Alright, grey, judgement, barbeque: Alternate spellings and how to choose the best one
Posted by June on June 20, 2022
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Can you wear a grey shirt to a back yard barbeque if, in your judgement, it seems alright because your accoutrements match the ambiance? Not on my watch.

Grey, barbeque, back yard, judgement, alright, accoutrements and ambiance are just a few of the terms I change on sight — not because they’re wrong but because these alternate spellings are considered subpar in the world of professional editing.

English has lots of words you can spell two ways. In some cases, one spelling is strongly preferred. In other cases, both are equally good.

But in the publishing world, you can’t just pick one based on your mood — even if it’s correct. The reason? A newspaper or book can’t have barbeque in one paragraph, BBQ in another and barbecue on the next page. Inconsistencies like that are sloppy and unprofessional. For editors, there’s usually just one right choice. So how do we know which spelling to use? Two ways: style guides and dictionary cues.

The Associated Press Stylebook makes the call on certain words for news media that follow AP style. For example, if you look up “barbeque” in the AP guide, you’ll see “barbecue … not barbeque, Bar-B-Q or BBQ.” That doesn’t mean that “barbeque” is wrong. It means it’s wrong in AP style. It also means that your reader is accustomed to seeing news outlets spell it with a C, so if you spell it with a Q, it will seem a little unprofessional. Here's a look at other alternate spellings in my recent column.

Empty sentences and how to fix them
Posted by June on June 13, 2022
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One of the biggest problems I see in marketing pieces I edit isn’t subject-verb agreement or apostrophe abuse or “forego” in place of “forgo.” It’s empty sentences.

Marketing copy is especially prone to empty sentences. The writer is trying to convince you to buy something. But he can’t say, “Just buy this thing.” He must build a case — show you why some product or service or idea is worth your money or time. And that’s where writers can fall short, stringing together words that, instead of giving the reader real information, say nothing more than “Blah, blah, blah, buy this thing we’re selling.”

A passive reader just hears the “blah blah.” A close reader homes in on the meaninglessness at the heart of the sentence. Either way, the writer fails.

Here, slightly disguised, are some real examples of empty sentences I’ve come across recently.

The strength of investor, developer and tenant demand for retail space was strong in 2021. There are a couple things to dislike about this sentence, but pare it down and you’ll see that the basic subject is “the strength” and the predicate is “is strong.” The reader already knows strength is strong. You can fix this one easily by chopping off the first three words of the sentence.

The fear of saying something that might upset the grieving family may make you feel uncomfortable. Got that? Fear, an innately uncomfortable feeling, may make you feel uncomfortable. This sentence needs an overhaul. Start by asking whether “fear” makes a good subject. It does not because you’re not really making a point about fear, so you have nothing to say in the predicate. The issue isn’t what fear does. It’s the fear itself. So make that the point: “You fear you’ll say something that might upset the grieving family.”

Here are some more in my recent column.

Is it true you should avoid adverbs?
Posted by June on June 6, 2022
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A lot of people go on and on about why writers should avoid adverbs. A lot of other people go on and on about how stupid the first group’s advice is, citing countless examples of adverbs used by the best writers. Often they cite examples of the anti-adverbs people using adverbs.

Who’s right? They both are. Who’s wrong? They both are. And the whole stupid argument occurs only because the anti-adverbs people overstated their case or the anti-anti-adverbs people took the other guys out of context.

When a writing teacher tells students to avoid adverbs, there’s a good reason. That teacher has seen how adverbs undermine amateur writers' work.

But taken too seriously, the “avoid adverbs” is silly. Adverbs exist for a reason.

Put every manner adverb to the “take it out” test. If, by taking the adverb out of the sentence, you lose nothing, keep it out. If, on the other hand, you lose some important bit of information, then by all means put the adverb back in.

Here are some real examples of one amateur writer’s adverbs that add nothing.

“Relentlessly, people began to pour out of the black mouth of the building.”

“Gus quickly grabbed his flamethrower.”

“Gus looked down at the small creature that had recently tried to end his life.”

“Gus watched the reflections from the city’s streetlights float across the windshield for several blocks before he finally spoke.”

“Jackson is currently president and CEO of Widgets, Inc.”

By deleting “relentlessly,” “quickly,” “recently,” “finally,” and “currently” from the above sentences, you lose nothing. In fact, the streamlined effect you get is actually a gain, giving the remaining words greater impact.

When you apply the "take it out" test, you benefit from the wisdom of both warring parties without falling into a stupid debate.

The couple is or the couple are?
Posted by June on May 30, 2022
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The couple is going to purchase the house? Or the couple are going to purchase the house? Even after all my years of editing, I can still get tripped up trying to make verbs agree with collective nouns like “couple,” “team” and “majority.”

Collective nouns are singular in form, “a team,” but refer to a group of two or more people or things. In other words, they’re singular and plural at the same time. And since verbs are supposed to agree in number with their subjects — one cat is, two cats are — the roughly 200 collective nouns in our language cause a lot of confusion.

Compare:

The family is gathering at the park. The family are all accountants.

The staff is well trained. The staff are experts in customer service.

The choir is excellent. The choir are arguing among themselves.

The majority is powerful. The majority are enrolled full time.

Sometimes collective nouns seem to make more sense as plurals, while other times they make more sense as singulars. When you’re trying to write grammatically, that seems like a problem. But it’s not, because the rule is: If you mean it as a plural, it’s plural. If you mean it as a singular, it’s singular.

In most cases, this hinges on whether the individuals in your collective are acting collectively — the orchestra is playing Tuesday — or they’re acting individually — the orchestra are tuning their instruments.

With collective nouns, consistency counts. Here's my recent column explaining how to master them.