September 27, 2021

Real editing notes I gave to real writers

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There’s a lot more to bad writing than missed commas and subject-verb agreement errors. In fact, most of the problems I fix in my editing work have nothing to do with grammar, spelling or punctuation. Instead, a huge number of the mistakes writers make involve things like logic, clarity and remembering the reader.

Here are some real notes I’ve given to writers in recent years, along with some disguised excerpts from the articles they wrote. Hopefully, these comments can give anyone a little added insight into their own writing.

“Avoid sentences with an empty main clause.” This note was inspired by a writer who penned a sentence like “The Acme Hotel is a nice hotel.” Strip that sentence down to its bare bones and you have “the hotel is a hotel.” Duh. Often, the solution for a sentence like this is to change the grammar so the structure isn’t “The noun is a noun.” In this case, the obvious alternative is “The noun is adjective.” In some sentences, this works great. Like “The hotel is a luxurious hotel” can be simplified to “The hotel is luxurious.” But that works only because “luxurious” has substance. “Nice” does not. So rather than changing this to “The Acme Hotel is nice,” the writer needed to find something substantive to say, like “The Acme Hotel offers spacious rooms with luxury linens and widescreen TVs.”

“Translate business-speak into terms meaningful to the reader.” If you’re writing for an airline industry trade magazine, it may be fine to say, “ABC Airlines’ SkySuite product is generally regarded as one of the best first-class products.” But if your reader is a traveler wondering whether to splurge on a first-class seat, this won’t fly. Travelers don’t think of their onboard experience as a “product,” and they may not get too excited about how it’s “generally regarded.” The fix here: Make it about the reader and give hard facts so they can decide for themselves how great it is. “When you fly ABC Airlines first class, you’ll enjoy a fully enclosed private bedroom suite, signature caviar service and meals prepared by a Michelin-starred chef.”

Here are more in my recent column.

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September 20, 2021

May 21–28 or May 21 to 28?

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A good portion of my time every week is spent reading and changing sentences like this:

“The festival runs May 21-28 with the gates open every day from 10 a.m.-8 p.m.”

What’s wrong with that, you ask? Well, nothing, technically. Except that in professionally edited articles, hyphens and dashes aren’t words. Sentences are supposed to flow, almost like live conversations. And for both these reasons, I consider the hyphens in that sentence to be really bad choices.

“The festival runs May 21-28” would be spoken as either “The festival runs May 21 TO May 28” or “The festival runs May 21 THROUGH May 28.” Either way, the thought is represented by a real world and not some little symbol trying to pinch hit.

It’s similar to the reason that we never use ampersands to stand in for the word “and.” Sure, if an ampersand shows up in a proper name, like Harry & David, we leave it. But editors never use it as a word.

Most editing styles, including the ones I follow in my work, aim for a smooth visual flow of words. That’s why capital letters are kept to a minimum and initials in place of real words are discouraged. And to me, that’s another good reason to just use the word “to” or “through.” It’s just more digestible in running text.

Of course, outside of running text, hyphens or dashes can be used to indicate a date or time range. For example, in lists and charts. But in a sentence in the middle of an article, I believe words should be written as words.

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September 15, 2021

'Well' isn't always an adverb, 'myriad' isn't always a noun ...

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You learned about the parts of speech in grade school. Dog is a noun. Play is a verb. Quick is an adjective. Adverbs end in ly.

Now that you’re grown up, you can handle the unvarnished truth: Language, like life, isn’t so simple. Dog is both a noun and a verb. Play can also be a noun. Quick can be used as an adverb. Many adverbs don’t end in ly, like fast, and many words that end in ly are not adverbs, like family and lovely. Verbs come in different forms, including transitive, intransitive and linking. Adverbs come in different forms, like manner adverbs and sentence adverbs.

Ours is a complicated language. If we don’t understand word categories, we can fall victim to these common misperceptions: myriad can’t be used as a noun; impact can’t be used as a verb; like can’t be used as a conjunction; good can’t be used as an adverb; well is necessarily an adverb; hopefully is a manner adverb.

Here's my recent column explaining why these common myths don't give you the whole story.

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September 7, 2021

Redundancies can kill your writing

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Here's a sentence from an article I was editing while back: "What's more — aside from a specialized curriculum — private schools are notoriously known for their smaller classrooms."

It's the kind of sentence that might not command much attention from the reader. It gets the job done, sort of. But upon closer inspection, it's a train wreck.

The sentence starts with "What's more." That's a way of saying "additionally" or "also." There's nothing wrong with that, especially in speech and casual writing. But this isn't the kind of thing you see much in published writing and there's a reason for that: It's inefficient. Sure, sometimes a phrase like this can tell you it's a big deal that the information to follow comes on top of some information already expressed. But in most cases, there's no reason to tell readers that fact two comes in addition to fact one. They can see that and they can decide for themselves whether it's a big deal.

