Grammar and Your Client

What’s on the iPod: Into the Mystic by Van Morrison

After having more than two client interactions get heated over grammar and sentence structure, I was itching to hire some mensa-level kid-geek to plant a virus in every Word Grammar Check function in the country. I loathe that program and all it’s done to ruin good client-writer relationships.

In one case, I had to spend a good 20 minutes explaining and giving examples on why the things my client’s Grammar Check caught were not errors as he was convinced they were. I proved my point, but I eventually lost the client (other factors, but I think this contributed).

In another case, I had a client rip me up in email because I used a preposition to start a sentence. Worse, the chewing out I received was nowhere near the level of sin I’d supposedly committed. My talents were questioned, my professionalism, my ability to string together sentences….that client disappeared, but I was the one initiating that. I won’t be talked to like that no matter how right or wrong the client is (and she was dead wrong). Because someone holds a high educational degree doesn’t mean they’ve had any English beyond the cursory levels required of their bachelor’s degree. It showed. Her methods were old school. Everything I provided her was within current standards and accepted practices.

Still another couldn’t understand why I used “said” instead of changing it up and using “replied” “contended” “explained” (in a press release). Never mind that any use of “replied” in a press release with a one-sided conversation is just wrong. After 12 edits, I had to ask gently if the client was over-thinking the release (two weeks to fix it? Was the news still relevant?).

I bring this up because I saw on Valerie’s Planet Word blog a funny post about her client “approving” her copy after she passed muster with a grammar-check software application.

In that case, that client would be told in spades why I won’t be put through any “system” that cannot possibly catch every single nuance in the language. And I would refuse to do any more work if it happens again, and especially if he starts into lengthy debates on projects because of the program’s “grading” system. You either trust your writer or you write it yourself and let your stupid program be the judge. And good luck getting an application to understand your target audience and the correct tone for the message being delivered.

For some reason there are clients who cannot fully trust their contractors. Perhaps they’ve been burned by others or perhaps they just have deep-rooted trust issues that nothing will budge. Whatever the reasons, you as a freelancer need to understand that trust is something that’s built, not forced by someone telling you how to do your job – and getting it wrong.

When was the last time grammar or sentence structure became an issue between you and your client? How did you handle it?

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  • Cathy June 30, 2010 at 12:36 pm

    Wow. I never had this kind of problem. I have had times where the client edited my copy after I sent it and they misspelled or used incorrect grammar.

    If I received the copy before it was published, I would let them know. And that's a tough one. Many do not like to have errors pointed out. On a few occasions, an editor changed copy on something I had ghostwritten.

    It frustrates me, but I never had someone argue with me over it. Of course, some totally ignore my edits. It pains me (even though my name doesn't go on the finished copy), but what can you do?

    There's an interesting discussion going on in a group on LinkedIn (I plan on blogging about it tomorrow). It is a group of HR professionals. The discussion centers on whether or not they would automatically throw out a candidate for typos, misspellings, incorrect grammar on a resume. Most are pretty darn critical. An amusing side note (pointed out by some responders) are the number of typos/grammatical errors by some of the HR professionals in their responses. 🙂

  • Eileen June 30, 2010 at 12:47 pm

    In my field of specialty, compliance to FDA/FTC regs on what I can and cannot say in promotional copy is nuanced. Some of my clients have a "comliance officer" or lawyer who looks over my copy for anything that may tick off the FDA. The trouble is, they also try to correct my grammar. In copywriting, one doesn't always adhere to absolute grammar rules. Writing is conversational, and copy is sometimes fragmented for emphasis. The compliance offers are by nature very detail oriented, rule-oriented people – and copywriting that doesn't adhere to the rules drives them nuts. I have to do a lot of educating on why it's okay to break the rules sometimes.

  • –Deb June 30, 2010 at 3:18 pm

    My first job out of college, I was working in the advertising department of a map publisher and had written … I don't know … a press release or something and given it to the sales manager. A little while later, I was walking past his office and he was complaining to my boss, saying things like "I thought she was supposed to be able to write? Look at this. She's ending sentences with prepositions and …" Blah blah blah.

    I only heard the one snippet of conversation, so I don't know what my boss said, but I mentally defended myself all the way back to my desk. "It's an antiquated rule, made up by old Latin scholars who thought English should have the same rules! And you can TOO put a preposition at the end of a sentence!"

    It's a problem, really. You and I and other writers may well know that the "rules" aren't really rules at all, just made-up guidelines that never had the backing of how the language is actually USED, but the non-writers who nevertheless paid attention in their high school English classes and learned the rules don't necessarily know that.

    How does a writer convince someone who thinks writing can be done in cookie-cutter fashion, following all the "rules" is actually wrong when they are convinced they're right because they learned it in school donkeys' ages ago? (Sigh.)

