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.”