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Copyediting Tip of the Week: Reach out and help your writer

Wednesday, October 27th, 2010


bullet-glyph21Reach out and help your writer
You may have seen this line or something similar in a recent news report:

After 19 years, the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has reached out to Anita Hill, asking her to tender an apology to her husband.

In some editing circles such statements caused a stir. Sandra Boedecker, senior editor at World Vision, wrote in asking about it:

Do you squirm like I do over statements such as “My boss asked me to reach out to you for this bit of information”? Is this phrase really becoming an acceptable synonym for “contact”?

Reach can mean “to succeed in having an effect on,” according to the American Heritage Dictionary, Copyediting’s house dictionary. Other dictionaries back up this sense. Out acts as an adverb in this case, emphasizing that the subject is extending away from herself in some fashion.

Clearly, then, reach out can be used to mean extend help to or to influence others. But all the dictionaries I searched also defined reach, and by extension, reach out, to get in touch with someone, especially someone you haven’t talked to in a long time. This seems to fit what the writer was trying to say: that Thomas called Hill out of the blue to ask for an apology 19 years after the offense.

The problem, then, is not one of choosing a phrase that doesn’t mean what the writer thought it means, but choosing a phrase with multiple meanings, including a common one that causes a miscue. This is where copyeditors play a huge role in clarity. A bright copyeditor could have suggested (and maybe did, for all I know) replacing reached out with contacted or something similar.

Then again, perhaps the use was on purpose. The writer could have been implying that Thomas was trying to encourage Hill to apologize, whether or not that was a realistic goal on Thomas’ part.

You can reach out to me with your thoughts at

Erin Copyediting Tip of the Week square bullet

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Garner will inscribe copies of GMAU3

Monday, October 26th, 2009

Bryan A. Garner, author of Garner’s Modern American Usage, is offering to sign copies of the new third edition of the book. He sent a message to his Tip of the Day subscribers urging them to join the “grassroots effort” to increase the sales of this edition (because stores are reluctant to stock reference titles these days) by buying copies as holiday presents. In return for the favor, he says, he will “be happy to inscribe copies that you send to LawProse for that purpose, if you (1) include a filled-out FedEx airbill for returning them to you, and (2) suggest an appropriate inscription.”

To send a copy to Garner for signing, use the following information:

Bryan A. Garner
LawProse, Inc.
14180 Dallas Parkway
Suite 280
Dallas, TX 75254
(214) 691-8588

My review of the book will appear in the December 2009 – January 2010 issue of Copyediting.Copyediting Tip of the Week square bullet

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Copyediting Tip of the Week: “Ten items or less” is just fine

Friday, October 16th, 2009


bullet-glyph21Subject: “Ten items or less” is just fine

Okay, I’ve just violated a principle of suspenseful writing by distilling my entire message into my headline. But I’ll bet it made you pay attention, because if you’re like most editors, you have a definite opinion about this one.

In my October 2 blog post about William Safire, I mentioned that a fellow “Lexicographic Irregular” was going to publish a remembrance of Safire, and I wasn’t going to steal his thunder about a specific point he made in the article. But now that the article has appeared (”The Maven, Nevermore,” by Ben Zimmer, in The New York Times Magazine, October 5, 2009), I can rant: I dearly wish that William Safire had never decided that “Ten items or fewer” was the correct way to style the sign above a supermarket’s express checkout — at least not to the point that he then felt compelled to persuade the Safeway grocery chain to change its signs from the disdained “Ten items or less.” I’ve noticed that the Whole Foods stores have painstakingly followed suit, and that is the problem: Safire’s campaign granted undue legitimacy to a misconception, and now it’s almost impossible to persuade the sign makers and customer service people otherwise — even when the result is something as patently idiotic as the following message I get when I send an e-mail to Fresh Direct, a grocery-delivery company: “Thank you for your message. We’ll respond in 24 hours — or fewer.”

How “normal” do the following sentences sound to you?

If the temperature is 20 degrees or fewer, we will keep the children indoors for recess.
When the truck is carrying a full load, it gets 15 miles to the gallon or fewer.
Most of these devices now cost $50 or fewer.
Please summarize the key selling points in 100 words or fewer.
If you work three days a week or fewer, you are considered half-time.

