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Triage

Copy editors’ job description is unusual in that the whole point of the profession is to deliver perfection. But no item of text that has ever gone to print could be called perfect. Something could always be improved—an error could have been cleaned up, an infelicitous phrasing could have been avoided, the perfect word could have been substituted for one that merely gets the job done.

There are two reasons that copy editors cannot deliver perfection, much as we strive to: 1. We are human, and 2. We have deadlines. So for an imperfect world, there’s triage.

I often tell people at parties who haven’t heard of my job that I fix spelling and punctuation, but actually those concerns are shockingly far down on my list of priorities, which looks something like this:

  1. Do not introduce any errors. (This is so far ahead of all the others in importance that I’m tempted to list it 10 times and assign all other tasks numbers starting with 11.)
  2. Correct any factual errors I can find.
  3. Make sure everything in headlines and all other large text is accurate and spelled correctly.
  4. Make sure nothing in headlines or other large text sounds dirty (unless it’s supposed to).
  5. Make sure everything in large text clearly communicates the point of the story and will draw the reader in.
  6. Clarify any ambiguous text.
  7. Smooth out any unreadably awkward text (garden-path sentences, unclear antecedents and so on.)
  8. Fix spelling and homophone errors.
  9. Fix usage errors such as dangling modifiers.
  10. Keep text in compliance with style guides.
  11. Commas and junk.

Understand, of course, that I never knowingly let an error through. I do not even let through any deviations from wholly arbitrary conventions I’ve been asked to uphold, if I can help it. If I have time to worry about how the AP Stylebook feels about adviser vs. advisor (it likes adviser), I will. If I have a chance to consult Garner on the subject of joining two short independent clauses with a conjunction but no comma, I will. Because I’m a perfectionist—I don’t think you can do this job if you’re not—and I correct these things just for the satisfaction of knowing I’ve done my job well.

But I’m not blessed with infinite time and an unending attention span, so if I can’t catch everything then, by god, I’m going to catch the most important stuff.

So I’d a million times rather let through a hideous typo than a factual error of any importance, rather allow a greengrocer’s apostrophe than have a writer’s meaning be lost or confused, rather permit a sea of ugly jargon (with definitions, of course) than replace it with one ambiguous layman’s term. In my line of work, the beauty of the language is always firmly secondary to its accuracy, though of course we aim for both.

Even within these guidelines, I perform additional triage. I’d rather allow a typo in a lead paragraph than a headline, or in the fifth paragraph than the first. I’d rather miss a dangling modifier where the meaning is nonetheless clear than one that will baffle the reader. I’d rather throw in some extraneous hyphens than create a misunderstanding through their omission.

Because it’s obvious what ought to be important to a journalistic editor. Text must be: 1. correct, 2. clear, and a distant 3. in compliance with accepted rules of formal writing.

A good editor is more than just an expert on the language, more even than someone who knows what they don’t know. A good editor accepts that they cannot achieve perfection and knows which errors it is essential to prevent and which, if missed, alter nothing of consequence.

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Insure vs. Ensure

When do I use “insure” and when do I use “ensure”? I can never remember which is which.

Well, there’s a pretty good reason that you find them confusing. Technically, they started out as just variant spellings of one another, so they meant the same thing. And some sources will tell you that insure can still mean to make certain of something, especially by taking precautions.

But generally, nowadays, your safest bet is to use insure only if money has changed hands and complicated policies have been signed. Ensure is for any other situation, when you’re making sure of something but not contracting with someone to pay you if things go wrong.

If you’re looking for a mnemonic, try thinking that ensure is for “make sure,” which has two E’s but no I’s, and insure is for when there’s a policy.

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What Should I Do With the Joneses’ Stuff?

Say you have a name that ends in S, like Millis. If Ms. Millis owns something, like a book, is it Ms. Millis’ book or Ms. Millis’s book?

The short answer is “consult your style guide.”

Style guides exist precisely to make a ruling on issues like this, where there’s more than one acceptable answer and someone needs to pick one so everyone can just get on with their lives. If you don’t have a style guide, that’s fine: As long as you’re consistent, it doesn’t matter which rule you choose to follow in ambiguous matters like these, so just pick one that pleases you.

The long answer is that there’s a few schools of thought here. There are some style guides at each extreme—never add another S or always add another S—and both camps prioritize ease of remembering the rule over what the sentence might sound like if read aloud. That’s totally fine, and people will understand what you mean either way, so if you just want a rule you never have to think about, go with one of those. Personally, if I had to pick between these two, I’d say always add an apostrophe-S because I think the visual makes it more obvious to the reader.

