Archive for June, 2011

Copyediting Tip of the Week: Books for editors

Tuesday, June 28th, 2011


bullet-glyph21Books for editors

Summer reading lists abound. Beyond beach reading, though, editors need to keep their skills sharp with professional reading. A recent discussion in a LinkedIn group I belong to centered on books to improve your editing skills. In this post, I’ll share some of my favorites from that discussion and from my own bookshelf.


Improve your editing skills or branch out into a new type of editing.

  • The Copyeditor’s Handbook by Amy Einsohn. This is probably the book for copyeditors. Einsohn covers what copyediting is, how to copyedit, and what resources are available for copyeditors. If you haven’t yet, challenge yourself by doing the exercises in the book.
  • Technical Editing: The Practical Guide for Editors and Writers by Judith Tarutz. Because of its specialized nature, technical editing demands higher rates. Teach yourself the basics of tech editing with this book.
  • Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King. Each chapter tackles an important point in fiction writing, including dialogue, exposition, and voice. There’s a checklist and exercises at the end of each chapter to help you learn the lessons.
  • Line by Line: How to Edit Your Own Writing by Claire Kehrwald Cook. I’ve added this book to my must-read list. It’s full of bad sentences and possible fixes for them.


Writing guides aren’t just for writers. Editors can benefit, too, from learning more about the craft.

Words, Words, Words

A little fun and a little learning about words and more.

  • Alphabetter Juice: or, the Joy of Text by Roy Blount Jr. I’m currently reading this book and loving it. Blount loves words, and he shares that love in this book and its predecessor, Alphabet Juice (which I haven’t read yet). He shares enjoyable word histories and funny anecdotes, especially those he labels as being sonicky, his term for words that are somehow imitative.
  • Farnsworth’s Classical English Rhetoric by Ward Farnsworth. Take your editing to the next level by studying the fine art of rhetoric. In his You Don’t Say blog, John E. McIntyre says about the book, “This wealth of examples, if you will only look into them, will stimulate your interest, gratify your curiosity, and amplify your own writing.”
  • Write More Good: An Absolutely Phony Guide by The Bureau Chiefs. When you need a break from serious reading, try the Bureau Chiefs, who tweet as FakeAPStylebook. It’s filled with useful advice, such as “World War should be used only for conflicts involving countries on at least three continents. For large-scale battles against clones, killer tomatoes, or a fifty-foot woman, use attack instead.”

What will you read this summer? Share your book list in the comments below.

The Tip will not publish next week, July 5. Happy Independence Day, everyone!Copyediting Tip of the Week square bullet

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Copyediting Tip of the Week: OED updates

Tuesday, June 21st, 2011


bullet-glyph21OED updates

Dictionaries are always updating their files, and thanks to the Internet, we don’t have to wait until the next printing to find out the newest additions to our favorite dictionaries. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) updates its online files quarterly. Its latest update, released last Friday, included more than 1,840 entries that were added or updated.

What’s New?

Here is just a sampling of the new words, new subentries, and new senses the OED included in its June 2011 update:

  • auto-complete, noun: a software feature that uses text already entered in a given field to predict or generate the characters the user is likely to enter next.
  • brain-teasing, adjective: intellectually challenging; puzzling, thought-provoking.
  • Christian Right, noun: any political group or faction characterized by support of socially conservative Christian values; (in the United States) a political movement of (predominantly Protestant) Christian groups favouring strongly conservative social and political views; the supporters of this.
  • greenwasher, noun: a person who or organization which engages in greenwashing [the creation or propagation of an unfounded or misleading environmentalist image].
  • laugh-o-meter, noun: any of various devices used to measure or indicate the volume (or another quality) of laughter, and hence to gauge the humour of a performance, joke, etc.
  • Net neutrality, noun: the fact or principle of Internet service providers enabling access to all content and applications regardless of the source or destination, and without favouring or blocking particular formats, products, web sites, etc.
  • Scotchgarded, adjective: that has been treated with Scotchgard [a proprietary name for: a fluorocarbon preparation for applying a waterproof grease- and stain-resistant finish to textiles, suede, leather, and other materials].
  • southeastwardly, adjective: situated in or directed towards the south-east. Also of a wind: blowing from the south-east.