  • Sarah Nagel June 30, 2010 at 3:50 pm

    Ugh. So frustrating! I think all writers deal with this. It’s frustrating when people insist on following certain “rules” without taking the time to understand why they have advantages/disadvantages in different contexts.

  • Clare Lynch June 30, 2010 at 4:09 pm

    Next time a client moans about that stupid preposition rule, quote Winston Churchill (who was quite good with words, I seem to recall): "Ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I will not put."

    And as for your silly client wanting to spice up their press release with ridiculous non-synonyms for "said", I suggest you ask them to read the publications they are hoping to get coverage in. How many uses of "contended", "explained" etc can they find?

  • Paula June 30, 2010 at 5:10 pm

    Just yesterday a friend of mine who does a little writing on the side corrected something I'd written, saying. When I pointed out I'd punctuated it that way intentionally, she said, "Well, I never put a period unless it's a COMPLETE sentence." I pointed out that sometimes it's more effective to use fragments to help get the point across.

    One place I write for uses a lot of interns. I can always tell when they've edited my work since they want to impress the editors by catching everything. Problem is they don't always "errors" are intentional. If I said, "Ain't it the truth!" they'd probably change it to "Isn't that the truth!"

    I love it when the hypercritical would-be editors "correct" something that already is technically correct. Like the subjunctive. "If I were you…" is correct, but most of these yahoos will incorrectly assume it should be "I was." I love giving them the subjunctive lecture.

    Sometimes the "corrections" one makes simply reveal how little one truly knows.

  • Paula June 30, 2010 at 5:13 pm

    Okay – so those typos in my post above? Not intentional. (I try to save perfection for paying gigs. At least that's what I tell myself.)

  • becky @ misspriss July 1, 2010 at 3:12 am

    I guess I've been fortunate — so far — to have missed having this problem. I'm sure it's only a matter of time.

  • becky July 1, 2010 at 3:13 am

    (I hate it when I sign in w/the wrong account. Doh!)

  • Ashley July 2, 2010 at 1:25 am

    Wow. I've had that argument with bosses before but not yet a client. It's hilarious when people believe a computer program is smarter than the human mind or that writing "rules" never have an exception. Seriously, if they were capable of writing it themselves, then they shouldn't need to hire a writer, huh? Good for you for getting rid of them.

  • Valerie July 2, 2010 at 3:27 pm

    Ha, thanks for the shout out!

    I'm amazed by how many clients get completely intractable over the one or two rules they retained from their high school English class thirty years ago. Those kind of discussions never go well. But what I dread the most are clients who think good writing involves sounding as pompous and flowery as possible.

    To resolve disagreements, I try to just point to a third party authority like AP. Sometimes it works – and sometimes nothing does.

  • Jennifer Williamson July 3, 2010 at 4:41 pm

    This doesn't happen to me a lot, but when it does, I explain my position…and there's always a good explanation. As writers, we know that using deliberately incorrect technique can sometimes make the writing more approachable and conversational… but you have to understand the rules before you break them.

  • Lori July 6, 2010 at 5:46 pm

    Cathy, maybe that's precisely why it pains me – my name is on much of this. Where it isn't I speak once and let go. Then again, there are those times their ideas have gotten in the way of our relationship.

    Eileen, I have that same issue with allowing sources to see their quotes. Almost without fail they'll edit the sentences prior to their quotes (I give that much for them to see it in context). If it makes sense, I'll accept it. If not, I disregard. They're the source – I'm the writer. End of discussion.

    Deb, sometimes the problem is you can't convince them otherwise. I opt to quote chapter-and-verse of the style guide I'm using, but even then I get the headstrong who learned in high school that no, you should never do it that way. Funny how they remain archaic grammar rules, yet cannot do the project themselves. And won't trust us to. Humph.

    Sarah, I agree. Frustrating as sin.

    Clare, with the press release client, I resolved that one by charging by the hour. ;))

    Paula, perhaps the difference between your friend and us writers is maybe we understand when it's for effect and when it's just plain wrong. I've seen incomplete sentences that scream "I have no clue!" Or more like "I have. No clue." LOL

    Becky, I'll take your comments no matter what name tag you're wearing. 🙂

    Ashley, I agree. If the level of control is so high that your writer has to pass through an electronic version of a third-grade English teacher, the problem isn't your writer. And while it confirms why you need a writer in the first place, it doesn't make it any easier for ANY writer to get the job done.

    Shout out well deserved, Valerie! I remember one particularly nasty discussion with a client – he ran the edits past his "internal editors" (I read that to mean his janitor and receptionist). He pitched six fits and dropped me. Sorry, dude. Not my fault, especially given that you kept refusing my edits and losing the relevant ones.

    Jen, perfect! Understand the rules before you break them – exactly!