Sunday, December 30, 2018

Correcting the school principal on bad grammar

"You know what kept me up last night?" a reader we're calling Goldie asks in an email recently. "Trying to decide what, if anything, to say to the principal of my child's school about her emails."

According to Goldie, who does editorial work for a living, the principal's frequent notes contain at least one and usually several grammatical errors. The emails contain run-on sentences, improper capitalization of words, misplaced commas, and an abundance of misused semi-colons.

"Sometimes there are factual errors," writes Goldie, "like the time she sent a note reminding parents to get their kids to school by 8:20, when school actually starts at 8:15."

"I kind of want to send a note and volunteer to be a second set of eyes for her emails," writes Goldie, "but we're at the beginning of a six-year relationship with the school. I'm not sure I want to be 'that" parent!"

Goldie is torn about the right thing to do.

In the past, I've received similar emails from readers asking about whether to correct a colleague or a supervisor whose grammar is consistently off. When faced with these questions, I'm always reminded of the college librarian I knew who was crushed after a student corrected her pronunciation of English words. The correction hadn't crushed her. The fact that she had been pronouncing words incorrectly for years and never once had it pointed out to her by anything at the college or among friends was what crushed her. The librarian believed had they cared enough about her they would have said something.

For similar reasons, Goldie would be doing the right thing and the principal a favor if she found a way to let her know that her emails contain substantial errors. That she's the principal of a school where such things as grammar and usage are taught makes it even more likely that she'd be embarrassed if she discovered that she'd be sending out emails plagued with errors without ever having it called to her attention.

If the principal is wise, she'll be appreciative of Goldie's observations. If the world works as it has a way of doing, Goldie might find herself being enlisted as a volunteer proofreader, a role she's more than willing to take on.

Finding a way to offer assistance gracefully is the key. Rather than send an angry response to an email in which all the errors are marked up and a note to the tune of "how could you send this crap out?" attached is not likely to yield positive results.

But an email from Goldie to the principal acknowledging that she knows how frequently and quickly the principal needs to email parents along with an offer of a professional editor's help if she wants it might be met with favor.

There is a chance that the principal will not take kindly to Goldie's observation or offer of help. But Goldie's desire to do the right thing shouldn't be diminished by her concern that it might not change anything. It's rare we can know for certain the response our actions will receive. Nevertheless, we persist to try to help make things work a bit better. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of, a blog focused on ethical issues. 

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Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin