Holding Your Tongue When Others Are Wrong

For a long time, I was using the words “further” and “farther” interchangeably in my speech as if they meant the same thing. I just didn’t know the difference so I would use whichever one sounded right at the time. You might have heard me  during that time telling a cab driver to “keep driving, my house is two miles further,” or maybe I would be discussing how someone took a joke just a bit “farther than they should have.”

Then, while watching one of my favorite movies of all time, Finding Forrester, I realized the difference between the two words and I then learned to use them with the grammatical accuracy likened to an Olympic Biathlete. You can watch the video below, but in short, Jamal (played by Rob Brown), is a young basketball prodigy from the Bronx who has been welcomed into a college-prep private school for the academically gifted. Jamal is both an extraordinary athlete and an intellectual genius. When Jamal’s, professor, named Crawford, deliberately humiliates one of Jamal’s friends in front of the class, Jamal corrects Crawford’s use of the word “farther.”

“You said my skills extend farther than the basketball court. Farther relates to distance. Further is a definition of degree. You should have said further.”


Of course, as you can imagine, cranky-old-close-minded Professor Crawford takes the chastising quite seriously, and he quickly becomes Finding Forrester’s antagonist.

The point of this post, however, is really not about Finding Forrester, although it is one of the best Sean Connery Film’s ever made. The point of this post also is not about the vocabulary of measuring distance or degrees of difference. Rather, this post is about becoming a better person, friend, colleague, and partner. It is about listening humbly, responding patiently, and growing rather than gloating.

The real issue is this: when we hear another person make a grammatical mistake, we often interrupt with a correction immediately. I found myself doing this regularly to my family and friends. The moment I heard the misuse of “further” or “farther,” I would casually slip in the correction. “You mean ‘further,'” I would say. My tone was that of doing my friend a favor. After all, I do care about this person and I want what’s best for him. And what’s best is to be smart and correct, like me. Right? Then I should fix their mistake quickly. Wrong.

The truth is, I wasn’t correcting this mishap out of generosity. No, I was doling out the correction to show I knew something – to show I was smart. I was playing grammar police to demonstrate authority and expertise.

Then, one night recently, I was reading Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, which is a journal of stoic philosophy kept by one of the Roman Empire’s greatest rulers. In Meditations, Aurelius writes a prose of thoughts, convictions, and advice. The narrative is of an emperor who is constantly seeking to be self-aware and humble. It is a journal that is written by himself and to himself, and quite fascinating for anyone interested in philosophy, history, and life-improvement.

Aurelius even has a section on how to deal with my little “further-farther” conundrum. It goes like this:

From Alexander the grammarian, [I learned] to refrain from fault-finding, and not in a reproachful way to chide those who uttered any barbarous or solecistic or strange-sounding expression; but dexterously to introduce the very expression which ought to have been used, and in the way of answer or giving confirmation, or joining in an inquiry about the thing itself, not about the word, or by some other fit suggestion. (I, 10)

The advice given here is simple: If you hear a person speaking with poor grammar, or making a mistake by naming something incorrectly, or using a word improperly, then you are not to abruptly interrupt and make the correction. Instead, you are to respond with that word or correction in your response, giving confirmation to the idea presented. This is the most polite way to help your friend or colleague in correcting their error, without making it about you.

For example, my friend says, “I wanted to keep running, but I just couldn’t go any further.” And instead of my typical response: “you mean farther,” (remember, farther relates to a measurement of physical distance) I would instead respond, “Wow, I’m sure you were tired. Had you gone any farther, do you think you might have passed-out?”

See what I did there? Instead of inserting my genius-know-it-all-ness, I simply engaged in a greater conversation while correcting the incorrect verbiage. I accomplished the correction, giving my friend a chance to realize it while being polite and respectful and remaining focused on what is most important here: building our relationship through conversation, not boosting my ego.

As I think about this need, the need to correct and to admonish without reprieve, I realize how this may apply to more than just grammar and polite conversation skills. It applies to more than further-farther and nuclear-nucular and lay-lie.

I wonder how often I seek to correct not only others’ grammar, but also their thoughts, feelings, and beliefs. I wonder if I listen like Marcus Aurelius instructs, “giving confirmation, or joining in an inquiry about the thing itself,” or if I instead “chide those who uttered a barbarous” thing. For instance, when someone speaks politically, about a candidate or issue that I might disagree with, do I quickly move to rebuke or debate such an erroneous viewpoint. Or, rather, do I use this as an opportunity to get to know this person further and instead use his or her voiced-opinion to engage in a conversation about the topic and to grow in relationship and in wisdom.

In this current time of political diversity and tension, the value is much greater in listening and building relationships than it is in rebuking, disagreeing, and diverging. If you find yourself complaining about how “our politicians never even cross the aisle any more,” then cross the aisle yourself. Get over there. Get uncomfortable. Be curious and open. Be humble and reserve yourself when you want to argue or correct others.

Stand by your convictions, yes, always. But never let your opinions obtrude into a moment where grace and patience can be the nurturer kinship.

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