Lesson learned: I’d rather be paid than be right

It’s a cardinal rule in the retail environment, and it’s no less true for those of us who peddle words: the customer is always right. I guess I’m a slow learner, because it took me years to apply the rule to my working life. When I first started out, some two decades ago, I was assigned to write an article about allergies for a health magazine. One of the people I interviewed was a woman who claimed her allergies improved when she went to her family’s cottage.

When I looked over the final draft, I saw that my editor had changed “family’s cottage” to “families cottage.” I saw blood, I saw bile, I saw venom. I called up said editor and proceeded to show her the error of her ways. “The girl only has one family and the cottage belongs to them, so it’s a singular possessive construction, and blah blah blah,” I said, barely pausing to catch my breath. Needless to say, I moved up to the top of her no-call list.

A few years later, another editor asked me to hyphenate the first two words in the phrase “significantly greater odds.” I tried to explain why the construction didn’t warrant a hyphen, but she insisted on putting it in. When I got off the phone with her, I leapt up from my swivel chair and reached for the Chicago Manual of Style on my bookshelf.  There it was, in Table 6.1 on page 221: “An adverb ending in ly followed by a participle or adjective is always open [i.e., not hyphenated].” I’m embarrassed to admit this, but I actually emailed the citation to the editor. I might as well have stuck out my tongue and said, “Told you so.” When the article appeared in print, the hyphen remained.

I’m finally getting the hang of this thing called diplomacy. A few weeks ago I was collaborating with a pharmaceutical account manager on a manuscript about diabetes. I had written the sentence “The past ten years have shown this approach to be ineffective.” The manuscript came back with “have” crossed out and replaced by “has.” I changed it back, explaining that “seven years” was a plural form. He changed it back again, maintaining that we were talking about a seven-year period, so the implied subject was singular. I was enjoying the sparring and could have continued for many more rounds. Then I remembered: he’s paying my bills.

“To avoid any ambiguity,” I wrote, “perhaps we can replace the sentence with ‘Over the past ten years, this approach has proven ineffective.’ ”

“Sure,” he wrote back. “Lets do it.”

I’m happy to report that I didn’t point out the missing apostrophe in “lets.”

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13 Responses to Lesson learned: I’d rather be paid than be right

  1. Ann Martens-Smylie says:

    Have always enjoyed learning about your wonderful sense of humor through your writing. This piece was no exception. (feel free to point out any grammatical errors, I’m not paying you, but I am family:)

  2. Gay Smylie says:

    I must say that I enjoy reading your blogs Gabrielle! The angst that you create in your writing is actually quite humorous to read because you wrangle with such precise details that most people don’t employ or understand (or probably even care about). Keep on writing. I’m glad you’re back from your blogging hiatus!

    • Yeah, I realize most people don’t care about this stuff. Then again, “Eats, Shoots & Leaves” sold several million copies, so I have to wonder…

      • Ugh. I hated that book. I actually asked for it as a gift, only to find that (1) The author is so ranty that I developed a bad case of chronic eye-rolling; (2) There was no index (no reason to expect one, but I had hoped it would serve as a guide to those pesky rules of punctuation I often forget). Lynne Truss takes grammar too seriously! *Grumbles* Prescriptivists…

      • I should add that I passed through a phase not dissimilar to what you describe here, Gabrielle. I remember arguing with a supervisor over some point of grammar or usage in my first job, and an art director jabbing me in the ribs and then writing a note to the effect of, “Knock it off, don’t pick a fight with the boss!” 🙂

  3. The saying “There is more than one way to skin cat” comes to mind.

  4. Lisa Bendall says:

    Brilliant post. (That missing apostrophe smacked me in the face… I congratulate you for holding yourself back!)

  5. Liz P says:

    Very, very awesome.

  6. I have had my fair share of bosses that would not listen to grammatical reason. One in particular insisted on writing “I would appreciate if…” in almost every letter he wrote (and that I had to type for him). I would add the appropriate “it” and he would cross it out. No matter how many times I tried to explain it, he refused to change. In the end, I figured it was his signature at the bottom of the letter, so he could write whatever he damn well pleased.

    Now, I have a boss that gives me extracts of Strunk when I neglect to place a comma in the correct place. Luckily, his corrections are always in good humour – he knows that no other employee in our organisation comes close to matching my abilities. His high standards do keep me quite busy, as the managers all send me their documents to edit before he sees them, but I’m in heaven. I get paid to be right.

  7. You get paid to be right? Must be nice… Are you by any chance from the U.K.?

    • I wouldn’t be surprised. I love to hear what sort of grammar drills they get in the U.K. – I managed to survive sentence analysis, et cetera, without learning anything. I gathered all my grammatical knowledge via omnivorous reading and seem to have picked it up by osmosis. Oh, and of course Strunk and White and the inimitable Gerry Jenkison, a British-educated copy editors, as well as grammar geek friends such as Liz P.

    • No, actually, I’m from Australia; and yes, it is nice. 🙂

      Neither of my parents finished high school, so I’m not really sure where my passion for spelling and grammar or my mathematical abilities came from (yes, I’m good at Maths too!). I suspect it was a combination of being plonked down in front of Sesame Street from an early age and a succession of passionate primary school teachers.

      At the age of 10, I had the reading age of a 13-year-old. I can remember getting books for nearly every birthday and Christmas and I would even spend hours leafing through the Encyclopaedia Britannica that my parents spent a fortune buying. I just loved reading and I still have many of the books from my childhood (mostly fairy tales with stunning illustrations that still fascinate me today). Hans Christian Andersen was one of my favourites.

      It’s funny, because my English marks in high school were not that great – barely a pass – but this was due to the move away from spelling and grammar towards speech and drama. No hope for a painfully shy bookworm.

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