Whenever I need a brutally honest opinion about something, I can count on my kids to supply it. Like yesterday, for example. I had sent one of my clients the first draft of a meeting report, which she returned to me with a few revision notes and a handful of copy-edits. I could live with all the copy-edits except one. (Warning: we’re about to get into the outer reaches of who-gives-an-eff grammatical minutiae.)
In my first draft, I had written: “When treating osteoarthritis, doctors need to consider not only the pain but also the inflammation.” My supervisor had added two commas to the sentence, which now read: “When treating osteoarthritis, doctors need to consider, not only the pain, but also the inflammation.”
My grammar police lights a’flashing, I proceeded to hunt for online evidence of my rectitude, which of course I had no trouble finding. (As the saying goes, the Internet has everything.) This British grammar site summed it up nicely: “If you have set off some words with a pair of bracketing commas, and you find you can’t remove those words without destroying the sentence, you have done something wrong.”
When I sent the revised document back to my client, I inserted the following comment next to the offending sentence: “I believe a comma pair is used to enclose a statement that be removed without affecting the integrity of the sentence (much like brackets). That’s not the case here, so I think the comma after ‘treat’ should be deleted.” I supplied a couple of web links as supporting evidence.
As soon as I had pressed Send, I began to worry: What if I offended her? What if she thinks I’m an insufferable pedant? (And what if it’s true?) What if I never work for her again? Then came the justifications: If it was worth her while to insert the commas, it’s worth my while to remove them. It’s my name and my reputation at stake. And besides, isn’t punctuational purity a rather noble pursuit?
Unable to still the warring voices in my head, I turned to my 16-year-old daughter. “Did I do the right thing?” I asked her, “or did I dig myself a big fat hole to lie in?” Tara’s immediate verdict: “It was OK for you to request that the comma be deleted. It was even OK for you to explain your reasoning. It was not OK for you to supply the links. That’s just one-upmanship.”
“But, but,” I sputtered. “Don’t the links help me make my case?” “Your case for being an insufferable pedant? Yes, they do.” My 15-year-old son happened to pass by at that moment. “It’s all ego,” was his terse summation.
But was it? I’d like to think I’ve moved beyond the need to show off to employers – that I was propelled by the dictates of editorial integrity rather than naked ego. I tried to express this to Jackson. “OK, maybe ninety percent ego and ten percent everything else,” he said.
It all turned out fine in the end. My client sent me an email saying she agreed with my reasoning and had removed the errant comma. With a different client, though, the exchange might have taken a less amiable turn.
Reminder to self: A deleted comma may not be worth the loss of a client who supplies a third of my annual revenue.