Are You a Language Bully? If So, Give It a Rest.

Language and how we use it.
Sept. 5 2013 12:53 PM

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?

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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.”

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