Boston magazine has a lovely summary of a Twitter incident from last week, in which someone responded to an MBTA train delay announcement by attacking the transit agency's choice of words. The T had written:

A user named Stephen Wojnar ("Free-thinking, Constitution-loving New England libertine mortgage banker") was provoked to respond: "The use of due to REQUIRES a fiduciary (that means $$) responsibility," he declared. "#GrammarMatters"

This is, as a cascade of other people told him, complete and utter bullshit. It is an absurd and fictitious claim about language, unsupported by anything but some vague sense that a word must mean one thing and cannot even metaphorically mean another thing. (God help the banking customer who might have a question for Wojnar about "liquidity.")

Language Log notes that people have been senselessly trying to browbeat other people about "due" for 250 years, and have been wrong all along. It also notes that Wojnar used "fiduciary" when he meant "financial." (Muphry's Law in action.)

There is always someone on the internet ready to scold other people about some language shibboleth. Usually the scolds are wrong. Always they are assholes. This is, in fact, the only language rule that matters online: If you are scolding someone about grammar or usage, you are an asshole.

Sometimes you want to be an asshole. Sometimes you want to be hostile and to be seen as being hostile, if you have another reason to dislike the person you're correcting. That's fine; just remember you're very likely to make an error of your own in the process.

But you're demonstrating hostility, not virtue. The urge to tell other people off about grammar is a social one, an act of insecurity masquerading as superiority. Usually, the scolder is someone who was scolded once, and bears a festering wound from it. That pain must be inflicted on someone else in turn, so that the memory of shame becomes present-day pride.

There is an audience for this behavior. Writers have succeeded by pandering to this attitude, the misplaced snobbery and one-upspersonship. They are bad people and their fans are bad. People with real command of language ignore them and go securely about their business.

Even if you are right about the point in question—which is much less likely than you think—so what? Precise standard grammar is one form of social currency, but only one, and the internet is a vast and chaotic bazaar. You are advertising your narrowness. The person you are berating might not care at all. Or they (yes: they) might have committed an innocent typo, and might know it's an error, and might already be embarrassed about it without you declaring in a public forum that they are ignorant and you are better than they are.

Or, again, again, again: They might be right and you might be wrong. When in doubt—or rather, when in the grip of frothing, righteous certitude—shut up. If it's really an error, some other asshole will come along and flag it for you, and save you the work of having to be an asshole. Shut up.

[Image by Jim Cooke]