I’m a huge fan of Miss Conduct, a Cambridge-based psychologist who writes an etiquette column in the Boston Globe Magazine each week. She’s much more realistic than Miss Manners (whom I believe tries too hard to be concisely witty, thus often shortchanging her readers). I was looking through the archives and came across this gem from the August 5th issue:
Recently I was talking with a friend about another friend’s sickness and said I felt “badly” for my sick friend’s family. The friend I was conversing with interrupted me and said I should have said I felt “bad” for the family. I don’t dispute my grammar slip, but was it rude of my friend to interject an admonishment about my grammar in the middle of such a serious conversation? I’ve often wondered what the etiquette is for correcting others’ grammar. I feel that it is rude to do this, but I know many people who seem to believe it is not only appropriate, but their duty.
E.R. in Stoneham
And they’re wrong. The etiquette for correcting another person’s grammar is that you don’t, not unless you have blanket permission and a compelling reason to do so. Even then, never interrupt a train of thought or a serious conversation. The English language has been around for 600 years in its present form, give or take a century, depending on which linguistic historian you ask, and is the dominant language worldwide for business, science, and politics. It is, in short, sturdier than the average friendship and in need of less coddling.
Some people correct others’ grammar more out of unthinking habit than out of a deep protective instinct toward the mother tongue. It’s a verbal tic with them, as swearing or automatically making wisecracks is for other people. As with these other peccadilloes, ignore it if it doesn’t bother you, and if it does, gently register an objection.
The most interesting part about this piece, I find, is that badly, in fact, is the correct term. E.R. was grammatically correct when she said that she felt badly. That reminds me of people who overuse “and I” when they should be saying “and me” half the time!
I agree with Miss Conduct that it’s not worth sweating the small stuff when it comes to an issue like this, and correcting grammar is a peccadillo much like swearing for someone else.
When she mentions that the language is sturdy and needs to coddling, it can be argued that Miss Conduct thinks that one can get away with improper grammar as long as the point gets across. Personally, I don’t think that’s what she meant.
My own opinion is that if it’s personal conversation, to let it slide. I don’t use perfect grammar in my speech at all times. However, if this is professional writing, writing that was examined in depth, writing that could have easily been edited, you have a right to complain about it!