Purity or pedantry?

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.”

Ego #4

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.”

Ego #2“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.

This entry was posted in Grammar, Language, Punctuation and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Purity or pedantry?

  1. Sheila says:

    Your kids are highly insightful and straightforward in a humorous way (to me). And your “reminder to self” probably applies to many life situations — I need to remember that lesson as well…

  2. elizabeth says:

    Enjoyed reading your article and also the comment by Sheila about life situations. Reminds me of a sitcom where Elaine (Seinfeld) lost her boyfriend due to his writing her a note with no exclamation points.

    • Yeah, I remember that episode. Of course, the Seinfeld characters have also ditched lovers for being too altruistic, failing to give massages, eating peas one at a time…

  3. Drew says:

    You did the right thing, both for you and for your client. Since your client chose to respond in a positive way, removing the commas, she must have realized that the commas were misplaced. If you hadn’t pointed this out, she would not have had the opportunity to realize her mistake, and you would have been the recipient of a tarnished reputation, since your name was on the article. The downside risk was slight, and the potential positive return was large.

  4. My 9-to-5 boss is an extreme pedant, particularly when it comes to the English language and its usage. Keeping up with him is challenging but, at the same time, it’s great fun when I get to correct him and hear the words “you’re right”. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with correcting your client, as long as you’re sure you’re right and can back it up. I’ve been known to send links to prove a point, but it’s probably wise to use them sparingly unless you know the recipient well.

  5. I recommend cross-posting this in the Facebook Word Nerd Defence League group if you haven’t already!

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