My website guru said "I know enough about language to get annoyed when I'm listening to the radio. You're the expert!"

Actually, I'm far from expert (that's David Crystal), but I sometimes annoy other people by drawing attention to their, shall we say, "idiosyncrasies" of language.

I was recently rambling - literally, physically, in the countryside, not just verbally - with a friend who said: "blah-di-blah...different to...blah-di-blah...".

I took the liberty of pointing out that if they were writing, not speaking, I would edit different to, changing it to different from, which is more acceptable in standard written English. So is different to a mistake, a linguistic boo-boo, or an acceptable deviation from the linguistic norm? After all, lots of people say it.


Luckily my friend was gracious enough to continue our conversation, along the lines of "spoken English follows different rules from written English, doesn't it?", rather than dismissing me as an offensive pedant. We enjoyed our conversation and the rest of the walk, but later I had two thoughts (quite a breakthrough for me, as one thought is often a struggle):

When, and with whom, is it acceptable to point out verbal mistakes, deviations from standard English or infelicities (other than in circumstances when you are wearing an editor's hat, and being paid by a client), and when is it impolite or even grossly rude?

When is a "mistake, deviation from standard English or infelicity" acceptable in the spoken medium, but not in the written?

What are your thoughts?

Rob Matthews
Betterwrite Managing Editor

Posted in Advice to Writers.

One Comment

  1. David Crystal! The expert indeed.

    Spoken English has a much larger acceptable margin of error than written English, partly because spoken English communicates more than words. Speed, emphasis, volume, and tone all contribute to the meaning, creating layers of redundancy that compensate for grammatical errors. Written English, on the other hand, is a far more sparse and exact form of communication. Small errors in writing can sometimes change the meaning of an entire passage, and so it becomes far more important to be correct.

    That said, context is always king. When it comes to correcting someone else’s mistakes, I try to bear these points in mind:

    1. Is it important to correct this mistake? Would leaving it uncorrected do any harm?
    2. Can it be fixed? If not, do I have to point it out?
    3. How might the speaker or writer feel about receiving my advice? Will it be seen as help, or interference?
    And, of course,
    4. Am I absolutely sure that this *is* a mistake? That’s a big rule for proofreaders: Never introduce errors!

    I won’t say I don’t wince inside when someone says ‘different to’ or ‘I could care less’. But I try to be diplomatic about correcting people.

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