Teaching the Teacher


    Your son just received a letter of welcome from his soon-to-be fourth grade teacher. It was a wonderful gesture, but unfortunately, the letter was filled with grammatical errors. Is there any way to offer unsolicited grammar lessons without seeming like a complete jerk?

    Dear Miriam,

    My son just received a lovely letter of welcome from his soon-to-be fourth grade teacher. Unfortunately, the letter was filled with grammatical errors, including a misused colon, several misplaced commas and a missing apostrophe. I am an English professor, and I would like to find a way — kindly — to offer a quick grammar brush-up to this teacher without seeming condescending or cruel. I spend a lot of time volunteering at the school (including writing its newsletter), so she knows me a bit already. Is there any way to offer unsolicited grammar lessons or free proofreading without seeming like a complete jerk?

    Teaching the Teacher

    Dear Teaching,

    As a fellow punctuation-obsessor, I feel your pain. I, too, have volunteered my time in a number of circumstances to ensure that correct comma usage prevails. I have also had this obsession turn on me, such that I end up with multiple editing projects on my desk at any given time. Recently, though, I got one of the best compliments of my life as a result of all my volunteer editing, making it all worthwhile: "You are amazing, and your detailed love of commas is so unique — you deserve a crown." It's worth noting that this compliment was in response to some editing that was requested of me. I have a hard time imagining receiving the same positive feedback if I sent back a red-inked letter to, well, anyone.

    However, since you already volunteer your time in a similar capacity at the school, you could consider editing this letter within your jurisdiction. I'd suggest mentioning grammar to the teacher casually at the end of another conversation. After you've talked about how excited you are for your son to be in her class, you could say something like, "I hope it's O.K. for me to mention this, but, you know, as an English professor, a couple of little grammatical things in your letter really stood out to me. I just wanted to offer to proofread for you if that would be helpful." This way, you're not insinuating that she might be an unfit teacher for your son or that she's not sure where, exactly, those pesky commas ought to go. Rather, you're acknowledging that typos happen, and you'd be happy to be another set of eyes for her. 

    Of course, you and I both know that these probably aren't typos. She likely knows that she's not a confident grammarian, and she might be grateful for your help. After you've identified the same types of recurring errors in a couple of her letters, you could say, "I've noticed you do this a lot. Would it be O.K. to show you an easy way to remember how to do it?" I use the vague "it" and "this" (though not strictly grammatical, I know) in order to avoid the word "mistake," since that sounds more judgemental than would be good for your child's teacher to hear. 

    If this seems implausible, or you can't figure out a way to open the conversation with her at all, you could go to the person at the school who coordinates the newsletter and say something like, "I'd be happy to help proofread other things for the school as well." If you want to reveal the origin of this suggestion, you could continue, "I just saw a letter from Ms. So-and-So, and it seems like it would be helpful for someone to glance at these things before they go out to parents." You could also make the sweeping gesture to give a grammar brush-up to all the teachers at the school. They probably need it, but I'm not sure you want to put yourself in that position of authority at the school. Either way, since punctuation misuse is so extremely common, I hope you can take some comfort from the fact that you're probably one of the few parents who noticed or cared about the errors in the first place.

    Be well,