Corrections at the Reference Desk

by Sarah Porter, former Head Editor, INALJ California
previously published 7/24/13

Corrections at the Reference Desk

sarahporter featuresliderYesterday a patron corrected my grammar at the reference desk. I said “those ones” rather than “those”. She said I would hate her for the correction, but she could not resist. She couldn’t have been more right about hating her. Seriously, I don’t hate her, but I felt annoyed by her correction. Although she is correct, and I should be more mindful of how I speak, I found her comment awfully condescending. I did not know how to respond. I think I said “okay”. How would you respond in that situation?

In my opinion, correcting strangers’ grammar errors is poor etiquette. The point of language is communication. As long as you understand what the other person is trying to convey, corrections are unnecessary. Regardless, excellent communication skills are essential for public service staff members, and it was a reminder that I should sharpen my speaking skills in order to be taken more seriously as an educated professional.

While speaking with poor grammar may push another person’s buttons, the accuracy of the information communicated at the reference desk is far more important than its delivery. By all means, I want to be corrected when the information I’m providing is inaccurate. In turn, I correct others when they provide incorrect information.

When it comes to correcting my colleagues (which I rarely need to do), I try to do so tactfully, so that there are no hard feelings. It really helps to not make it personal. In simplified terms, instead of saying, “you’re wrong”, I will tell them—or even better—show them the correct information.

I am more grateful than bothered when I am corrected after giving out wrong information, after all my principal role at the reference desk is to guide patrons to accurate information.

  25 comments for “Corrections at the Reference Desk

  1. July 23, 2014 at 11:25 pm

    I agree with the author- it was condescending and inappropriate. Talking to people is not an invitation to have your grammar critiqued whether you are the patron or the service provider. I find it rude, period. There could be differences in dialect, accents, types of English spoke, translation and speech pattern differences between both parties. Correcting someone without being invited to do so is something one has to feel they have a right or privilege to. :(

    • Elaine
      July 24, 2014 at 8:56 pm

      I really don’t know why people find it necessary to correct others–stringing together a sentence in the moment is a lot harder than writing with correct grammar, and we all stumble at times. I agree that the meaning is the most important thing, and I try not to judge people harshly myself when it comes to the spoken word.

  2. Christina
    July 23, 2014 at 8:11 pm

    After taking a Linguistics class, I look at language, particularly spoken language, less critically (in regards to right/wrong, black/white). Language evolves. Language tells else something about the person, where the person was raised, where the person currently lives, etc. There are different dialects and expressions based on a person’s experiences, and we, as humans, should be respectful of that.

    I completely agree that if you don’t understand what the person is trying to convey, you should repeat or question it. But other than that, language and how we use it describes us as human beings; it’s another aspect of what makes us who we are.

    • July 23, 2014 at 11:32 pm

      Love this reply!

  3. July 23, 2014 at 12:41 pm

    As an English major, language lover, and Librarian, I think that I would be less likely to trust information provided, if the person providing that information was unable to do so in a grammatically correct manner.

  4. Donna Smith
    July 23, 2014 at 12:22 pm

    I believe that as Librarians it is our responsibility to turn negatives into positives. When corrected by a patron (especially if they are right) we should be gracious in our acceptance of that correction. Realizing that we spend our professional lives helping, correcting, guiding, and enlightening patrons as to what is right, wrong, or in between the facts. Therefore, it is imperative that we know how to be gracious when we are corrected. Although, I do agree that the fly in this soup is that it’s not so much as what is said, but how it’s said. Signed: Donna Smith (Retired Miami-Dade County, Florida Librarian)

  5. Laurel
    July 23, 2014 at 9:29 am

    I would probably laugh it off or make some sort of joke, then forget about it. Just be glad that you don’t live with this individual because you would hear things like that all the time.

  6. Cajafa
    July 30, 2013 at 11:41 am

    I had a boss who used ‘supposably’ when she meant ‘supposedly’. I never corrected her, because there was no tactful way to do it and because I understood what she was saying. However, she did correct my pronunciation of ‘route’ (I said ‘root’ rather than her preferred ‘rowt’). Good grief! A haphazard stickler!

    Lesson learned. Unless there is a real problem with communication, leave it alone. There’s almost no way to avoid insulting the other person and you might even end up looking like a fool yourself.

  7. July 28, 2013 at 1:42 pm

    Using the correct word is definitely what a search engine is all about and spelling is important for librarians all over the digital and paper planet. I was on the Library of Congress website yesterday looking at the marc record of post cards. A grouping of 34 cards states “mostly humorous and romantic situations”. So being very general look ok for LOC, the best librarians in the world with the operative subject being “telephone communication”. Anyway, sounds like customer was just trying to clarify their request and trying to get feedback that some had ears – communication is dydatic. Right?

