February 11, 2019

6 Punctuation Mistakes That Fly Under the Radar

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Punctuation errors are often pretty glaring. A missing period at the end of a sentence, an extra period in the middle of a sentence or a comma placed outside of quotation marks leaps right out at editors and avid readers.

But other punctuation errors aren’t as easy to spot. Here are six that you may not be catching:

Hyphen instead of an em dash

Hyphen instead of an en dash

Parentheses instead of brackets inside a quotation

Ellipses for effect inside a quotation

A question mark with “Guess what”

No comma to set off a direct address

If you think you could commit any of these minor but meaningful punctuation flubs, here's a full explanation of how to avoid them.

 

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February 4, 2019

Some Mistakes Come at You Out of the Blue

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Editing and proofreading might seem like a dull profession. Scanning page after page for errant commas, badly conjugated verbs and the occasional misused “whom” sounds dull indeed.

But in fact, the job is often terrifying. Errors you didn’t expect — including errors you didn’t know existed — can broadside you when you least expect it. And the mistakes you’re not looking out for are the easiest ones to miss. Here are some of the errors and general weirdness I encountered recently in my editing work.

 

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January 28, 2019

All the Boys Had a Black Eye or All the Boys Had Black Eyes?

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“After the fight, all the boys had a black eye.”

Editors see sentences like this all the time. They’re painful. They remind us that, no matter how much we know about grammar and sentence structure, our powers are limited.

The problem, of course, is that the boys don’t share one eye. So, it doesn’t make sense in the singular. But if you made it plural, eyes, it would sound as though each had both eyes blackened.

You probably already see a way out of this. Just recast the sentence: Every boy had a black eye. That’s a great solution, when possible.

 But not every sentence can be recast. So what to do when you have no choice but to make the subject “all the boys”?

Don’t answer that yet, because I have more examples of sentences with agreement problems that put writers and editors in a bind.

“From carrot sticks to apple slices, healthy snacks give your child a boost of energy and a positive outlook — two things they will benefit from greatly as they go through their day.”

In this sentence, “they” and “their” are the issue. Theoretically, a singular “child” shouldn’t be referred to with “they” and “their.”

We’ve talked before about these “plural” pronouns representing singular subjects. In short, it’s fine (more on that in a minute). But today I’m talking about a problem that goes well beyond debates about singular “they.” And, as I explain in this recent column, sometimes it's best to set logic aside.

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January 21, 2019

Whom in a Predicate Nominative

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Raise your hand if you know how to use whom. Now keep it raised if you’re confident you can explain its use in the following sentence: “One would do well to ask whom that was and by what means the communication took place.”

Now keep it raised if — and only if — you figured out that this usage of “whom” is wrong.

My guess is no one’s deltoids are getting a workout right now. As I’ve said in this space before, “whom” is usually more trouble than it’s worth. Just when you think you have it down, you can get it wrong. And since the whole reason to use “whom” in the first place is to be proper, it doesn’t help when “whom” leads to errors. Here's my recent column on how you can get even this "whom" right.

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January 14, 2019

A Very Questionable Mark

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Ever question the question mark? I don’t recommend it. Inquire about this quirky little squiggle and you’ll end up with more questions than answers.

Its history is a mystery. And its use can be downright puzzling.

Some theorize that the question mark was inspired by the tail of a cat — a sort of hovering commentary on the mysteries of feline nature. The ancient Egyptians often get credit, since they worshipped kitties to an extent the world wouldn’t see again till Grumpy Cat took the internet by storm.

Some researchers say the cat in question belonged to a monk who represented its tail at the end of questions in a manuscript.

Another theory claims scholars in the Middle Ages put the Latin word “quaestio” (question) at the end of a sentence, then abbreviated it to “qo,” then started positioning the q above the o to create something that looks like our modern-day question mark.

But the most common theory has it that an adviser to Charlemagne named Alcuin of York created the “punctus interrogativus,” which 1,000 years later became known as the question mark.

