June 18, 2018

Another Reason Not to Double Space (and more from the mailbag)

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 I recently wrote a column pointing out that the practice of putting two spaces between sentences is obsolete, rooted in the days when typewriters gave every character the same amount of space.

Reader Cyndy, a professional typesetter (now referred to as a “desktop publisher”) who studied typesetting in college, had a lot of extra insight.

“When typing on a typewriter was the norm, double spaces indeed made the paragraphs easier to read. But when typesetting on computers came along, the issue of justifying a paragraph became the issue. (No staggered right anymore. It was a smooth line on both vertical sides of the paragraph or story.)

If you put a double space in there, justifying the type may have caused it to be ragged on the left side, because if the sentence ended at the end of the line and there was a double space, then there would be a space at the beginning of the next line, thereby killing the smooth vertical line.

Here's some more good stuff I got from readers recently.

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June 11, 2018

Little Signs Your Writing Wasn't Professionally Edited

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In the pro-wordsmithing realm, error-free prose or nearly error-free prose serves an important purpose.

It says you’re serious about serving the reader. Your form reflects on your content: Careful, meticulous grammar, spelling and punctuation signal that you put great care into your information-gathering, too.

When text isn’t professionally edited, I notice. And obvious grammar errors aren’t the only mistakes that tip me off. Little tells — rules professional editors follow that other people don’t know about — always give the amateur away.

Here are just a few of the tells that can tip your hand.

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June 4, 2018

It's not you, semicolon. It's me.

The semicolon and I got off to a bad start. I was an insecure teenager sitting in typing class wondering why this obnoxious little punctuation mark deserved one of just eight coveted spots under my fingertips. In true insecure-teenager style, I figured I was the problem. The only punctuation mark on which I was told to rest a finger must deserve the honor. If I didn’t understand why, surely my own ignorance was to blame. It’s not you, semicolon. It’s me.

Many years later, when I finally hunkered down to learn proper semicolon use, something miraculous happened: I discovered I had been right to hate the semicolon all along.

Here's what I learned.

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May 28, 2018

Actually, sometimes spell-checker can save you

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We editors love to criticize spell-check. We know too well how this tool designed to save you from embarrassing errors can let you down. If you type "Please remain clam," which as I reported in this space a few months ago one unfortunate writer did, spell-check won't know that you wanted to type "calm."

 f you write something about chickens attempting to escape their coup, your software will let you, utterly failing in its responsibility to tell you that you meant "coop." If you're talking about a street vendor pedaling his wares, spell-check won't realize you meant "peddling."

But in our more candid moments, many of us will admit that spell-checker isn't so much an enemy as a frenemy.

Yes, we love to hate it. But we could hardly do our jobs without it. The ugly truth is that it's already better than humans at a number of tasks. Here's my recent column  laying out some of the ways in which spell-check can save you.

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May 21, 2018

Stay for Awhile or A While?

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"Stay for awhile" is, technically, a grammar mistake. A preposition like "for" takes as its object a noun phrase — a noun or pronoun with or without modifiers. "For" is a preposition, but "awhile" isn't a noun. It's an adverb. So it can't be the object of "for."

"A while," on the other hand, is a noun phrase. It can be the object of the preposition "for." So "Stay for a while" is correct.

But if you take out the preposition, the dynamic changes, which is why both "Stay awhile" and "Stay a while" are correct. Here's a column I wrote a while back explaining why noun phrases like "a while" can function adverbially even though adverbs like "awhile" can't function as nouns.

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May 14, 2018

10 Grammar Issues You Shouldn't Worry About

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If you're trying to use good grammar, you have enough to worry about already. You don't have time to sweat over can't-go-wrong choices like whether to use "a" or "an" before "historic," "healthy" vs. "healthful," whether to use the serial comma, or whether to put periods in abbreviations like "U.S." Here's my recent column highlighting 10 otherwise-stressful grammar issues you can scratch off your list of things to worry about.

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May 7, 2018

Asked or Said?

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Readers Bill and Julie noticed a language trend that's rubbing them the wrong way.

"One of our pet peeves is the evolving usage of 'said' instead of 'asked' immediately preceding the utterance of a question." Here's an example they offered: "He said, 'Where are you going?'"

"We are hearing this more and more often in everyday conversations involving questions, in TV advertisements and on social media," Bill and Julie wrote.

"Do you have any idea why? Is it because 'said' is easier to pronounce than the tongue twister 'asked'? We were taught one shouldn't say a question. A question should always be asked," they added.

 It's an interesting observation, and it touches on an important subject for writers: speech tags. Here are some tips from my recent column.

 

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April 30, 2018

What's with 'Woah'?

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Like a lot of little girls, I was obsessed with horses. I found a trove of horse stories in my school library and dived head first into Old Bones the Wonder Horse by Mildred Mastin Pace and The Golden Mare  by William Corbin.

By the time I was 9, I'd seen the word "whoa" in print so many times, it was unfathomable that anyone might spell this horse command differently. Then, about a year ago, I noticed a stranger on social media responding to a news story with "woah."

"Woah"? Really?

Not long after, I saw this spelling again. Then, just a few days before this writing, I saw a tweet from Atlantic magazine editor David Frum responding to a news item with (get this): "whoah."

I assumed that the inability to spell "whoa" was a new phenomenon. It was definitely new to me. Had I come across "woah" or "whoah" in the past, I would have noticed. I'm sure of it.

But a little grown-up research shows that these spellings are not new. Far from it.

Here's my column on all these spellings and which you should choose.

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April 23, 2018

Whoa, There. What's with 'Woah' and 'Whoah'?

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Like a lot of little girls, I was obsessed with horses. I found a trove of horse stories in my school library and dived head first into "Old Bones the Wonder Horse" by Mildred Mastin Pace and "The Golden Mare" by William Corbin.

By the time I was 9, I'd seen the word "whoa" in print so many times, it was unfathomable that anyone might spell this horse command differently. Then, about a year ago, I noticed a stranger on social media responding to a news story with "woah."

"Woah"? Really?

Not long after, I saw this spelling again. Then, just a few days before this writing, I saw a tweet from Atlantic magazine editor David Frum responding to a news item with (get this): "whoah.

Here's my recent column on how to spell it correctly. 

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April 16, 2018

Hard-learned Grammar Lessons

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You learn something new every day.

In most professions, that's a good thing. But for copy editors, it's a kick in the pants. It means there's something you should have learned years ago but didn't. It means that, even as you were getting paid to catch errors, you were blind to some. It hurts.

For editors — or anyone who wants to use the language well — humility is key. You have to know when to look up stuff, even if it's stuff you've already looked up a hundred times. And you have to accept that after years or even decades on the job, you can still get sucker-punched by your own ignorance.

Yes, I'm talking about myself.

Here's a column I wrote recently about the discoveries that still sting, including bouillon vs. bullion, compose vs. comprise, and how to spell embarrass.

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