LABELS: COPY EDITING, GRAMMAR, PUNCTUATION
I've gone soft on semicolons. For years, my position on these strange little squiggles has been as follows: I hate them.
I have good reason.
Semicolons don't come up much in my editing work. Most writers don't bother with them. Perhaps they understand how useful semicolons are not. Or maybe they're unsure how to use them and figure, "Hey, I've gotten this far without using semicolons. Why learn now?"
But the writers who do use semicolons — well, they're the reason I hate semicolons. Here's an excerpt from an article I edited in which the writer quotes a therapist at a spa. "'Now shower; and your skin will feel like new,' she said."
In that sentence, you could replace the semicolon with a period and start a new sentence. Or you could use a comma. Or you could use nothing. That raises the question: Why did the writer use the semicolon? I explore that question in full here.
LABELS: COPY EDITING, GRAMMAR, hyphens, WHEN TO HYPHENATE PREFIXES
Rules for hyphenating prefixes are all over the map, and they vary for prefix to prefix and from style to style: a pre-2010 preapproval for a coauthor and his co-publisher was nonbinding for non-natives. Those are all right. Unless your document is going to be published in a book, news media, or some outlet that aims to emulate one of those, you don't need to check a style book for every single prefix. Instead, here's a simple guide: If it looks okay without a hyphen, don't hyphenate it. If it looks funny without one, then hyphenate.
Pre1950? Of course not. You'd hyphenate that.
Exboss? Looks weird without a hyphen.
Copublisher? You could do that, I suppose. But it looks so much like the first syllable would be pronounced "cop" that a hyphen is a good call.
Sometimes it's a matter of opinion. I don't like "coworker" without a hyphen, so I hyphenate it. Others disagree, and that's okay, too.
Think of the closed form as your default. Use the hyphen only when that seems too odd. You'll be hyphenating prefixes as well as anyone.
LABELS: COPY EDITING, GRAMMAR, SUBORDINATE CLAUSES
A recent column of mine turned into a case study in ugly sentences. Here's the sentence that inspired it, plucked from none other than the pages of the New York Times. (Yes, they're good. But no one's so good they don't crank out a stinker every once in a while).
“That a hacking operation that Washington is convinced was orchestrated by Moscow would obtain malware from a source in Ukraine — perhaps the Kremlin’s most bitter enemy — sheds considerable light on the Russian security services’ modus operandi in what Western intelligence agencies say is their clandestine cyberwar against the United States and Europe.”
When you're confronted with a sentence this bad, you can either do the sane thing and just move on to the next sentence. Or you can do the insane thing and stare at it transfixed till you've come to understand what makes it so ugly. Guess which one of those two things I did.
It always surprises me when longtime writers don't know this one: a nice wine complements a meal. It doesn't compliment it.
I understand the attraction of using "compliment" here. Something that goes well with something else kind of flatters it. And flattery is akin to paying someone a compliment. But that's not what people mean when they talk about foods that go well together or furniture or colors.
The complement with the e in the middle is actually an extension of the idea of completing something. So a nice wine completes the meal and a nice piece of wall art completes the room. Yes, they flatter them, too. But just remember that if they go well together there's an e in the middle: The rug complements the room. If one says something nice to another there's an i in the middle: Beth complimented Erin's haircut. And two things that go well together are complementary while something given for free is complimentary.