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How to tell someone they’re wrong

The word wrong on a Scrabble board When is it a good idea to correct your boss? A fellow editor recently recounted the story of a teacher she knew who had been asked by the school principal to capitalise every instance of the word maths in her student reports.

While the teacher was fairly certain the requested change was incorrect, she wanted to be certain before going back to her boss. So she asked her editor friend for advice. While the teacher was right (‘maths’ is not a proper noun and therefore shouldn’t be capitalised) she was placed in the unenviable position of having to either correct someone in a senior position, or make a change she knew to be plain wrong.

As an editor, I have the luxury of being able to suggest changes, based on my professional expertise, but leave it to the client to decide whether they wish to accept them. I also rely on tools such as dictionaries, style manuals and even the client’s own style guide to support my recommendations. But ultimately it’s the client’s document, not mine, so the final decision always rests with them.

The teacher’s concern was that many of the parents reading the reports would see this error, and this would reflect poorly on her.

For her the issue was not so much a debate over what is correct and what isn’t, but how to respond to a request from a manager she does not agree with.

Having the facts is one thing, but how you use these facts also matters. As an editor, I find it important to provide a rationale for my suggested changes if I think it might not be immediately obvious, and to do so in a way that is not likely to offend. This could be as simple as noting the change is consistent with the current edition of the Macquarie Dictionary or, in circumstances that are less black and white, highlighting a precedent (such as other publications) or a convention I have applied.

Unfortunately, this can come across as passive-aggressive when you’re not acting in the capacity of a professional editor. Instead you could try something along the lines of ‘I thought perhaps it was capitalised too, but I was speaking to an editor friend the other day, and…’ By avoiding making it a challenge to the other person’s ego they are less likely to get defensive and dig in their heels.

Another factor is who is ultimately responsible for the content. If your name is directly associated with the content, it is reasonable to politely but firmly request editorial control. If not, you may have to cede this power to whoever is ultimately taking responsibility.

Also, how important is the change in the overall scheme of things? If it relates to a stylistic choice rather than a clear error, it might be better to let it go and instead conserve your energy for more important battles.

If you are going to argue the toss, so to speak, here are a few tips to keep in mind:

  • cite grammar rules where they are applicable (always double-check the rule first, however, as often these rules are misapplied)
  • use relevant examples to support your case
  • always remain polite and be tactful – it’s easier for someone to accept your argument if they don’t feel they are losing face
  • be prepared to walk away if you’re not ultimately responsible.

Photo credit: simmons.kevin4208 ‘Wrong’ via photopin (license)

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