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A Spanish colleague of mine makes occasional, but repetitive English mistakes. Would it be considered rude or impolite to correct him?

I haven't actually corrected him at all, but I feel as if I should say something like "When you say xxx it can sometimes throw me off, it's more correct to say yyy". I'm not sure if this is the best way of putting it.

How should I address this; or should I just suck it up?

  • 25
    Keep in mind that if you make this a regular thing then it will become part of your professional identity which may or may not be a good thing. If you don't stand out in any other way you risk becoming "the guy who's constantly correcting everyone". Secondly, you'll need to be meticulous about your own English. The fact that you had a typo in the title, phrased your first sentence very strangely and used an incorrect past tense in a comment are small mistakes but ones you can't afford to make at work if you decide to regularly correct your colleagues' language. – Lilienthal Aug 5 '16 at 11:15
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    Apply the golden rule: How do you feel when somebody is correcting you when you speak your second language? If you welcome the correction, then correct them. – Boluc Papuccuoglu Aug 5 '16 at 15:35
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    You have to be 100% sure this person is a second language speaker, not just a different dialect or accent. I get "helpful corrections" which grates me all the time because I don't have their accent (I am a first language Engish speaker and it is perfectly fine thank-you-very-much) – John Smith Aug 5 '16 at 17:15
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    I don't really understand, why don't you just ask them whether they want you to correct their English, privately? I, as a non-native speaker, would appreciate that. – dbanet Aug 6 '16 at 19:59
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    "Oh, you mean [correction]?" – Ant P Aug 8 '16 at 8:24

11 Answers 11

110

You may want to leave out the part about it "throwing you off". Instead say:

"Instead of xxx it would be better if you said yyy."

There's nothing "wrong" with correcting him as long as you're polite. That being said, some people may thank you, and others may complain to HR that you're bullying them (I have witnessed both reactions).

It all comes down to your personal relationship with the individual, his personality, and perhaps the setting (no one likes being "called out" in public). Only you can be the judge of whether it's appropriate to speak up or not.

  • 9
    +1 I usually thank people who correct my dutch, it means they just want me to perform better. If they didn't care, they would just avoid me or not help me at all. – Kiwu Aug 3 '16 at 13:50
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    "more correct" would be irritating for me. Either something is correct or not. – musiKk Aug 3 '16 at 15:46
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    Another thing to watch out for is public pedantry. Minor gaffes can be corrected in private. – tjd Aug 3 '16 at 16:10
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    @musiKk That's not really how it works for language, though. There's no compiler confirming whether your syntax is correct, no standards organization of any sort (at least for English), no real definition of "correct". You could argue that something is more correct if more people consider it correct, or if more educated people consider it correct, or if it's used more often, or any number of other reasons. – Tin Man Aug 3 '16 at 17:59
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    @musiKk: "Either something is correct or not." ...well, if I say "good" when something is "perfect" then both are correct but "perfect" is more correct. Or if I say a marathon is "at least 26 mi" then that's more correct than "at least 2 mi". It's pretty simple. – Mehrdad Aug 3 '16 at 18:38
65

Another possibility would be to phrase it as a request for clarification:

"I'm not entirely sure of what you mean. Would it be correct to say 'X?'"

Or:

"In other words, 'Y?'"

The speaker might realize that s/he did not use the most-correct phrase to convey what s/he meant to say, but here the correction has been offered graciously.

Also, consider if the way that the speaker did put it was "good 'enuf." If it's clear-enough what the speaker meant to say, maybe "let it ride."

The key is to judge the speaker's personality and temperament, and above all not to appear patronizing or insulting.

If you are the person's superior, remember that the person might not reveal to you any displeasure or discomfort.

In Spanish culture (and, many European cultures, vs. USA), there is a whirlwind of implied cultural context. It is imperative that you be aware of how any foreigner would interpret what you say, in the context of his or her culture, not your own. It is imperative, also, that you be sensitive to the possibility of "I shall not let you hear me scream."

Consider taking this person privately aside, and ask him or her what s/he would honestly prefer. Maybe s/he welcomes the instruction. Maybe, s/he is mortified and humiliated. In private, s/he may be honest.

"Fragile: Contains a genuine human being."

  • 2
    I like this approach. It doesn't lay "blame" for the poor communication. – tjd Aug 3 '16 at 16:14
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    I am not sure if I understood the part about the implied cultural context: do you mean it's less common to appreciate corrections in Europe rather than in the USA? Because, as an Italian, I remember having corrected both Americans and Canadians on the fact that "hawaii pizza" is not pizza and pineapple should never ever go on top of it, but not all of them understood. :P – Andrea Lazzarotto Aug 3 '16 at 22:42
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    I agree with this answer - the same theory as the currently accepted answer, but delivered more suitably for a workplace. I'd also suggest that you should only correct potentially confusing or truly "wrong" mistakes, and limit how often you correct them... there's a fine line between being helpful, and being a pedantic smartass – Jon Story Aug 4 '16 at 13:08
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    @AndreaLazzarotto It sounds like you think Italy owns "pizza," and thus defines it exclusively. Sorry, that's not how the world works. other countries have a different definition of pizza. You may not like that, but your personal feelings about it don't define the word for the entire world. Pizza may be more narrowly defined in your country, but now that you know about other kinds, you have no barrier to communication when people use the word for other types—for you to object is just being a provincial rube. And for what it's worth, we say "Hawaiian pizza", not "hawaii pizza". – CodeSeeker Aug 8 '16 at 5:04
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    @AndreaLazzarotto See, you're framing it as disrespect. You've invested your very identity, your actual sense of yourself as a person into a food. Step back and think about what that means for a second--it should explode your brain. If you want to call tofu between two giant beetles a hamburger, go ahead--it won't offend me in the slightest. That's how they do hamburgers in your country, I guess! I see your possessiveness as small-minded. You're not respecting me by using my definition of a food. And I'm not disrespecting you with Hawaiian pizza, except in your own special world. – CodeSeeker Aug 8 '16 at 7:15
53

Consider asking them.

I have found that some people react positively, others negatively to corrections.

I've fared well by correcting them once and if I get an honest "Thanks!", I'll assume it is welcome. If I'm unsure about the response or the enthusiasm dies down, I will ask whether they would like me to correct them or not.

  • 1
    Great advice. Some people would love to learn, some people not so much :) Asking them, is you respecting their choice. – Per Hornshøj-Schierbeck Aug 4 '16 at 8:29
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    This is the real answer! Some people find it offensive, some don't. I personally like people correcting my English, but most people that does it has asked me before doing it. I think its just polite. – Ander Biguri Aug 5 '16 at 13:16
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As a non-native English speaker, I ask my closest colleagues to always correct my English, it's a great way to keep improving it.

If you're close to this person, I think it would be absolutely appropriate for you to ask them how they would feel about it. I know I'd thank you profusely ;)

WARNING: If you ever see that this person is sending emails outside the team with errors / typos / bad collocations then it's a different issue... PLEASE let them know, they could be affecting the team or company's image and they may not be aware that there's a problem. It may not be your role to spot this kind of thing, but you'd be doing a lot for them if you pointed out a problem they can work on.

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    Great attitude and perfectly stated! – donjuedo Aug 3 '16 at 17:58
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    +1 for asking first if they want English usage tips in general, instead of launching into a specific correction right away. This should make it clear that you want to help them out, rather than putting them down for being "wrong", and make it easy for the person to decline. – Peter Cordes Aug 4 '16 at 15:24
  • It's like turning spell checking on without auto correction in your word processor. That way you get told about errors, and then you have to figure out the correct spelling yourself, and that way you learn it. – gnasher729 Aug 7 '16 at 8:58
  • For writing corrections, my partner and I use Draft (draftin.com). Rather than just passing the finished document, Draft clearly displays each of the changes, and lets the reader approve each one, hopefully learning along the way. – joeytwiddle Aug 8 '16 at 6:06
  • @ErikE nope, I meant collocation :) en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_collocations – g3rv4 Aug 8 '16 at 13:42
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IMHO there is the rule in language teaching to correct only the most frequent mistakes and just repeat the faulty phrase in correct words. So there is the opportunity to hear the correct sentence.

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    Not sure why it's downvoted so much, but Heinrich has a good point on how to decide whether to correct the mistake or not, given that you want to correct in general. Plenty of people will naturally pick up the right way to say something if they hear it enough times. – Gediminas Aug 3 '16 at 18:24
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    I try to restrict myself to only the things that might be embarrising for the person when used with people not aware that they are so new at speaking the language. (But I do sometimes correct more, out of habit.) – Willeke Aug 4 '16 at 20:09
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    When I lived abroad learning my second language I was very grateful for those who would, through normal conversation, fix my mistakes using this method. It's a very efficient, polite, and helpful way of teaching a non-native speaker. – Rocky Aug 7 '16 at 18:51
  • @Gediminas because the rule's backwards. For native speakers of languages that are very different from English the most frequent mistakes have been practiced for years and that level of perfection is probably not even possible to master. – user42272 Aug 9 '16 at 20:33
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(American who lived in Japan for 2 years and learned Japanese there): You can start by asking if the person would like you to point out ways their English could sound more natural. I would leave them an easy-out so they don't feel (for business reasons) that they have to say yes and accept a constant irritation. "If you're already getting feedback from other people, I don't want it to become a distraction for us or for you to feel you have to say yes."

4

There is nothing wrong with correcting somebody's mistakes. It's all about tact.

  • If you're correcting their every word thus not letting them speak it would be annoying.
  • If you're trying to teach them grammar in the middle of a conversation or after conversation without the person asking for it - it's very likely to be annoying.
  • Trying to teach a bunch of new words and then checking if he/she remembers them all - pretty annoying.

The way foreigners would learn the language is by wanting to learn it. And that is through friendly, relaxed conversation.

So sure, correct and give tips, but don't expect the person to immediately start using the correct forms without making the same mistake over and over.

  • I have a colleague who likes to correct my German mid-sentence. This actually irritates me very much, especially because he wants to continue for me and says something entirely wrong. Sometimes I have to say Stop Doing That. – RedSonja Aug 4 '16 at 6:22
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    @RedSonja I totally understand, I had the same thing ( I travel often and I speak 5 languages fluently now ) but the road to get there is full of people who are slightly impatient. So if you feel your German is hurting from that you need to find some friends outside of work-space and that will let you get better. Can't give much info on how to stop that person - he/she could be a superior or a very difficult personality, but asking them to stop let you finish your sentences is usually what works. – test Aug 4 '16 at 6:53
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    +1 for approaching this as a learning issue, not necessary language-specific. Results can vary; some people appreciate help for improvement, and others get annoyed. The same efforts could be helpful sometimes, and harmful for other people. Discretion is needed. Permission-asking can be quite helpful. Assessing the effect is recommended, to see whether to repeat. – TOOGAM Aug 8 '16 at 3:44
2

It's ok, even desirable to correct a non native speaker's English, especially if he makes the same mistake frequently. If it's a "one time" thing, you might want to let it go.

But do it in private, so that you don't embarrass him in front of others. As a "softener," you might ask, "how would you say this in your language/in Spanish?" That gives him a chance to be the "teacher" so you are receiving, as well as giving, feedback.

1

As a non-native English speaker I comment:

  • If in doubt, ask about the intensity of the correction they wish
  • I personally am very thankful if native speakers point out critical words to be spelled wrongly
0

As a non native english speaker, yes, please do. Its not rude, and he probably doesn't know he is making mistakes. If you are so inclined, please take the time to correct him. The vast majority of people will really appreciate that.

-1

You could say, "when you say ____, it makes me confused because in English, that means ____". You might add (if appropriate) "I'm not the only person who's noticed this." DISCRETION is key here.

I think this is constructive, and that if you don't embarrass him, he's likely to ask you a better way to phrase it.

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    Honestly, I'd leave out the "I'm not the only person who's noticed this." because it implies that you've been talking to others about his language shortcommings behind his back, which is a pretty rude thing to do and even more rude to tell him. – Sumyrda Aug 3 '16 at 18:59
  • There's nothing rude in sharing the truth. Playing super-sensitive doesn't solve anything. – Xavier J Aug 3 '16 at 21:28
  • I think you'd want to start out by assuming they want to improve for their own sake, not just because people are noticing. I think you only want to get into what's actually jarring for native speakers vs. still easy to understand once they're ok with accepting help from you. – Peter Cordes Aug 4 '16 at 15:30
  • Maybe it's because I'm from a different culture than you - as Mike Robinson pointed out in his answer, that might be something you might want to consider when you want to come across as helpful in this situation. I actually like your first sentence very much and would upvote, but the second part is for me in my culture a prime example of IN-discretion, so I can't upvote this, yet. – Sumyrda Aug 4 '16 at 19:45
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    This doesn't work in every culture, yes. If someone above me, like my manager, told me "[something]; I'm not the only person who's noticed this" that would mean to me that I am in deep trouble! It's not about being super-sensitive, it's about what will come across in the intended way given your culture and environment. – Thomas Aug 4 '16 at 20:48

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