Some style guides advocate a more nuanced approach, which makes the text easier to read aloud or attempts to varnish over a fundamentally arbitrary convention with something that looks vaguely like logic. The Chicago Manual of Style, for example, once had one set of rules for your average, everyday proper names, but a different set for historical figures, so it would be “Ms. Millis’s book” but “Moses’ book.” That book has since since simplified its rules considerably, to the relief of many.

I like an approach with a little nuance here, and my personal favorite is the one advocated in the house style guide at my current employer: Use apostrophe-S if the result is pronounceable; if it isn’t, just add an apostrophe. This, I think, makes the text easy to read without requiring editors to memorize a list of exceptions. It may result in occasional variations between editors, but readers are unlikely to notice.*

One important exception: When the proper noun ends in S because it’s plural, just add an apostrophe, like you would for any other plural noun. So it would be “the Joneses’ house” or “the Smiths’ garden.”

*Any who do notice should reward themselves with a bit of chocolate and a moment of silent self-congratulation. Letters to the editor on topics such as these go straight into the circular file.

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“Dreamt” Philosophy

This seems like a basic question, and easily google’d, but where’s the fun in that? My question is this: if I were to say “I’m going to be ____ at the stake,” which is the proper word to use? “Burnt” at the stake doesn’t sound right, but neither does “burned.”

–Anna

Well, it might not be so easy to google as you’d hope, because actually either is acceptable.

“Burned” and “burnt” are two equally good ways to form the past participle of “burn.” The -t ending is just a variant of the -ed ending that reflects how -ed tends to get pronounced after short vowels. Some words, like slept and felt, always form the past participle with -t; some, like beamed or jumped, never do; and some can take either ending equally well, like burned/burnt, dreamed/dreamt, or leaped/leapt.

These -t endings are somewhat more common in British English than American English, although the -ed endings certainly also exist in BrE, just as the -t ones do in AmE. Learnt, spoilt, and spelt (as the past tense of spelled, not the grain), for example, are all more common in BrE.

So whenever a word has two perfectly cromulent past participles, I recommend trusting your ear. After decades of experience with your native tongue, you are eminently qualified to pick between two correct options.

Although personally, I think I’d say “burnt.”

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He or Him?

This morning I wrote this, prompting one of my readers to send me an angry email:

“Aramis Ramirez was hit by a pitch yesterday for the 100th time as a major leaguer, making he and Rickie Weeks just the fourth pair of 100 HBP teammates in major league history.”

I think their primary concern was the “he” in the middle. Was I wrong here? If so, what should I have done?

Kyle Lobner

I’m a little sorry to have to side with your reader here, but they have a point. That he should really have been him.

While the sentence is not overcomplicated, there is enough going on that it’s easy to lose track of what’s happening. The best way to see which pronoun you need is to drop out as many words as possible, including the other person:

Aramis Ramirez was hit, making he the fourth…

When you pare it down like that, it sounds weird, right? What’s happening is that he is the object of the verb make, but he is the pronoun you use for subjects. Him is the objective case, so that’s the one you need.

A lot of people have trouble with this kind of thing, especially when a single verb applies to more than one person. I think what happens is that schoolkids are frequently told not to say, “Me and Joe went to the store,” or “Her and him are friends,” in favor of the more strictly correct “Joe and I” or “she and he.” But after years of making yourself use the subject pronoun, even when it goes against your instinct, you start to do it reflexively. Sure, maybe it sounds a little stiff, but it often does, so you ignore the little voice that says, “That doesn’t sound right.” Which leads to mistakes like this one.

As for why I’m reluctant to side with your reader, well, I’m reluctant to side with anyone who thinks a little error like this one is cause for outrage. Especially when the errors are made by people, like bloggers, who don’t have editors trailing after them to tighten up the nuts and bolts of their prose.

So, Kyle, in the spirit of your Brewers blog, I recommend that the next time your readers spot an error in a post, they take in a ballgame and a brewski before writing in.

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What the…?!

When ending a sentence where you want to add a question mark and an exclamation mark at the end, is it “?!” or “!?”? I always use the latter because I feel it looks better, but I see the first version used most of the time. Is the question mark plus exclamation point even acceptable?

–Brian

Someone else asked me this same question on Twitter, and I was surprised to get it twice because I had frankly never really thought about it.

