There’s a well-known motto by Australia’s St Mary MacKillop:  ‘Never see a need without doing something about it.’

These are wise words that I hold dear. But as an editor, I wonder whether I should always do something about grammatical or spelling ‘needs’ when I see them.

There’s no doubt that people appreciate acts of kindness: ‘Sir, you dropped your wallet’; ‘Here, let me help you with your shopping bags’; ‘Do you need a lift?’ But is correcting someone’s grammar or spelling an act of kindness, or are they offended by it? Are there times when it’s best to internalise an urge to correct, and do nothing?

Kid:     ‘Mum, you should of seen the size of that snake!’ (We live in Australia.)

Me:      ‘Should HAVE, darling. Remember: should have, could have, would have…’

Kid:      *Sigh* and/or eye roll. Usually both.

My kids are used to me correcting their grammar and spelling. It’s one of the ‘downsides’ of being born of an editor. But what about people who aren’t related to me (or are close-enough friends that they accept my corrections with good grace because they know I can’t help myself)?

Some errors are forgivable. For example, if the owners of a business are non-native English speakers, such as this sign I spotted at a Chinese restaurant inside a club:

A local supermarket has sold ‘Hungarain’ salami at its deli counter for many months, and I recently noticed this sign at a convenience store in the city:

Now, in each case I felt the need to tell the manager about the typo. But I didn’t do anything about it. Why?

Two reasons:

Firstly, because I thought the owners might not understand their mistake (as they are non-native English speakers), or perhaps they wouldn’t think the mistake was a big deal. And when you think about it, really, it’s not. Customers might have a little snigger (if they even spot it), but they understand the message. They understand that no vouchers are accepted on public holidays, they buy Hungarian salami, and they buy stationery. No loss to the business in any of these cases.

The second reason is that I don’t want to come across as a smartass. A busybody. A know-it-all. It’s a bit like saying to someone, ‘Do you know you have a big pimple on your nose?’

Reply: ‘I know I have a big pimple on my nose. Thanks for reminding me and making me feel like crap!’

But are there times when seeing a grammatical need and doing something about it IS warranted? Of course! If I think that the business will be seen in a bad light because of it, and potentially lose customers and money as a result.

For example, when I come across a website for professional services that has terribly written copy and is riddled with spelling mistakes, I tactfully point this out and offer to provide a quote to fix and improve it. Or if I spot an error in a business communication that could potentially get the business into trouble, or is likely to turn away clients, I don’t let it slide; I tell them.

Indeed, spotting grammatical and spelling errors is one of the reasons I got into editing ten years ago – because I can’t help but feel ‘a need to do something about it’.

Over the years, businesses I have contacted about errors in their marketing or other written communications, particularly websites, brochures and signage, have usually been grateful I made the effort to tell them. Sometimes, they end up becoming a client!

So, do I live by the motto ‘never see a need without doing something about it’ when it comes to grammatical or spelling errors? Not always, it seems. There are times I choose to bite my tongue. But if I feel the ‘need’ has the potential to hurt a business in some way, I always try to do something about it.

Do you feel compelled to point out errors you see when you’re out and about, reading a newspaper, or looking at a website or business communications?

Do you worry about the reaction you’ll receive, or perhaps think it’s a waste of time?

I’m interested to know your thoughts.

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