Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Necessarily humbled

Years ago I composed something at work where I hyphenated an adverb and an adjective. I don't even remember what the two words in question were, only that the first ended in "ly" (and thus I figure it must have been an adverb). When I had a co-worker (with whom I got along well, and still do) look it over prior to being distributed, he identified that in American English we don't hyphenate after a word ending in "ly" (unlike, as I was thinking at the time, our British friends).

[This wasn't it, but the best my mind can muster at the moment as an example: "The wrongly accused man was given a financial settlement"; not "The wrongly-accused man…."]

My co-worker didn't present the correction in any sort of condescending way. It wasn't questioning my intelligence in any way; it was only exactly what I had asked him to do: find anything that wasn't correct. He knew me well enough to know it was a mere momentary mental slip, and I knew that he knew that.

Nonetheless, I remember in that moment that he mentioned it I blurted out an excuse for why I may have done it—something about having been reading a lot of books written by Brits, where I must have seen such usage of hyphenation. However, I'm pretty sure that was not why I did it. Frankly, it was probably an exaggeration, if not an out-and-out lie. He nodded in acknowledgment, clearly not having needed any explanation. The error was easily dismissed and easily corrected in the document, and no damage was incurred to my reputation in his mind I'm sure.

Clearly I felt compelled to offer some explanation to justify the error even though it was not warranted, nor was it necessary. It served only to ostensibly assuage damage I inflicted on my own ego, even though obviously I didn't delude myself well enough that the excuse given really explained it. In the end, it merely exacerbated the shame in my mind, as I transformed a minor style faux pas into an abject mistruth.

I've made plenty of other mistakes in the years since that incident (although never that one again), but those don't stick in my mind like this one. With those I undoubtedly offered appreciation for the note, made no excuse, made the correction, and moved on. Likely due to the lingering shame over how I handled this incident, I learned that the best way to get over mistakes is to keep ego out of it as much as possible.


Only someone who was pretty well-informed about language would have even caught that sort of style error, so he was a good candidate for proofreading. That was probably also why it had such a powerful effect on me: His was an opinion worth valuing.

Likely the reason my ego was thusly impugned was I should have known that. Heck, somewhere in the recesses of my brain I probably did know that but didn't think of it when I was writing. It didn't make me any worse a person than any of the myriad other mistakes I've made. Consciously I know that. However, subconsciously I knew I should have known better.

And now I do.

Well, I've never tried to hyphenate an adverb and adjective since that incident. I haven't moved to the UK or anything like that. (I need to figure out whether it's really stylistically appropriate there first.)

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