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When do you correct someone on their misuse of language?

The Telegraph     March 21, 2014

It's easy to snigger at a misplaced or wrongly pronounced word - but how do you go about telling someone they've got it wrong, asks Alan Tyers

Apostrophes haunt the nightmares of grammar pedants

We were watching the snooker, as we usually did in the late spring afternoons, when Eva emerged from the bathroom. Eva was from Barcelona, and was a 10/10 on every measurable scale apart from being a 6/10 on speaking English. She came into the living room in her robe and sighed happily.

"I have just creamed myself," she said. "I hadn't done it for days and it felt really good."

Reactions were mixed. Surprise, certainly. Some spluttering. One member of the male company immediately expressed considerable eagerness to learn more, and that no detail should be spared, no matter how trivial it might seem.

It was spoilsport Sarah who brought Eva up to idiomatic speed: that while a lady might indeed apply lotions or creams to herself as part of a skincare or beauty regimen, this did not mean that the verb "to cream" was in widespread usage.

Or, at least, not in the sense Eva had intended.

Foreigners, like children, do indeed say the funniest things: but when is it appropriate to correct other people's English?

Picture credit: Gerard Parker

For those of us who work with words, or like them, there are all too many opportunities, both in speech and on the page.

Already today I have read articles by three writers, two of whom I really like, that misuse words. It's distressing, and it distracts the reader or listener from what the person is trying to say. And what is the point of language if it isn't to communicate ideas clearly?

So, to those writers, let me say:

- An "internationalist" is a member of an international socialist organisation, or at least someone in favour of international cooperation. You mean "an international", as in someone who has represented his country at a sport.

- When you wrote that he "has a discrete routine", you were trying to convey that he was cautious and private about a process, or "discreet". The thing wot you wrote means that his routine was notably apart or separate from other routines.

- A person who behaves in a diva-like manner is a "Prima donna." The term you employed suggests a different meaning - one that would make sense if you were saying, for instance, that "female popstars used to be less outrageous, pre-Madonna".

Sorry. I had to get those off my chest somehow, and I lacked the courage to approach the people directly. But should one point these things out to people? It's really hard to do so without coming across like a bit of a git.

Picture credit: David Stewart

The only conclusion I can draw is to use the principle at work when one has to tell somebody that they have bad breath: better to know now, than have them go around all day repelling people and being badly thought of.

In the case of delightful people from Barcelona creaming themselves, however, perhaps it's better just to enjoy the misuse while you can.

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