  8. July 26, 2013 at 11:47 am

    I probably would have asked her if she knew my mom. “These ones” and “those ones” are a pet peeve for my mother :) Like Naomi, I don’t correct a stranger’s spoken grammar, but I may repeat requests back to clarify.

  9. Jessica
    July 24, 2013 at 6:54 pm

    When I was an intern at a public library a couple years back, I had a patron on the phone who corrected my pronunciation of the word “three.” She had me say it a couple of times and insisted that I was not pronouncing it “correctly” and that she knows this because she used to be a teacher. She then told me to keep “practicing” on my own. I forgot how I responded, but I think it was also along the line of “ok.” After I hung up the phone, I told the story to the librarian at the information services desk and she reassured me that I was saying the word just fine. Granted that I may or may not have a slight accent (being from New England and all), that was the first time I had my pronunciation corrected like that.

    Joel, I’ve experienced that too. And people who keep interrupting me when I’m trying to answer their question, or looking at me like I’m crazy when they’re not pleased with my answer. Can’t do anything about this but stay courteous.

    • July 24, 2013 at 9:48 pm

      My Mom is from Montana and says “Warshington” instead of “Washington.” I always remind myself that an accent is not correct or incorrect, just different :)

      • Elizabeth S.
        July 26, 2013 at 11:55 am

        I appreciate the article and this comment so much! I’d apply this logic to different levels of formality in speech as well, which is also culturally and geographically specific. The goal of communication should be clarity, not conformity. I try to keep an open mind and I hope that others are similarly tolerant my (sometimes very casual) way of speaking.

    • Michelle
      July 23, 2014 at 10:01 am

      I have had a similar experience being from the upper Midwest living (and working) in the South (Virginia). Those of us from Milwaukee have our own vocabulary and way of saying things, which has caused me to be looked at like I have a second head more than a few times over the years. I have had people tell me to my face that I talk “wrong.” I generally just let them say their piece and move on. Sometimes, I will explain that I am from a different part of the country and what I have said is perfectly normal there. I would never correct someone like I have been corrected numerous times, except my husband. ;)

  10. July 24, 2013 at 5:58 pm

    I have always wondered when it is appropriate to correct patrons’ grammar. A child came up and asked for a “titans” book pronounced “teetons.” This made the request extremely confusing.

    Would I correct an adult that said the same thing?

  11. Julie
    July 24, 2013 at 5:30 pm

    You split an infinitive!! Haha, I’m totally kidding. Great article! You’re absolutely right on all counts. :)

  12. July 24, 2013 at 5:15 pm

    I think there’s a difference between correcting written grammar and spoken grammar; we definitely don’t talk how we write! I may correct someone I’m particularly close to, depending on the situation, but never a stranger. I do think that people get a sort of thrill out of correcting a librarian or any kind of information professional, because they think that you are supposed to “have all the answers” and they get to feel as though they have one up on you. In that situation, assuming it’s not a patron I’d interacted with in the past or thought I’d see often again, I’d probably respond much as you did. I can’t imagine any other way to respond that wouldn’t potentially result in an uncomfortable situation.

  13. July 24, 2013 at 5:02 pm

    What I enjoy even more is being shushed by people when I’m trying to answer a question.

  14. July 24, 2013 at 4:51 pm

    I agree that your patron was out of line and even at the ref desk I wouldn’t correct someone’s grammar or pronunciation (beyond maybe repeating it back in my answer correctly and subtly). It presumes a relationship that does not exist and forgets that you did not seek their council rather they came to you … something patrons and people in general need to be mindful of as well.

    • Anaya
      July 24, 2013 at 4:55 pm

      Steven Fry has a great retort for you…

      • July 24, 2013 at 5:27 pm

        Love it! Love him!

      • Alabama to Idaho Editors
        July 27, 2013 at 11:04 pm

        I love it. Thanks for posting!

    • Julie
      July 25, 2013 at 4:54 pm


  15. Sylvia Bly
    July 24, 2013 at 2:36 pm

    It all depends upon the situation that I find myself in. Would I correct my boss in a meeting? Oh, heck no. And I would never correct a stranger. But I do correct everyone that knows me, and they, in turn, appreciate my pointing out such things.

    • July 23, 2014 at 9:30 am

      Hi – I recall this one from last year. I certainly don’t enjoy being corrected, but…potentially everyone that we speak to (especially at work) may be someone who might, down the road, be in a position to give their opinions of us, to a supervisor, to a friend, and maybe, just maybe, a potential employer. While it is true that oral transactions don’t leave as permanent an impression as those we write, “ya just never know”! [an aside – as I have often been told that anything I write online is fair game for evaluation by a hiring manager – I’ve noticed several misspellings, or improperly used words [i.e. “son” for “sun”] in the comments here. I’m not going to point them out – but I encourage my fellow library job seekers to proofread. Then again, I’m a bit hyper about spelling and grammar issues. [and I’m sure I made a mistake somewhere in this post!]

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