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In a Nutshell...

Grammatical Hilarity: Love Stories from the Trenches

Over the years, I have worked with many professional writers. I’ve also worked with many non-writers, both professionals and regular folks. I’ve worked with people whose first language is English, and those who have English as a learning language. Personally, I love writing and editing. More than that, I simply love words. I love communicating, and I love how people communicate.

Even when it’s clumsy, the ability to express ourselves is both necessary and it reflects something about who we are. English, as a language, is clumsy. Like the people who have spoken English across the ages and around the world, the language itself is filled with diverse words from other times and places, and from other languages.

We have many acceptable ways of constructing sentences, and strange rules of which there are always exceptions – which most of us average language users cannot explain, or even remember half the time!

English has a huge number of adjectives (describing words) to convey practically the same idea. Why did I use the word “huge” in the previous sentence, when I could have used such synonyms (similar words) such as “large”, “humongous”, or “terrific”? And why would the synonyms “big”, “roomy”, or “jumbo”, which also basically mean “huge”, somehow be wrong – at least to me – in this context?

It’s a funny language, and this is my little love letter to this funny language of ours and to all of us who use it, some of whom I’ve had the pleasure of working with over the years.

There was a time I was helping a résumé client prepare for an important interview. I did some research on the company and decided to coach her on several strategies for handling various questions she might be given during the interview. I thought I was carefully explaining the styles of interview questions, until I noticed her face change. I asked if I had said something wrong, and she retorted, “Yes! I behave myself!” She had never heard of a “behavioural interview” before and did not know that the term applied to the technique of learning stories to determine previous experiences and competencies. We had a good laugh, and then happily, my client aced the interview and landed the job!

A very sweet and elderly client once told me that he was thinking of hiring an escort. I was quite shocked that he would share this information with me, given our business-oriented relationship and the fact that he was quite a religious man. After asking a few questions – how difficult it was to find the right words! – I came to understand that he really wanted a companion or a care aid. After clarifying that I thought those were better terms use for such a service, my client then asked me, “What is an escort, then”? I explained as quickly as possible as my client and I both turned various shades of pink and red.

Another time, I gently had to let a professional writer know that “uncanning” was not the word she meant to use, and that the actual word I believed she intended was “uncanny”.

There was another writer I worked with who wanted to share stories about living with a disability. Partway through the project, I found myself typing a very pornographic story. It was an interesting discussion, to say the least, explaining how, in my professional opinion, many people interested in stories about living with a disability would probably find such detailed descriptions of his sex life to be out of place and needlessly salacious.

My favourite story from the virtual assistant trenches involves a client who was having a big problem with his supplier. There was a disagreement about a large order and my client was furious, believing he had been shortchanged. This client had come in person to work with me at the office, as was his habit. I tried to listen and calm him down so we could write the letter he needed to send in response to this perceived discrepancy. My client, who could speak but not write English, always dictated his letters to me while I typed his documents.

This day, I typed while he intermittently yelled at the computer screen. I had never seen him so angry. We reached a point where he shouted the following sentence: “Rest assured, I will sue you!”. I stopped typing. I said, “Sir,” (I always called him Sir and he liked it), “I think there may be a better way to say this part.” He became indignant, insisting that this was exactly what he wanted to say. Finally, I was able to communicate that he really wouldn’t want his enemy to “rest, assured” ever. He would want his enemy to be very worried about what might happen.

My client began to laugh. All the stress was gone from his face and voice. “You do understand me,” he said with a smile. “Yes,” I said, also smiling. “I think I do!”

Someone I once knew insisted that a communicator is solely responsible for how a message is received. She seemed to have no understanding that the listener may be affected by mood, hunger, time strain, triggered memories or any other possible factors. Although we do need to be careful in how we use words, the tone we may be using them in, and the timing of delivery, communication is a two-way experience, completely interactive and unique – whether spoken or written.

I hope you have enjoyed my experiences, because I have enjoyed sharing them. It’s truly a pleasure working with people in a service capacity, and I look forward to experiencing many more serendipitous misinterpretations and misuses of this crazy language I love so much.

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