I could go on and on. The reason your instinct is to change fewer to less in the above sentences (unless you’ve had your instincts drilled out of you by too many visits to an acquiescent supermarket) is that each of the amounts in the above sentences represents a benchmark. When an amount is perceived as a metaphorical line — something one can go over or come under — it is notionally singular, not plural, and so less should be used, not fewer.

We generally don’t make mistakes with rates (miles per hour, dollars per hour, days per week, and so on), and that’s because the expression “X per Y” is perceived as a total amount. The singular rate (per hour, per day, per week, etc.) also separates the word with the plural marker on it (miles, dollars, days, etc.) from the alternative of or fewer/less, which helps prevent false attraction to the plural. Some people begin to be hesitant when it comes to time, temperature, and money, but most of us still get it right. When it comes to things that fall outside the familiar categories (rates, time, temperature, money), though, we often stumble.

And that’s where the problem with items on a list comes in: if the word items is plural, why does “ten or fewer” sound wrong? It’s because “ten items” is also a benchmark. If you come under it, you get the speedy line. If you go over it, you’re stuck behind the family with two carts, even if you have only 11 items. The sign doesn’t necessarily mean “ten items, or fewer items than that.” It can just as easily mean “ten items, or less than this benchmark.”

I am not about to mount a counter-campaign to persuade Whole Foods to see the light. But I did write to Fresh Direct, on the grounds that the company might want to know that it had taken things a bit too far and was making its customers snort (because I just know I’m Everycustomer). So far, I haven’t heard back, and the response message is unchanged. To its customer service people, I’m clearly another crank; that, to me, is a permanent — if relatively unimportant — legacy from William Safire.Copyediting Tip of the Week square bullet

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A “weasel words” competition

Friday, August 14th, 2009

Back on March 27, before the Tip of the Week became a blog, I sent out a message about Schott’s Vocab, the blog written by Ben Schott and hosted by The New York Times. I’ve copied that post below this one for those of you who are interested.

Schott has just announced a “weekend competition” (the weekend, apparently, begins today). It looks to be one of particular interest to word lovers. He writes: “This weekend, co-vocabularists are invited to devise weasel words, euphemisms, dysphemisms and circumlocutions for items in the news.”

All you need to do is leave a comment on the August 14 post on the Schott’s Vocab blog. My favorite one so far is “crash text dummies: those geniuses who text while driving.”


bullet-glyph21Subject: Schott’s Vocab

This past week, Copyediting columnist Charles Levine asked me whether I’d seen that The New York Times had begun publishing a blog by Ben Schott, called Schott’s Vocab.

I was familiar with Schott from his miscellanies, almanacs, and articles that have appeared in various (mostly British) outlets over the years, including The Daily Telegraph, Conde Nast Traveler, and The Times of London. (A selection of articles is posted on his Web site.) I’ve always appreciated the evident delight he takes in digging up facts and his ability to synthesize them into collections that are nearly always entertaining and quite often thought-provoking. So I was eager to see what he was up to in writing a blog about vocabulary.

In typical fashion, Schott has managed to identify a niche that is just narrow enough to have a clear focus but broad enough to provide him with blog fodder for years: scanning news sites to “find words and phrases that encapsulate the times in which we live or shed light on a story of note,” as the blog’s description says. He doesn’t analyze the terms he finds; he leaves that up to the commenters.

The “value proposition” here, as they say in business-land, is that it’s Schott who’s doing the curating. What he collects is described as “unconsidered lexicographical trifles—some serious, others frivolous, some neologized, others newly newsworthy.” The idea of curated collections is to bring together in one place a group of things one might not otherwise be able to consider as a group. Usually, the things are works of art, museum artifacts, and the like. But almanacs have served the same purpose as collections for centuries—think of Poor Richard’s Almanack, which bore the unique stamp of its “curator,” Benjamin Franklin.

To sample the modern Ben’s vocabulary curating and decide what you think of it, just visit the Schott’s Vocab blog.Copyediting Tip of the Week square bullet

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