When are corrections correct?

Back in December of 2010, Jeannine asked me to accompany her to an event put on by the English Department at UMass, a lecture given by renowned Irish writer, Colm Toibin. The talk was titled "The End of the Family: Jane Austen and the Victorian Novel". You could almost smell the brainpower in the room — the small audience was filled with people from, or associated somehow with, the Engilsh Department, and the introduction to Toibin was given by a woman whose position in the English Department I can’t recall at the moment, but I know it was pretty significant.

So I was pretty shocked when this high-powered English Department person mispronounced two important words in her introduction — "systole" and "diastole". The way they are supposed to be pronounced is like "sis toe lee" and "die as toe lee"… but she spoke them like "sis toll" and "die as toll". Now, I understand that these are not terribly common words… but they’re not that terribly UNcommon, either. (Both are medical terms of art relating to blood pressure, and the speaker did use them in proper metaphoric context when talking about the rhythms in Toibin’s writing.)

I mentioned this to Jeannine after we’d left the lecture, and expressed my surprise at this faux pas by someone who is supposed to be in command of the language. I actually felt a little embarrassed for the woman, because she had clearly written her remarks herself and meant them to be a clever and intellectually-substantial commentary of the work of Toibin. But to me, hearing those two mispronounced words in the middle of her otherwise beautifully-crafted introduction was like finding a big, sticky wad of chewing gum on the floor of a lovely art museum.

And I wanted to tell her about her mistake, so that she would not make it again (if — and I suppose it’s a big "if" — she ever finds cause to use those words again in that manner). I considered trying to find her office at UMass and either leaving a note or trying to speak with her in person. I even thought about making up some flyers with the correct pronunciation of the two words (without pointing out that it was she who had mispronounced them) and posting them around the English Department building.

Jeannine didn’t think either plan had much merit, and I deferred to her judgement. I still think it would be good if SOMEONE told the speaker that she had mangled the pronunciation, and in fact, given that there were a bunch of smart English Department folks at the lecture, quite possibly someone DID tell her.

Why does this bother me? Well, I have always hated to make mistakes in language. I find it personally quite aggravating and embarrassing when I either use a word incorrectly, or pronounce or spell it incorrectly. It just really bothers me. It has ever since an incident which happened years ago, probably in the late 1970’s, when I was hitchhiking. I was carrying a heavy car battery, and needed to get to where a friend’s car had broken down, which was a few miles off the main road.

I really dreaded having to walk that distance carrying this battery, so when a nice woman picked me up, I asked if there was any way I could coerce her into giving me a ride the rest of the way. She gave me an odd look, and said gently "’Coerce’ means to compel by force or intimidation. Are you sure you don’t mean ‘cajole’?" Which is EXACTLY what I meant, given that compelling by force or intimidation was the LAST thing on my mind in that situation, and if I could have sunk down out of sight in her car seat at that moment as I apologized profusely, I would have done so. I felt like a real ass, and as you might guess, I have never misused that word again.
(To that woman’s great credit, she did give me a ride all the way to the car. I think she saw my very stricken look after she’d corrected me and understood how badly I’d felt about my misuse of the word.)

Since then, I have taken extra pains to try to speak, spell, and use words correctly. I don’t always succeed, but when I fail, I actually appreciate people who know better correcting me. It is well worth the momentary frisson of humiliation.

And so I tend to think other people feel the same way. I know that Jeannine doesn’t mind it too much when I point out her occasional typo or misspelling or (even more rare) misuse of words.

But is there any "best" way to handle this situation? I am not sure. What do YOU think? — PL


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