I am the administrator of a college program which trains teachers to teach students English as a second language. Frequently, I get applications or inquiries from applicants with errors in spelling and grammar. I feel that I have a professional responsibility to bring these errors to the attention of the senders, but I want to avoid embarrassing or upsetting them. Although I try, I am not always successful in this. My usual comment is "I hope you won't mind my reminding you that the correct spelling is ...," or "Forgive my pointing out to you that the correct verb tense to use here is ...." Have you any suggestions on other ways to politely correct in this situation?
Jayeson Van Bryce
Dear Mr. Van Bryce,
I hold good grammar in very high esteem. But you should correct another person's grammar only if grammar is already the topic under discussion, not every time someone makes a slip of the tongue or pen. Of course, there are exceptions to the rule: Various correction duties, including language-arts correction, are the purview of parents, teachers, bosses (sometimes), and spouses or spouse equivalents (but that final group should tread lightly, as some of you may know from experience). Copy editors, too, have brought my grammatical errors to my attention even while I was quite happily doing something else. And dear Grandmother Grace was known to rap the knuckles of grandchildren who mishandled the subjunctive case.
So if you are, in fact, participating in a student's education, and if you're discussing the English language in a classroom setting, you are well within your rights to correct his grammar (especially in a program such as the one you describe). And the way you're doing so sounds irreproachable.
If you are not in a didactic environment -- if you're merely discussing tuition, say -- your grammar correction is inappropriate (and probably annoying), no matter how you phrase it.
Dear Social Grace,
What can I do when my boss interrupts me? When my daughter interrupts me, I take the time to instruct her on proper social etiquette. When my husband interrupts me, I just give him a look and continue. In the workplace, neither solution seems appropriate. Any suggestions?
Via the Internet
Dear Interrupted Madam,
When a boss interrupts you, you might just have to put up with it (if your boss is that kind of boss). It's not impolite, though, to say something like "I'm sorry, I haven't quite finished," or "Let me just finish this thought before you share yours." Not everyone has a boss to whom this can be said -- but I think most interrupters cut people off by accident and would respond well.
Another thing that sometimes works in getting others to correct their behavior is bringing up the problem in a roundabout sort of way. Some day, if you're having a relaxed conversation, bring up the fact that you're trying to teach your daughter how not to cut people off. You could even add, "Don't you just hate it when people interrupt you? It's one of my pet peeves." This may at least put the idea in your boss' mind (perhaps it hasn't occurred to her before).
Dear Social Grace,
We have a neighbor who lives across the street and insists on parking in front of our house when he has the whole street in front of his house available to him. This is in a residential neighborhood, and there is plenty of parking. Everyone parks in front of their own house, and I feel that one should have respect for that. I did leave him a note when he parked so close to my driveway that said: "Please don't park in my driveway, and by the way, could you park in front of your own house?" He is a renter and we own our own house. As I was out there this morning the whole street in front of his house is empty and he still parks in front of our house.
I realize that this is a free country and so are the streets, but I just can't seem to let go of this man's obvious disrespect for his neighbors, and, of course, he is sending me a message. I want to throw eggs at his car (I won't) and just would like some advice -- I suppose I should let karma work, but I am impatient!
Your instincts are correct. Let's all refrain from egging cars in our respective neighborhoods, shall we? I suggest that you try to find some measure of inner peace around the issue. As you rightly point out, public property belongs as much to him as to you. If he were parking on your lawn, you'd have a problem. But here in the good old United States of America, homeowners and renters have the same right-of-way privileges on public streets. Your neighbor may be behaving sort of strangely, yes, but I can think of many reasons he might prefer parking across the street from his own house. If he is, in fact, "sending you a message," that message might just be "I can park here if I want to." And he'd be right.