A Dead Giveaway in a Headline
Posted by June on February 23, 2015


People sometimes ask me whether, as an editor and grammar buff, I'm constantly annoyed by errors -- so much so that it sucks all the pleasure out of reading. This usually comes from people who themselves are driven nuts by the many typos they see in print and figure I must have an acute case of the same ailment.

My answer is always: kind of. I am sometimes distracted by errors, but reading for content, which I do in my own time, is very different from proofreading. My mind's in a whole different place, so little typos don't demand too much of my attention.

Headlines are different. When I'm looking at the headline for an article, my brain hasn't yet fully kicked in to reader gear. So that's probably why the most distracting things to me when I read are miscapitalized headlines.

I can sometimes tell right away whether a pro edited an article just by how its headline is capitalized. As you've probably noticed, most places capitalize the first letter of most words in headlines, but not all. Little words like "in," "at," "and," and "the" usually start with lowercase letters even when the other words in the headline start with caps.

People used to seeing this style guess that the criteria for deciding whether to lowercase a first letter of a word in a headline is all about size: Little words can start with lowercase letters. But that's not true.

In the most standard editing styles, "in" starts with a lowercase letter, but "is" doesn't. Neither does "it." The difference? "It" is a pronoun, "is" is a noun, and "in" is a preposition. Pronouns and nouns have important jobs in a sentence. They're the actors and the actions. Prepositions are less consequential. That's why most style guides follow a headline style of lowercasing the first letter of short prepositions, but not of pronouns or nouns: Candidate Says It's in the Bag.

And that's something only pros seem to know.

Hyphens in Complicated Compounds
Posted by June on February 16, 2015


Just another of my pet peeves: It's about the practice of using a hyphen to connect two words to make a compound adjective.  It's when one of the two components being connected is actually a term of two or more words. ... I say that a hyphen should also be added between the two words in the term, because leaving it out results in inaccuracy. What actually gets said is different from what the writer meant.  Here's some actual examples I've seen in print lately, why they're bad, and how it's better to add the extra hyphen.

1.  "olive tree-shaded back patio"

This phrase, as written, says "a patio that is shaded by trees and is also olive-colored".  The patio surely is not colored olive.  The intent was to say that the patio is shaded by an olive tree.

2.  "greasy spoon-inspired plates"  [I expect you to smile about this one!]

This phrase, as written, says "plates that are inspired by spoons and are also greasy".  I am 100% sure that those plates were not inspired by spoons!  The intent was to say that the meals were inspired by the kind of food at roadside diners.


I agree. Greasy spoon-inspired plates needs another hyphen.

For "The Best Punctuation Book, Period" I specifically researched this stuff. I found that pretty much none of the major authorities addresses this issue at all. They just sort of leave people to guess. That's why I'm curious if you've ever seen documented rules to the contrary.

As for all-day/all-night diner, I asked four working copy editors to choose between "30-day-dry-aged beef" and "30-day dry-aged beef." They split 50-50. When the scope of the modifier is uncertain, I think it should be decided by the writer or editor's intent and desired emphasis.

Hyphens Editors Can't Agree On
Posted by June on February 9, 2015


Some rules were meant to be broken. But other rules can be a comfort. Sometimes you don’t want to decide for yourself whether a comma adds a certain je ne sais quoi to a sentence. You just want a simple rule to tell you whether to use one so you can focus on the actual content of your writing.

It doesn’t always go that way. Yes, there are some very clear rules in the punctuation world. But just outside their borders is a punctuation no-man’s land where rules can be murky or even nonexistent.

When I wrote my punctuation book, I wanted to offer some help in these areas, so I did the whole fools-rush-in thing, looking at areas where there were no clear rules. But instead of offering my own opinions, I asked some working editors how they would punctuate certain sentences. Sometimes, they all agreed. Other times, they didn’t. Here are some notable matters on which they split.

Commas around too, either, and also:

I like it, too. / I like it too.

I too saw that movie./ I, too, saw that movie.

I didn’t see that movie, either./ I didn’t see that movie either.

He wrote “Love Story,” also. / He wrote “Love Story” also.


Comma after a title of work that includes an exclamation point or question mark.

Shows playing this week include “Greg London: Impressions that Rock!,” “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” and “Jersey Boys.”  /  Shows playing this week include “Greg London: Impressions that Rock!” “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and “Jersey Boys.” 


Possessive apostrophe inside quote marks designating a title of a work. 

“Casablanca’s” best scene / “Casablanca”’s best scene


Hyphen in compound adjective after a linking verb. This is an interesting one, because AP style talks specifically about hyphens in compounds after the verb “be.” “This dessert is guilt-free,” the guide says, should probably be hyphenated. But there’s no discussion of any other linking verbs like seem, appear, taste, etc. No surprise, then, that editors split.

This dessert seems guilt-free./ This dessert seems guilt free.

The target looks bullet-riddled. / The target looks bullet riddled.

This meat tastes hickory-smoked. / This meat tastes hickory smoked.

He feels honor-bound. / He feels honor bound.

She appears quick-thinking. / She appears quick thinking.



When to Use "Inc.," a State, or a Year
Posted by June on February 2, 2015


Writers sometimes don’t know when to include a state after a city, a year after a specific date, or an “Inc.” after a company name. The answer, oversimplified, is: only when it’s necessary.

News media usually don’t include years for dates in the past 12 months or the next 12 months. So a speech that took place 11 months ago would say the date only, “The president spoke on March 1 to congress.” That’s because events, in news media, are presumed to mean the most recent occurrence of that date unless specified otherwise: “The president spoke on March 1, 2009, to congress.” Ditto that for upcoming dates. If it’s happening in next 364 days, no need to state the year: “The concert will take place March 1.” And that’s true even if you’re writing about it in February of 2015 but it doesn’t happen till January of 2016. That will, in fact, be the next January. So no need to mention the year.

“Inc.” and other legal designations after company names are less necessary than a lot of writers realize. Sure, the company might like you to write their name exactly as they say. But unless you’re working for them, you don’t have to. The New York Times talks about Coca-Cola and Apple and General Motors without mentioning their incorporation status – or including ugly registered or trademark symbols. If they can, so can you.

As for state names after city names: Have you ever noticed a sentence like this? “The meeting will be held in Atlanta, which is a change from previous years in which it was held in Austin, Texas.” That is, have you noticed how sometimes states are included after city names and other times they’re not? A lot of publications designate certain cities as “standalone cities.” They’re the big ones – New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, Dallas, San Francisco, London, Paris and so on – chosen because they’re immediately known to most readers with no mention of the state or country required. They’re pre-designated, for consistency’s sake. And the system works out really well, when you think about it: If you mention Paris without the country, readers correctly assume you mean Paris, France, and not Paris, Texas.

In all these cases, you can see the same general idea: omit needless stuff. If it's not necessary, then it's just clutter.