by Mark Gutman
By Mark Gutman, April 1, 2014
Near the end of a sermon I heard recently, the preacher read a story that contained a grammatical error. I couldn’t help but notice because it confused me. For a couple sentences it caused me to misunderstand who the culprit was in one incident. I turned to my wife to whisper, “That grammar was wrong!” when I caught myself.
Most of my life I have taken great pride in catching grammatical errors. My dad was an English teacher, and (in my opinion) I have a better-than-average knowledge of grammar. I demonstrate it all the time by pointing out errors, to the speaker or writer or anyone I can. But last Sabbath it hit me that nobody learns better grammar because of me. What others learn, and remember, is that I'm a critic. A faultfinder, if you will.
Why was I pointing out the mistake? Ostensibly to keep society’s language from falling apart, to encourage correct communication. Remember, the defective grammar led me to misunderstand the incident in the story. A deteriorating language results in more miscommunication, which has resulted in all kinds of unfortunate misunderstandings over the years. So you see, by criticizing mistakes in grammar, I’ve been helping to preserve civilization!
Preserve civilization? Not really. Don't get me wrong. Society does benefit from critics. Music teachers or athletic coaches who won’t point out what students or players are doing the wrong way are letting the students or players down. Correction in the early stages can save much grief or struggle later. If you hold that type of position (or if you're a parent or teacher), please correct! So, if my wife or the speaker had asked me to point out mistakes in grammar, mentioning one might make some sense. But nobody asked me, and nobody learns. The idea of improving society doesn’t hold water.
Reflecting on my compulsion to point out grammar errors, I guess that pointing them out is mostly about me, not about English. It's about my superiority over the speaker or writer who made a mistake. Or, rather, it shows that I think I’m superior. Focusing on the mistakes of others is easier than focusing on my own problems. For a minute or two, I get a refreshing break from thinking about my flaws while I direct the attention of others to someone else’s shortcomings.
What do people learn from hearing (or reading) my expertise? They learn to dread having me around because they know that I don’t have the graciousness to let any perceived mistake pass by unnoticed. They pick up that I enjoy pointing out flaws. They catch on that I think I’m better than the mistake-makers. So when my acquaintances run into problems, guess who is at the bottom of their list to be asked for help. To them I'm a critic. I'll probably criticize them for getting into trouble. They know this because they've heard me treat others that way. When they hear or read 1 Corinthians 13, my name won't be the first one that pops into their heads. “Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged” (1 Corinthians 13:4-5, NLT). Where is the patient, kind, not boastful, not irritable part in being a self-appointed committee of pointing out mistakes?
The same logic can apply to theological or scientific arguments. An earlier verse in 1 Corinthians 13 says that if I (substituting for Paul) am ever so smart yet don’t know how to be nice to people, I’m “a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” (verse 2). We can self-righteously feel that in standing for the cause of truth, our words (or methods) don’t matter. We feel compelled to keep others from being corrupted by the scientific or theological “garbage” that is being spewed. And it somehow follows that the more cutting our language, the harder we pound the pulpit, the more likely we are to convince (win?) that other person and onlookers (or readers).
But we teach by our methods as well as by our words. “The method is the message.” People learn more from our behavior and attitude than they learn from what we say. If my communication to you is dripping with contempt or sarcasm while I tell you that you should be more logical or reasonable, what makes the biggest impression on you? “What you do speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you say.”1 And even if my scientific or theological argument is impeccable, you're likely to want to distance yourself from it if only to distance yourself from me.
I’m all for polite disagreement, for disagreeing without being disagreeable, and for correcting others who want the correction. (Or maybe others will benefit, even though the one you’re directly addressing won’t catch on.) And sometimes people who don't want correction need it. But while you’re disagreeing or correcting, why not stop and ask what I asked myself at the end of the sermon last Sabbath? Are you showing how smart you are? Are you feeling superior to the dummy that you're enlightening? Would this person feel that you are someone who could be sympathetic or helpful if she were struggling with a problem?
We are not remiss if we don’t criticize every mistake. (Pardon me while I preach to myself.) We’re not letting society down every time we leave a mistake unmentioned. Others who have noticed the same mistake(s) may be more kind or patient. Or they may be more interested in reinforcing the positive. You may have heard that when teachers don’t seem to say anything about good behavior, children sometimes learn that the way to get attention is to act up. How about if we shine a light on what’s right instead of on what's wrong?
If we find plenty to compliment in the people we’re trying to correct, we may find they’re more interested in hearing what else we have to say. We catch more flies with honey than vinegar. (At least, that’s what I’ve heard.) If we work at looking for the good to compliment more than the bad to complain about, we’ll probably find more good and notice less bad. We’ll probably also attract people to stick around us more and learn from our example instead of our criticism, from our living instead of our talking.
The words of a Glen Campbell song make a good motto:
Let me be a little blinder
To the faults of those about me
Let me praise a little more…
If you want to criticize, every day you’ll have plenty of situations to exploit. But if your goal is to compliment, to reinforce, you can also find many opportunities. We’ll impress people more by our warmth and our interest in them than by our reputation for never missing a chance to point out every time we think someone makes a mistake.
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1The words are thought to have come from Ralph Waldo Emerson, but they have morphed into their current form from "What you are stands over you the while, and thunders so that I cannot hear what you say to the contrary." The words were included in an essay by Emerson, "Social Arms," in 1875.