The complete list is available to the public, but you have to be a subscriber to check out the definitions. Check to see if your local library has a subscription. The OED is a tremendous resource for historical information about words, one copyeditors can sometimes find invaluable.

What dictionaries do you consult? How do you keep up with new words and their uses? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.Copyediting Tip of the Week square bullet

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Copyediting Tip of the Week: I wish I may/might/can

Tuesday, June 14th, 2011


bullet-glyph21I wish I may/might/can

In combing my files for a good usage topic, I discovered I had not one but three items concerning the word may. What is it about this little word that causes copyeditors to stumble, if just for a moment? Let’s quickly review how we can (might? may?) correctly use may.

May be vs. maybe

May be is a verb phrase, with may acting as the modal verb of be, giving us a meaning of a possibility of existence. Maybe is an adverb indicating possibility. It comes from the phrase “it may be,” which dates back to the early 15th century.

The early moves suggest that the pattern of the last elections, in which primaries were more fiercely contested than the general election in several states, may be repeated. —New York Times

Maybe what we need, instead, are those unstated but well-understood traditions that produce, and police, a passeggiata.* —Charlotte Observer

May vs. might

May is the present tense of the verb meaning to be allowed, and might is its past tense. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage (MWDEU) notes that “there’s nothing mysterious or controversial” about choosing between may and might.

The simple bit is the use of might for the past tense. Although MWDEU reports a few puzzling instances of may being used when might was called for, most people seem to have no problem choosing might for the past tense.

But even though may is generally used for the present tense, there are occasions when might applies equally as well or better. Webster’s New World College Dictionary (4th ed.) outlines the occasions well:

  1. Expressing esp. a shade of doubt or a lesser degree of possibility: it might rain
  2. Expressing a lesser degree of permission: might I go?
  3. Expressing a lesser degree of obligation: you might try to help

Garner’s Modern American Usage and the American Heritage Dictionary (AHD) support this use, and Oxford Dictionaries Online says, “In casual use … may and might are generally interchangeable.” Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary adds “a present condition contrary to fact” (which AHD also notes) and “a polite alternative to may” to might’s uses. Though as a polite alternative, might seems snobby to me.

Can vs. may

My elementary schooling was overseen by nuns, French-Canadian nuns at that. They insisted on correctness in both English and French, and can vs. may was a pet peeve of theirs. A typical conversation might have gone like this:

Student (rather urgently): Sister, can I go to the bathroom?
Sister (not at all urgently): I don’t know. Can you?
Student (with more urgency): May I?
Sister (with the patience only nuns have): Yes, you may.**

Can, we were taught, indicates physical or mental ability, while may indicates permission or possibility. Although only the pickiest of people would call you out for using can instead of may, says Garner, keeping the two separate is “advisable.” He notes that using can for may is at stage three of his Language Change Index: “The form becomes commonplace even among many well-educated people, but it’s still avoided in careful usage.”

MWDEU spends a lot of time, though, demonstrating that can has a history of meaning possibility or permission and continues to carry these meanings. In edited writing, it notes, the “possibility” meaning is more frequent, while the “permission” meaning most often occurs in speech.

Both Garner and MWDEU also note that in the negative, cannot and can’t are much more common—and acceptable—than may not and mayn’t, which sound stiff to our modern ears.

Whether you use can instead of may to mean possibility or permission will depend on your audience. If you’ve got a persnickety audience, you may wish to keep the two separate. But in writing that’s less than formal, you could use either. And if you have a negative sentiment, cannot and can’t will serve even in formal settings.