The next part of our sentence, "aside from specialized curriculum," we can tell is a capsule of something that must have been stated earlier in the article. Without seeing any more of the article, you and I can glean that, at some point, the writer said that private schools often have specialized curricula. Does that mean we're psychic? Nope. It means the writer is repeating herself. And that means she's wasting our time.

Consider this passage: "Oatmeal is nutritious. Aside from being nutritious, oatmeal is also delicious." That "aside from" phrase wastes the reader's time. Worse, empty, meaningless passages create a sort of droning effect that suggests that maybe you don't have much to say, so your just kind of blah-blahing on the page.

The last part of our sentence contains the most serious offense: "private schools are notoriously known for their smaller classrooms." No, it's not the passive "are known."

The problem in this clause is "notoriously known." That's pure nonsense. It's also toxic to the piece. The writer is sending the message, "I'm not paying attention to my words" and the reader gets the message "... so neither should you."

There are two problems with "notoriously known." "Notorious," according to "Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary," means "generally known and talked of; especially: widely and unfavorably known." So "notoriously known" is redundant. It's also misleading, suggesting that private schools' smaller class sizes are viewed unfavorably.

Despite all the problems with this monster sentence, editing it couldn't have been easier. All I had to do was look for the real information and chop out the rest. When I was done, the 16-word sentence was a more efficient nine-word machine: Private schools are known for their smaller class sizes.

Interestingly, this awfully written sentence was not the offspring of an awful writer. The rest of the article was pretty good, with a lot of very solid sentences. That tells me that anyone can pen a terrible sentence from time to time. So, by forming the habit of seeking out and chopping out meaningless words and nonsense, we can all improve our writing.

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August 30, 2021

'Among others' should make clear: other whats?

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Every once in a while, I come across a sentence that uses “others” like this: “Smith’s poems have appeared in the New Yorker, PoetsQuarterly, and Reflections, among others.”

It’s the kind of thing that you could let slip by you a thousand times and think nothing of it till one day you pause long enough to ask: other whats? “Among others” is used as a sort of catch-all to suggest there are more than just the things listed. But it doesn’t quite work when there’s no clear thing that “other” refers to.

None of my usage guides has anything to say on the subject. So I’m left with no source but my little old self to say that this is wrong.

“Other” can be a number of different parts of speech, but in our example sentence about poems it’s functioning like a pronoun. The job of a pronoun is to stand in for a noun — preferably one the reader will immediately associate with it.

When you say a writer was published in “the New Yorker, Story Quarterly, and Reflections, among others,” there’s no noun to which "others" clearly points. We can use the term “unclear antecedent” to describe this, even though an unclear antecedent usually means sentences like “Donald and Peter got in his car,” in which it’s unclear what “his” refers to.

In our original sentence, “others” seems to refer to other publications. That’s a good clue for how to fix it: “Smith’s poems have appeared in the New Yorker, PoetsQuarterly, and Reflections, among other publications.”

In this case, we’ve swapped our pronoun “others” for its adjective form, modifying the noun “publications.”  Another approach would be to find someplace earlier in the sentence to squeeze in an antecedent: Smith’s poems have appeared in publications like the New Yorker, PoetsQuarterly, and Reflections, among others.

In my view, the original sentence has to be changed using one of these two approaches -- if not recast altogether.

Interestingly, a nearly identical sentence poses no such problem: “He has edited the work of Henry Roth, Oliver Stone, D.M. Thomas, and others.”

 What's the difference? In this case, “others” is not a pronoun. It’s a full-fledged noun. According to American Heritage Dictionary, as a noun “other” means “a different person or thing” or “an additional person or thing.” So in this case, it doesn’t need the word “person” before it to make clear it’s a person. That’s already built into the definition.

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August 23, 2021

'In regards to'?

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 If you’re ever tempted to write “in regards to,” don’t. Ditto that for “with regards to.” It’s too risky. Readers may think less of you if you do.

True, you can’t police everything you write to appease sticklers. After all, they can find fault with almost any arrangement of words. But “in regards to” and “with regards to” are more dangerous than most snob-bait phrases because they don’t seem to have any defenders.

“In regards to” and “with regards to” aren’t wrong, necessarily. Yet everyone with an opinion on the subject thinks “in regard to” and “with regard to” are better.

“The plural form (as in ‘with regards to’ and ‘in regards to’) is, to put it charitably, poor usage,” notes Garner’s Modern American Usage.

“‘In regard to.’ Often wrongly written ‘in regards to,’” notes “The Elements of Style.” Here's more expert advice in my recent column.

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August 16, 2021

Crisphead, buppie, axion and other words that haven't stood the test of time

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Lexicographers spend all day looking for new words and new ways people are using old words. They search different “corpora,” or language databases, to see how often the terms show up. Then they try to gauge whether the word has become entrenched enough to warrant a spot in the dictionary.

