to be corrected" but more "does this person think correcting others is acceptable behavior". Because you could very easily be doing things right according to question one but still have people get irritated with you because of question two.

Someone has to stand up for civilized norms, and lines need to be drawn.

I get this and I agree with it. However, I think that standing up for erring on the side of graciousness and kindness is much more important than good grammar when we're talking about civilized norms. Again, this comes down to personal values, which I believe are very hard to guess at for any given person, unless you know them very, very well.

(I think the thing with "penultimate" is, though, there is a sense that someone's putting on air's by using the word--so correcting them kind of has the feel of leveling things out...)

I totally understand this temptation, but I've found for myself that it's rarely worth it. People put on airs all the time and the more egregious it is, the more annoying it can be. But you never know the whole story of what is going on with that person and I've done things like this in the past as a little passive-aggressive attempt to try to "bring them down a notch" only to come across some new information at a later date that makes me (rightfully, I think) feel like a pretty crappy person. My general feeling is that when all is said and done, correcting other people has a decent chance of making me look like a petty jerk to the offender and/or anyone who might be witnessing. Not correcting people brings the chance of this happening down to zero. There is also a 0% chance I will feel like a jerk later on for embarrassing someone or making someone feel bad if I refrain from correcting people.
posted by triggerfinger at 6:57 PM on April 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


What I said in the actual circumstance was "to be a typical pretentious ivy-leaguer...," but then I worry about being patronizing

Totally patronizing. Don't do this unless the person you're talking to is also an ivy-leaguer. And even then, probably not unless you're both current ivy-league students.
posted by stopgap at 6:58 PM on April 27, 2012


** Seriously, if "ultimate" means best and "pen" means next to, then "penultimate" should mean "nearly the best." Get with it, English.

The Latin paene means "almost" or "nearly" -- a peninsula is "nearly an island," for example.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 9:04 PM on April 27, 2012


Feigning gratitude to conceal embarrassment is a common face-saving strategy.

Corrections that leave someone feeling grateful and not embarrassed require a level of skill and grace that most people lack. Unfortunately, you can't really polish your technique without becoming unbearable.

So. When in doubt, don't.
posted by space_cookie at 9:05 PM on April 27, 2012


It's worth remembering that we all make errors in speaking from time to time; if you think you're saving someone from future shame or embaressment do it. If not, let it lie.

I had my grammar once corrected by my (now) ex department chair at a professional event. Right after that he horribly mispronounced the name of a major Irish port despite the fact that he'd lived near it for 15 years. Thing is, he'd done it several times before but I'd never said anything because I felt for him (very Oxbridge, very wrapped up in being correct in all) it would be a difficult correction to take. You can bet that this time I didn't let it slide. I don't know about him, but while I got a temporary sense of satisfaction I left the event feeling like a total wanker.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 10:48 PM on April 27, 2012


No one like a know it all, which is a shame, because I know it all.
I likes a know it all.

I was out with some friends and I mispronounced a common word that I really had no excuse for mispronouncing -- it was "trough" and I said it as if it rhymed with "cow," okay?
So you verbally dropped trou, then?

I'm a lawyer, and thus, words be important to me. A fellow pedant colleague and I correct one another whenever the opportunity arises. However, while I used to correct others whenever I heard an error, and at the time, I have come to appreciate (mostly from threads like this) that not everyone likes to be edited in real time, many appreciate a private correction, and some don't like editing at all.

If you don't know where your friend is on the edit continuum, you should ask.

P.S.: mippy, why can't something be "almost unique"? If there are exactly two copies of something highly distinctive, isn't each one "almost unique"?
posted by birdsquared at 12:41 AM on April 28, 2012


Those who use "penultimate" to mean "most ultimate" probably don't need to be corrected on the meaning of "penultimate" but rather "ultimate." It means "last." There's a connotation that the sequence the ultimate thing is the last in is some kind of rising sequence, like a gradual refinement or an increase of skill or quality.

Talking about the "most ultimate" thing is like talking about the "bigger half" of something. It indicates that the speaker has tried and failed to identify what they are talking about. This is a pretty dire failure of reasoning, if it's actually indicative of the speaker's reasoning. If it's not, and they're just using a strange definition of "ultimate," then they'd probably like to avoid sounding clueless. I'd suggest letting them know somehow.

I'm not one to ask about how to let them know. I don't know from tact.
posted by LogicalDash at 6:58 AM on April 28, 2012


I'm an English teacher. If you pay me, I'll listen for, and politely correct, your mistakes. If you're a buddy, and you've asked me to, I'll correct mistakes. Otherwise, I'll act like a normal human being and ask for clarification only when the meaning is genuinely unclear to me.
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 8:09 AM on April 28, 2012 [8 favorites]


I'm an English teacher. If you pay me, I'll listen for, and politely correct, your mistakes. If you're a buddy, and you've asked me to, I'll correct mistakes. Otherwise, I'll act like a normal human being and ask for clarification only when the meaning is genuinely unclear to me.

