The Good Word

Are You a Language Bully?

Cut it out.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

Can you recite the dictionary definition of peruse from memory? Do you have the etymology of short-lived stored in the recesses of your brain, available at a moment’s notice for impromptu punctuation lesson purposes? Are you an expert on the difference between rebut and refute? If you answered “yes” to all of these questions, then you may just be a language bully.

You may not be one, though. So don’t panic. Here’s the best way to know for certain: Do you annoy and infuriate people at dinner parties and other social gatherings by correcting others on how they use or pronounce certain words?

That’s the key hallmark, because there’s certainly nothing wrong with simply knowing things about words that the average person does not. It’s great if you’ve built up lots of esoteric language knowledge and proceed through life as an intelligent person who is interesting, and humble, and fun to be around during trivia nights at the bar—a loveable know-it-all, in other words. But no one loves a know-it-all who doubles as a showoff. Who among us hasn’t bristled over Alex Trebek harshly judging Jeopardy! contestants for their incorrect answers? And who doesn’t smile broadly as Rodney Dangerfield’s Thornton Melon outwits the stuffy, bow-tied business professor during the climactic final examination scene in Back to School?

Those who use their advanced knowledge to embarrass or humiliate others are the absolute worst. Yet, for whatever reason, language bullies don’t seem to get this, or they don’t care. Either way, they are out there at this very moment, lurking, lying in wait, ready to pounce. (They know you used the word nonplussed improperly the other day, and you will be hearing from them shortly. So prepare to feel dumb.)

Before considering why these individuals do what they do, it’s probably best to differentiate the contemporary language bully from other people who go around correcting us. That old-timey co-worker who informs you that “ain’t ain’t a word,” for instance, is not a language bully. He’s just annoying. The same goes for there/their error-pointer-outers and those who get worked up about when it’s OK to use the word literally. These elementary language kerfuffles deal with a particular type of displacement from the norm: For the most part, we all know the appropriate rules in those instances, but sometimes we slip up anyway—or we just don’t always care about getting those things right. Such uncomplicated lapses aren’t usually fodder for language bullies, who own important books and roll in more rarified, detail-oriented correction circles. They specialize in applying real or imagined upper-level knowledge to best ensure maximum kingmaking impact.

For some examples look no further than any space where those who have read, watched, or listened to something can provide feedback. Comments sections, for instance, are to language bullies what the Cheers bar was to Norm Peterson, or what murky waters at twilight are to the bull shark. These response repositories are where we are implored to learn that peruse doesn’t really mean to skim over something leisurely, and where we discover that some guy with the handle funkymonkey23 would love it if, “just one time,” a writer would not misuse the word tithe.

Social media provides another convenient forum for those with prescriptive tendencies. A few weeks ago, for example, in a 435-word post on Syria for Slate’s blog the World, Joshua Keating included the phrase “President Obama seems extremely reluctant about the idea of intervening in Syria.” Soon after, a reader took to Twitter with this: “Nothing exposes semi-literacy like the inability to tell ‘reticent’ from ‘reluctant,’ @joshuakeating.”

Let’s put aside every other question we might have about that tweet, and consider, simply, why someone would write such a thing.

“When people, especially publicly, correct others’ mistakes, a lot of that has to do with signaling to other people,” says Robert Kurzban, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania whose work focuses on the nature of evolved cognitive adaptations for social life. “People are trying to signal their expertise, because being able to identify mistakes indicates that you know more about something than the person who committed the error.”

Those who engage in public corrections of this sort often are looking to feel good about themselves, and, according to Benoît Monin, a psychology professor at Stanford University, displays of language all-knowing-ness provide a ready-made, two-pronged opportunity to do so. “The way we evaluate our competence is relative to other people,” he says. “If I need to feel good about my language skills, one way that I could do that would be to give myself evidence that my language skills are awesome. Another is to give myself evidence that other people’s language skills suck. So by putting down other people, I can feel better about myself.”

On a recent episode of the Slate podcast Lexicon Valley, John McWhorter similarly pointed to the way language bullying makes one feel superior—and also argued that classism was at work. Both Monin and Kurzban suggest that the status of the person making the correction relative to the individual who committed the perceived error typically plays a role. According to Monin—whose work examines how people respond in specific interpersonal situations to maintain or enhance their self-image—when individuals feel as though they have something to prove, either to themselves or others, language bullying is more likely to occur. “When we’re threatened—if I didn’t get into college, or into grad school, or I didn’t get the job at the New York Times—I might be the first one to write something attacking someone else’s language because it will elevate me a little bit,” he says. “On the other hand, if I’m super-secure, I’m probably not going to do that.”  

Kurzban compares the situation to one in academia where an overly ambitious graduate student attempts to catch a renowned expert off guard with a gotcha question during a Q&A session. In that setting, someone who feels secure in her position will ask questions out of genuine interest, and a desire to learn more, Kurzban says, “whereas the person who is up-and-coming has some signaling to do.”