What do you think? Would you use can for may, might for may, or may be for maybe? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

* Passeggiata is Italian for an evening walk.
** Persnicketiness aside, our nuns were wonderful teachers and nothing like the negative stereotype you may be familiar with.
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Copyediting Tip of the Week: 10 subject-verb agreement rules

Tuesday, June 7th, 2011


bullet-glyph2110 subject-verb agreement rules

Many people would claim that subject-verb agreement is easy. You just match a singular subject with singular verb and a plural subject with a plural verb, right?

We copyeditors know better. The Copyeditor’s Handbook lists no fewer than 25 cases that aren’t so clear-cut. Garner’s Modern American Usage devotes nearly five columns to the topic, as well as articles on related topics, such as synesis, while Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage devotes nine and a half. What makes subject-verb agreement so hard?

One thing that trips language users up is a long, complicated subject. We can get lost in the subject and forget which noun was actually the head of the subject phrase. Instead, we make the verb agree with the nearest noun. In the following sentence, the subject is arrival, but the writer mistakenly links the verb with fashions:

The arrival of new fall fashions have excited all the back-to-school shoppers.

Another trap for language users is the trend away from strict grammatical agreement and toward notional agreement, that is, the verb agrees with the notion the subject is trying to convey, whether it’s singular or plural:

Twenty-five rules is a lot to digest.
Twenty-five rules are listed on the notice.

And then there’s the fact that the rules that govern language use just refuse to fit neatly into a box and stay there. Language and the rules of its use change as often as the users do. Here, then, is a brief rundown of 10 nuances of subject-verb agreement.

A subject made up of nouns joined by and takes a plural subject, unless that subject’s intended sense is singular.

She and I run every day.
Peanut butter and jelly is my favorite sandwich.

When a subject is made up of nouns joined by or, the verb agrees with the last noun.

She or I run every day.
Potatoes, pasta, or rice pairs well with grilled chicken.

Collective nouns (team, couple, staff, etc.) take either a singular or plural verb in American English, depending on whether the emphasis is on the individual units or on the group as whole.

The football team is practicing night and day for the Super Bowl.
Boston’s school committee disagree about what to cut from the school budget.

Connectives, phrases such as combined with, coupled with, accompanied by, added to, along with, together with, and as well as, do not change the number of the subject. These phrases are usually set off with commas.

Oil, as well as gas, is a popular heating choice.
Peanut butter combined with bread and jelly is a tasty snack.

Wait, what happened in the second sentence? Aren’t some commas missing? In this case, the peanut butter, bread, and jelly are one unit, a sandwich, so no commas are needed and we keep the singular verb.

Collecting noun phrases (a bunch of, a group of, a set of, etc.) take either a singular or plural verb, depending on whether the emphasis is on the individual units or on the group as whole.

A group of boys were digging in my flower beds!
A set of 12 dishes is all you need for the dinner party.

Each takes a singular verb. However, if each follows a plural noun, the verb is plural.

Each boy is excited about the meet; each is well prepared.
In our family, we each have our own laptop.

None takes a singular verb if what it refers to is singular and a plural verb if its referent is plural.

None of the peas are left on Sean’s plate.
None of the book is reproducible without permission.

With fractions, the verb agrees with the whole that the fraction refers to.

One-fourth of the books are gone.
One-fourth of the sand is white.

With money, if the amount is specific, use a singular verb; if the amount is vague, use a plural verb.

Within a year, $5 million was spent on building a new factory, and millions more were spent on training future factory workers.

The phrase more than one takes a singular verb. Yes, I know that might not sound logical; remember that one is followed by something, whether explicitly or implicitly.

More than one box is sitting in the hallway.
More than one is sitting in the hallway.

What other subject-verb agreement rules do you have trouble explaining to your authors? Let me know in the comments below, and I’ll try to cover them in a future post.Copyediting Tip of the Week square bullet

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