This. I'm a language person but I'll only offer corrections to others' usage if asked to, for example, edit something. "Speaking to someone" about anything they do seems like something that's only appropriate where something they've done is really egregious or harmful, and grammar or usage is rarely in that category (again, unless you've been asked to help).

That said, there are certain relationships where there's an acknowledged difference in expertise and a more or less continuous expectation of one person speaking with authority about a given subject that's more important to them than to the other person. Then, if the other person makes a mistake, a correction might be in order, if the thought is "don't say that, people will think you're stupid" (not to be phrased that way unless they can roll with it and it will help make it stick). But I feel like that's a pretty high bar and if you don't know that's the situation you're in, just let it go. Nobody's perfect.

(Pronunciation, though, can often be indirectly corrected by just saying the word correctly yourself in the same conversation.)
posted by rustcellar at 10:58 AM on April 28, 2012


> why can't something be "almost unique"? If there are exactly two copies of something highly distinctive, isn't each one "almost unique"?

It can be. Furthermore, something can be more unique than something else. The special-snowflake status of "unique" as an adjective that can never be compared is one of those myths know-it-alls tend to propagate.
posted by languagehat at 5:00 PM on April 28, 2012 [3 favorites]


I agree that people overstate the unqualifiableness of "unique", but I get where they're coming from. I think of "unique" as being like "dead" - a state you can approach from one direction without any possibility of moving beyond it once you get there. "Almost unique" is clearly fine. Personally, I think "more unique than" sort of makes sense (if it's supposed to mean "closer to being unique than") and "very unique" makes none, but if people enjoy using "unique" to mean "unusual", then who can stop them? (Though, actually, my impression is that that usage is not that common any more.) Either way, there are few people I would argue with about a thing like that. My sister or my mother.

Because you must only correct people you are very close to, in relationships where there is little need to maintain face. Unless it's an obligation of your job, if you are worrying about nice ways to go about correcting someone's mistakes, it is because you are correcting a person you have no right to be correcting. I don't consider myself proper friends with someone for whose sake I have to preface "That is not how you spell 'acetaminophen'," with a whole paragraph of sugar and empathising, though it's a useful skill to have when dealing with improper friends, colleagues and acquaintances, in emergencies. But mostly, life is short - there isn't time. Just don't address the error if all of that is going to be called for.
posted by two or three cars parked under the stars at 11:13 AM on April 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


My boyfriend will ask "Are you sure you didn't mean X?" as a way of correcting me. It puts the onus back on me to rethink, and we end up having a discussion rather than an argument. Chalk me up as one of those people who's well-read and often mispronounces words that I've read but never heard. And chalk me up as one who'd rather know I'm saying something incorrect.
posted by chronic sublime at 5:56 PM on April 29, 2012


My friends and I do this to each other all the time to the point where it's now part of our dynamic. One guy is very quick to correct "James and me" to "James and I", so we take great pleasure in correcting him when he gets it wrong. If my friends explain something scientific in a way that makes no sense, I'll grimace my way through the story and they'll chide me with a "yeah yeah science says no, we know". If anyone knows the word better, we'll interrupt with a "wait, penultimate? don't you mean ultimate?", derail into a discussion over the definition, then the interrupter will help the presenter get back on track - no hard feelings.

If you know them well enough to get away with it, you really shouldn't have to ask this question. If you have to ask... probably better off to avoid potentially offending them in ignorance of their social norms.
posted by buteo at 7:35 PM on April 29, 2012


Only if you honestly think the friend might suffer serious embarrassment/harm from the vocabulary error in the future (e.g. putting it on a resume).
posted by paultopia at 10:28 PM on April 29, 2012


It can be. Furthermore, something can be more unique than something else. The special-snowflake status of "unique" as an adjective that can never be compared is one of those myths know-it-alls tend to propagate.

Except in my line of work - if a product is claiming to be 'almost unique', you can bet their competitor will be waving dictionary definitions at them very quickly.

I always understood it to be an either/or type of word, and 'very unique' is the one that annoys me.
posted by mippy at 4:00 AM on April 30, 2012


If correcting someone makes things better, speak up. If correcting someone makes things worse, shut up.

For example, it might be embarrassing to be told that you're misusing penultimate, but it might be a lot less embarrassing than going through life misusing penultimate and only realizing years later that you must have sounded like a dimwit to all the educated people you spoke to, and all because no one ever had the decency to correct your bad old self.
posted by pracowity at 2:46 PM on June 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


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