For language bullies, that signaling usually manifests in one of two scenarios. In the first case, someone of a higher status or position uses some advanced understanding in order to feel superior. “When someone corrects our grammar or word usage, shame and embarrassment are likely emotions,” says Michael Kraus, a psychology professor at the University of Illinois who studies the impact of social hierarchy on everyday life. “In this context, word usage and grammar corrections are an effective tool to put someone in their [low-status] place.”  

But there’s another common instance of the phenomenon, according to Monin. “I suspect it goes the other way, also—that there’s a particular glee for the cranky person who thinks: ‘This guy went to Harvard and now writes at the New York Times, and yet I know better than him,’ ” he says. “There is a glee in upending people who are supposed to be superior to us—especially if we think it’s unfair that they are superior to us. That’s the other hidden part of this: I’m tearing my hair out at this horrible mistake, and I’m all agitated, but it seems like the true emotion is a joyful, vengeful one. I’m actually kind of excited to be able to correct you.”

Monin suggests that, for some language bullies, acquisition of specialized, technical information—knowledge of an oft-mistaken definition, for instance, or mastery of a particularly tricky grammar rule—is at least partly undertaken in anticipation of an ego-boosting endgame. There is a thrill, that is, in being one of a select few who knows “the truth” about how to use a certain word. “It’s an obscure, esoteric truth,” he says. “And one reason to know it is because you know you are going to feel superior to everyone else. There’s something that feels really good about realizing you’re in the know and everyone else is wrong.”

But to take full advantage of that knowledge, language bullies must use it in a way that allows others to recognize and appreciate their possession of this advanced understanding. So the excitement they derive from publicly correcting someone does not end when the offending party is set straight. In some ways language bullies are putting on a show for other persnickety peevers.

“It’s like when an insect makes a scent or something to get a mate from miles away,” says Monin. “They are kind of emitting this thing for someone else who is another linguistic snob to come over and say, ‘Oh yeah, I know, I hate it when people do that.’ And it’s like this weird matchmaking thing: ‘Here, come over here and grind your teeth with me if you think that’s horrible.’ ”

Consider this note submitted to NPR a while back by an avid listener: “NPR’s journalists routinely use the word ‘decimate’ when they mean to denote ‘completely ruined or destroyed.’ ‘Decimate’ means to kill every tenth person or soldier as a means of mass punishment. How in the world can a town or country be decimated? It can’t possibly. The word they should be using to mean ‘completely ruined or destroyed’ is ‘devastated.’ ” That may seem like a ridiculous thing to fuss over, but, before long, fellow commenters piled on. “This one bothers me too,” another listener wrote. “I hear decimate and I think ‘reduce by 10%’ as an automatic reaction!”

So language bullies love company. But the only people who love language bullies are other language bullies, and that’s largely because the rest of us realize that the use of their advanced knowledge doesn’t have to result in a shaming exhibition at another’s expense. When someone uses a word in a way that we believe to be technically incorrect, we have choices. Beyond the obvious one—simply recognizing that the definitions and usages of words change over time, and getting on with our lives—there are at least two additional options available. We can correct the person in private, or we can point out the mistake publicly. “I think that choice is pretty revealing,” Kurzban says. “If you are in an antagonistic relationship with the person, then you might do the public correction. If you’re in a positive interaction with the person, and you want to save them from embarrassment, then you might do it privately.” He adds: “I know who my real friends are in this way. My friends email me when I [make an error] in a blog post. My enemies put it in the comments section.”

That’s not to suggest, of course, that all who offer up hyper-technical corrections in a public forum are necessarily language bully-type enemies. (Monin posits that some correctors may earnestly consider themselves stewards of the language: “If people misuse a word repeatedly, that becomes the usage of the word. So in that respect, it’s important to [speak up] if I think the ‘correct’ usage is important.”) But even if we assume altruistic motives in every case, that doesn’t make pushy, nitpicky language corrections any easier to stomach.

A few weeks back, an item featuring a vocals-only version of Outkast’s turn-of-the-century tour de force “B.O.B.” devoid of all accompanying beats and background instrumentation appeared on Slate’s Brow Beat blog. The post was titled “The Isolated Vocals for ‘Bombs Over Baghdad’ Are Amazing.” For anyone even remotely interested in hip-hop, and for lots of lovers of music generally, the isolated vocal track is amazing. And awesome—the speed and accuracy with which André 3000 and Big Boi rap is tremendous to the point of boggling the mind. For one language bully, though, a commenter named Jeff, the post was exciting for a different reason—it provided the perfect opportunity to deliver a wording wrist slap. “Awesome implies something that leaves you in awe,” he wrote, emphasizing the technical definition of the word awesome while simultaneously de-emphasizing the technicality that the headline used the word amazing rather than awesome. “Is anyone really in awe at this? A hurricane is awesome. That first true smile from your baby is awesome. This is neat.”

Cue the sad trombone.    

Fortunately, Jeff’s anti-awesome bullying was not the last word on this issue. In a triumph of good sense, his insight received no love, and zero likes, from fellow commenters. Instead, it got what it deserved. “You must be a hit at parties,” a follow-up commenter replied concisely, awesomely. Twelve people gave that one the thumbs up.