Often, they get it right. Other times, words don’t have quite the staying power lexicographers anticipated. Some dictionary additions that flopped in recent decades: Crisphead, buppie, axion, hahnium and digerati. Here's my recent column tracking the rise and fall of these once-promising dictionary entries.

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August 9, 2021

Should you capitalize 'city' in 'city of Boston'?

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Does your Bostonian friend hail from the City of Boston or the city of Boston?

Before you answer, here’s a hint: It depends who’s asking.

I flunked this question on an editing quiz recently. I got it wrong even though I’ve spent decades — literal decades — getting paid to change City of Los Angeles to city of Los Angeles and City of Pasadena to city of Pasadena.

So what happened? I was editing according to Associated Press Stylebook rules and the quiz was in Chicago Manual of Style rules.

In AP style, which is followed by many news media and business organizations, the c is lowercase. I like that. After all, “city” isn’t part of the name. If you live in Boston, you don’t write City of Boston on the top left hand corner of envelopes when you send mail. The city name is Boston, period. But the Chicago Manual of Style, which is followed by book and magazine publishers, disagrees. If you’re following their style, City of Boston can be the way to go.

Clearly, capitalization can be confusing — especially if you take your cues from your reading material. Here's my recent column explaining how to navigate these questions.

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August 2, 2021

Predominantly or predominately?

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A while back I was editing an article and came across a sentence like “The community is predominately white.” It took me till the second read to notice that “predominately” wasn’t “predominantly.” And I was pretty proud of myself when I caught this “error.” But luckily I wasn’t so cocky as to trust my own judgment. I looked them up.

It turns out that “predominately” and “predominantly” are both legitimate. And if there’s a difference between them, it’s very subtle. This is from "Webster's New World College Dictionary":

predominate: 1. to have ascendancy, authority, or dominating influence (over others); hold sway 2. to be dominant in amount, number, etc.; prevail; preponderate. Related forms: predominately: adverb

predominant: 1. having ascendancy, authority, or dominating influence over others; superior 2. most frequent, noticeable, etc.; prevailing; preponderant. Related forms: predominantly: adverb

“Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage” argues that the words are basically synonyms. So how do you know which one to choose?

Well, if you want to follow someone else’s lead, you could do worse than to take the "Associated Press Stylebook’s" advice:

"predominant, predominantly: Use these primary spellings listed in 'Webster's New World' for the adjectival and adverbial forms. Do not use the alternatives it records, 'predominate' and 'predominately.' The verb form, however, is 'predominate.'"

Plus, Merriam-Webster's usage guide calls “predominately” a “less frequently used alternative” to predominantly. So that could be construed as yet another reason to stick with “predominantly.”

Of course, follow their cue only if you want to march in step with the majority. If you march to the beat of your own drummer, “predominately” is valid, too. It's just not predominant.

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July 26, 2021

Ganging up on the myth that you can't end a sentence with a preposition

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As every qualified language commentator under the sun has been saying for years: There’s no rule against ending a sentence with a preposition. Yet the myth lives on. When I wrote a recent column about a co-worker of mine who’s still victim to the myth, I got a number of e-mails from readers who were surprised to hear it.

The sticking power of bad information never ceases to amaze. So, in yet another drop-in-the-bucket attempt to counter the bad information, here are a whole bunch of experts on the subject.  

 “The preposition at the end has always been an idiomatic feature of English. It would be pointless to worry about the few who believe it is a mistake.” – Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage

 “Superstition. … Good writers don’t hesitate to end their sentences with prepositions if doing so results in phrasing that seems natural.” – Garner’s Modern American Usage

 “The ‘rule’ prohibiting terminal prepositions was an ill-founded superstition. Today many grammarians use the dismissive term ‘pied-piping’ for this phenomenon.”

 “That is the type of arrant pedantry up with which I shall not put” – Unknown (Surprised? If you think this was a Winston Churchill quip, you’re not alone. Even the Chicago Manual of Style attributes it to him. But have researchers discovered that it probably wasn’t!)

 “‘Never end a sentence with a preposition.’ … Wrong.” –Washington Post Business Copy Desk Chief Bill Walsh

 “Good writers throughout the history of English – from Chaucer to Shakespeare to Alison Lurie and David Lodge -- have not shrunk from ending clauses or sentences with prepositions.” – Word Court author Barbara Wallraff

 “Not only is the preposition acceptable at the end, sometimes it is more effective in that spot than anywhere else.” – William Strunk, Jr., The Elements of Style

 “For years and years Miss Thistlebottom has been teaching her bright-eyed brats that no writer would end a sentence with a preposition if he knew what he was about. The truth is that no good writer would follow Miss Thistlebottom’s rule. – Theodore M. Bernstein, “The Careful Writer” (copyright 1965)

 “Superstition.” – H.W. Fowler

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