My first reaction was, “Nah, there’s no rule about that.” But just to be sure, I consulted Garner’s Modern American Usage, the AP Stylebook, the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, and the Chicago Manual of Style. They were nearly all mum on the subject. The closest thing I found to an answer was in Chicago:

“If a question mark and an exclamation point are both called for, only the mark more appropriate to the context should be used.” –CMoS 15, 6.123

Doubling up on punctuation like that is a no-no in most edited writing, so that’s why there’s no rule about what order the exclamation point and question mark should be in.

But that doesn’t mean it’s never acceptable. It’s common in casual writing—so common, in fact, that people have created a single punctuation mark that combines the two. It’s called the interrobang, and it looks like this: ‽

Furthermore, I think it’s useful to be able to use both sometimes. Let’s say you come home and find your deadbeat roommate watching a pygmy goat eat out of your open fridge. You’re angry and confused about this situation, so you say:

      A. “What the hell!”
      B. “What the hell?”
      C. “What the hell!?” or “What the hell?!”

Option A implies that your roommate’s antics are regularly so outrageous that finding an ungulate snacking on your chèvre is less mystifying than maddening, so you’re simply yelling at your roommate in a fury. Option B implies you’re saying it in an almost wondering tone, overcome by the surreality of the scene, unable yet to express the rage that will surely come later. Option C implies that you knew your roommate was an inconsiderate jerk and you wouldn’t put much past them, but they somehow managed to surprise you while simultaneously confirming the depths of scumbaggery you always suspected they possessed. If you absolutely had to, you could choose between options A and B, but dammit, sometimes you just want option C.

So when one or the other just won’t do, it’s fine to use both an exclamation point and a question mark in casual writing, and it makes no difference what order you use them in.

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The Serial Comma

The tag line in the title banner has a comma after “writing.” I thought that last comma before “and” in a list is unnecessary unless “and” is used elsewhere in the list.

For instance, I would use that last comma in a list that includes items like “oil and gas, cake and ice cream, and tractors.” However, I’d omit it a list that includes “milk, eggs and juice.”

Help?

—EdMan

The bit of punctuation that’s puzzling you is called the serial comma or the Oxford comma. Supposedly it is sometimes also called the Harvard comma, but I’ve never seen that usage in real life and I suspect some Harvard grads made it up to make themselves feel special.

The serial comma is the one that comes before “and” in a list, and the short answer is, it’s usually optional. In cases where one or more of the items includes the word “and,” like in the example you gave, you need it for the sake of clarity. It’s also often a good idea in sentences where the items listed take more than a couple words to describe. For example:

Julie went for a run through a little-frequented corner of the park, came home to whip up a batch of homemade granola for her kids’ soccer team, and retired to the garage to weld the enormous metal sculptures critics had called “nightmarish yet strangely erotic.”

The items in this list are long enough that without the comma, a reader can’t be sure at first whether the “and” will be a continuation of the current item—for example, “for her kids’ soccer team and ballet class”—or the introduction to the last one. The comma makes it clear.

In short lists, like the one in my header—”grammar, usage, style, writing, and editing”—the comma isn’t really necessary, but it isn’t hurting anything either.

This is where style guides come in. Some of them advocate using the serial comma only when it’s needed for clarity, not in simple lists. The AP Stylebook is in this camp, and part of the reason is that in newspapers, where text runs in narrow columns, a single comma can easily bump a word down to the next line and make a paragraph longer. Using a comma-light style may not make every story shorter, but it will make some shorter, which means they need less space, less ink, and less paper.

Other style guides, like the Chicago Manual of Style, say writers should always use the serial comma. Advocates argue it’s a no-muss, no-fuss rule, as it doesn’t require writers and editors to examine every sentence to see if it contains any ambiguities that could be eliminated by the serial comma. They also argue that when everyone gets in the habit of adding that comma in all cases, fewer embarrassing ambiguities will slip through. The famous sample sentence everyone gives when arguing for the routine use of the serial comma is this:

I dedicate this book to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.

Whoops! Are her parents Ayn Rand and God, or was she trying to dedicate the book to her parents, and Ayn Rand, and God? If the writer were in the habit of always using the serial comma, this wouldn’t happen.

The counterargument is that even with the serial comma, certain ambiguities will crop up, and editors will just have to watch for these no matter what comma rule they follow. Here’s another example:

[He met with] Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old-demigod and a dildo collector.

Whoa now! For want of a comma, we’ve turned Nelson Mandela into an ancient demigod and sex toy enthusiast. But wait a sec, what happens if you add the comma?

Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old-demigod, and a dildo collector

OK, um, Mandela might still be a demigod, according to this sentence. I guess that 50% less hilarious libel is an improvement, but to really solve the problem, you’d have to rewrite the sentence.