Chances are, we’ll never know where this mark came from. Chances are, too, that we’ll never fully master how to use one. Yes, I know it’s pretty easy to use a question mark in most cases. But most cases aren’t all cases. In my recent column, I look at where to place question marks relative to quotation marks, when they can be used in the middle of a sentence and the rare cases when a question mark is immediately followed by a comma.

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January 7, 2019

A Semicolon Firestorm and Some Practical Semicolon Advice

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An essay published online set off a social-media firestorm last week. The too-hot-to-touch topic wasn’t Syria or impeachment or even Stephen Miller’s new hair. It was about something far more incendiary: semicolons.

The title will tell you everything you need to know: “The semicolon is pointless and it’s ruining your writing,” the headline on the Writing Cooperative website proclaimed. If the author was looking for attention, mission accomplished.

“Idiotic,” author J. Robert Lennon tweeted.

“Rules about writing from someone who doesn’t understand writing,” a Twitter user named John replied.

“Time to remake those Worst Take of 2018 lists,” Slate editor Sam Adams tweeted.

The author gave his detractors plenty of fodder. For example, the essay asserts that prescriptivists, people who are sticklers for certain artificial language rules, are usually copy editors. Not true.

In fact, there were a lot of faulty premises in the piece. But it just so happens I agree with the central point: semicolons can be bad news. Here's my take and what you need to know.

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January 1, 2019

6 Resolutions for Word Lovers

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With the beginning of each new year, many people resolve to do something they didn't do the year before. Lose weight. Save money. Learn a foreign language. Land a leading role in a Broadway play.

By the end of the year, they're either rich, skinny, multilingual or famous — or they're not. Either way, it's probably time to try out some new resolutions. Here are six language, writing and media-related resolutions to consider, followed by a link to a complete explanation for each.

I will read the front matter in a dictionary.

I will flip through a usage guide.

I won't assume that "I" is better than "me" in compounds like "John and I." 

I will give myself permission to never use a semicolon.

I will dare to question a grammar prohibition I was taught.

I will reflect on the difference between news gatherers, correspondents and commentators.

Here's my column covering each of these ideas in depth.

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December 24, 2018

Chow, Grub, Scarf, Meat: The Origins of Some Food Words

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I’m not an etymology buff. Though I love many aspects of language, word histories don’t interest me much.

The plots are too formulaic: Scrappy young word starts out on a trek that winds through several countries before arriving in America, profoundly changed by the journey. The story gets repetitive.
So it was a surprise recently to find myself going down a rabbit hole of word-history research just for the fun of it.

What was different this time? The words I researched were about something that, all by itself, can hold my attention: food.

With the holidays in full swing, you may be as food-focused as I am. So here are a few word histories I found delicious.

 

 

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December 17, 2018

Can a Movie Be Entitled?

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A copy editor recently posed an interesting question to colleagues on social media: Should he continue trying to maintain a distinction between “entitled” and “titled”? Or should he start allowing “entitled” to refer to the name of a book, movie or other work?

It’s an esoteric issue, to say the least — rooted in a disparity between editing styles.

The Associated Press Stylebook has, for decades, issued this simple and clear advice regarding the word “entitled”: “Use it to mean a right to do or have something. Do not use it to mean titled. AP’s examples of correct usage: “She was entitled to the promotion” and “The book was titled ‘Gone With the Wind.’”

Pretty straightforward stuff, provided you don’t follow the Chicago Manual of Style. This guide, which is used by most book publishers, doesn’t register an opinion one way or the other.

So what's a conscientious writer to do? I tackle that in this recent column.

 

 

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December 10, 2018

How to write holidays all year long

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Is it Mother’s Day, as in one mother, or does the name recognize that the day belongs to all of them, making it Mothers’ Day?

Do veterans really own their day, which would make it Veterans’ Day, or are they recognized in a more adjectival fashion, which would make it Veterans Day?

And what might St. Patrick and St. Valentine say about all this?

The proper way to write holidays has little to do with logic or punctuation rules. Instead, holiday names like Valentine's Day and Presidents Day are written as they are simply because that's how people have written them. Here's a quick rundown  of the proper holiday names to use all year long.

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