Too right to write
When I want to inflate my CV I’ll often claim I’m experienced as a ‘professional writer.’ Truth is, I worked for a couple of years at a tiny marketing agency in remote northern England, where I ended up handling many of the copywriting tasks and all the proofreading, because I go pretty alright at it.
This launched me (a pedantic over-thinker) on a collision course with our clients (reasonably intelligent people with average writing abilities) over questions of grammar and style.
The resulting fights yielded some observations about spelling and grammar as signalling dilemmas that I think generalise quite nicely to domains beyond writing. I thought I’d write a few LW posts to get these thoughts out of my head.
you sure were staying in faze with our readers?
Our agency’s own brand-new shiny redesigned website was finally complete, and it was my job to proofread the copy. On our Managing Director’s very own bio page:
“It takes a lot to phase me.”
Wince. Correct it instantly. Look again at the word. F A Z E. That is right, isn’t it? Google and check. Yep. Look at it again. Feels weird man.
It’s just… even though it’s right, you have to admit it’s a mistake that’s become so widespread the correct spelling feels like a mistake. Hell, the correct spelling just feels inherently idiotic. F. Z. Idiot letters.
I start to consider, for the first time in my short career, leaving a mistake in place.
It felt dirty. But 95% of our customers would appreciate it – even at the cost of the 5% of customers I wanted the most.
You Americans often pronounce ‘phenomena’ and ‘phenomenon’ almost exactly the same way! The last two letters are just a flat mute sound.
But it’s not just that. If you haven’t already noticed, you will from now on: these two are often used the wrong way around. Phenomena for singular and phenomenon for plural! And this isn’t just random people. I’ve seen this in legal text, I’ve seen it in tweets from public intellectuals.
It’s really just a pointless bugbear – it merely reveals the person doesn’t actively notice Greek/Latin grammar patterns for plurals, or else they’d instantly see the problem. To be fair, though, that certainly would imply things about their education and about how observant they are.
Because we really do constantly judge each other based on these little bugbears. And those judgements inform our choices of friends, romantic partners, business partners, etc. Even if we try not to let them. Terrifying.
cent u ryd?
Century doesn’t need a capital letter. Ok yes obviously that one there does but that’s because it’s the first word of a sentence. It seriously doesn’t need a capital letter.
Shut up about the BBC style guide. I’ll see it and raise you The Guardian, Chicago, MLA, APA, AP.
(The British are actually obsessed with capital letters and often use them for any noun they consider to function bigly in the sentence – and not without reason – but that’s for the next post. Back to century.)
Don’t do it! Not even if you’re talking about e.g. the 20th century. Maybe if you’re saying ’21st Century Fox’, but that’s because it’s a proper noun.
Sorry if you already knew this and I sound more insufferable than normal. But I guarantee plenty of you didn’t know that. Certainly one of our clients, who funnily enough holds a PhD in history, didn’t know this. I couldn’t convince him until I showed him all the style guides. Even then, he slunk away all wounded and suspicious.
I call that ‘building rapport with my clients.’
Just try to find your people
As a copywriter, you start to realise that spelling is just like a haircut. You just can’t please all the people all the time.
It’d be nice to find a haircut/outfit that enabled you to walk effortlessly through boardrooms and into bedrooms, to have a yarn with tradies then charm old ladies, to blend in at a dive bar then play violin in a live orchestr...ar – but it doesn’t exist.
Some subset of people will always think you’re an idiot if you spell things the right way. You can’t win.
As a copywriting agency, we wanted to attract clients who knew how to spell faze. Because they’ll be smart people and smart people are fun and desirable to work with. But if we put the correct spelling on the site, we’d instantly alienate most of our potential customers.
The obvious answer is to just use a different word, but the question lingers. How right is too right? Just be as right as possible all the time? Or try to blend in among the midwits?
Of course no matter what, you’re going to spend the whole time wondering whether there’s a whole class of hooded-cape guys out there smarter than you, babying you so you won’t erroneously decide they’re wrong about things.