So habitually using the serial comma certainly doesn’t solve all problems of this sort, but it does take care of some of them, like in the Ayn Rand example. And not having to think about whether a sentence needs a comma is nice. And, irrationally, I just kind of like the serial comma. Which is why in the header, and in this blog, I tend to use it.

But at work I use AP style, so I don’t always use the serial comma. And as for you, if you write for a living, do whatever your style guide tells you. If you’re not a writer, use it or don’t. Either way is fine.

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Pesky Prepositions

Why, oh, why did I start this blog out with a post about prepositions when I know full well that those pesky little words are constantly setting traps for the unwary? Hubris, I suppose.

Although the point of my last post is still perfectly sound, it appears I goofed with at least one of the sample sentences I gave. @anotherlinguist helpfully pointed out to me on Twitter that in the sentence “The rain came pouring down,” down is actually functioning as an adverb, not a preposition. See, prepositions describe the relationship between two things, and that sentence doesn’t contain a second thing, an object of the preposition. So down is describing how the rain fell, not where it fell. It’s a tricky distinction, but Elizabeth O’Brien (@grammarROCKS) does a good job of breaking it down. I’m convinced of my error, so I’ve replaced that sentence in the post with a better example.

Then, to make things even more confusing, @ArrantPedantry made a reasonable argument that the would-be preposition in “Get out!” is also functioning as an adverb. In this case, I think the object is implied and out is still a preposition, but to avoid confusing readers, I’ve replaced this example in the previous post with a less ambiguous one.

All this ambiguity is itself another excellent reason to try to forget that anyone ever told you not to end a sentence with a preposition. Down, in my sample sentence, is not a preposition at all, but surely many overzealous teachers and editors would mark it as one, because they find the subject as confusing as the writers whose text they’re marking up. And in the other sample, well, if two linguists and a copy editor can’t agree on whether out is a preposition, what hope is there for a third-grader or a writer on a deadline?

Ending a sentence with a preposition is an acceptable, comprehensible part of written and spoken English, and trying to avoid it will make your writing awkward and your brain mushy. Just roll with it.

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Ending a Sentence with a Preposition

What are your feelings on terminal prepositions?

Oh, this is an easy one. The “rule” against ending a sentence with a preposition is an age-old bugaboo.

Consider these perfectly natural English sentences:

  • “Which pocket did you leave the keys in?”
  • “What exit should I get off at?”
  • “Here’s that store I told you about.”*
  • “Please, come in.”
  • “I didn’t see which street she went down.”*
  • “No, that’s not the one I was thinking of.”

Someone even invented a sentence with five terminal prepositions: A little girl asked her father to read her a bedtime story, but when he came back upstairs with the wrong book she said, “What did you bring that book I don’t want to be read to out of up for?”

OK, so that one is a bit contrived, but you see my point. Prepositions at the end of sentences are extremely common and perfectly comprehensible, and attempts to “fix” them often backfire. For example:

  • “In which pocket did you leave the keys?”
  • “At what exit should I get off the highway?”
  • “Here’s that store about which I told you.”
  • “Please, come in here.”
  • “I didn’t see down which street she went.”
  • “No, that’s not the one of which I was thinking.”
  • “For what reason did you bring up the book out of which I do not want you to read to me?”

Some of these examples are more laughable than others, but all of them result in stilted language or, at best, adding words for the sake of adding words.

In formal writing—a PhD thesis, a legal document—readers might expect you to avoid terminal prepositions, and so rather than fight with your boss and all the people who write you letters, you might give in. But know that they don’t have a leg to stand on, so you have my blessing to end a sentence with any damn thing you want.

And by the way, although it illustrates the point quite well to tell someone that this is the kind of pedantry up with which you will not put, please don’t attribute the phrase to Winston Churchill. That quote appears to be apocryphal.

Edit: The two asterisked examples were replaced after the post was originally published, for reasons I explained in a followup post.

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Welcome!

I’ve been a copy editor for 10 years, and the second thing* everyone says to me when I tell them what I do is, “Can I ask you something?” And then they ask me all kinds of questions—tough questions, easy questions, common questions, weird questions, questions about things their third-grade teacher told them, questions that are really just rants in disguise.

Strangely enough, I love it. I love the language, and I love what I do, so I really enjoy using the guise of helping people to blather on about, say, the finer points of punctuation. So now, out of the goodness of my heart, I’m answering your questions for free on the internet.

Go ahead. Ask me something.

*The first thing is, “Oh, I better watch how I speak around you.” Let me tell you now, you should stop worrying. Editing is my job, and I don’t work for free, so I promise I’m not secretly judging you if you make any mistakes.

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