A Proofreader: Don’t Leave Home Without One

When I left home on a rainy Saturday to watch a football game, I didn’t realize I would needed my red pencil. Does making spelling or grammar mistakes in front of customers make any difference?

Happy Brithday cake from Baskin-Robbins

An ice cream cake from Baskin-Robbins


Country Farms Produce, Edmonds, WA

A produce market outside Edmonds, WA

Plese remember the slogan of the late, great Proofreader General of the United States (PGUS), Roland Sweet: Spelling Counts.

Can’t spell? Don’t embarrass yourself or your business. Hire an editor.



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Don’t Get Hysterical Over Historic or Historical

Historic Road SignDriving south on I-5 from Vancouver, B.C., to Seattle recently, our car passed several signs for sites related to Puget Sound history, directing drivers to various historic districts or historical parks and museums. As our region’s duly appointed deputy of the Proofreader General of the United States (PGUS), I wondered which of these collaborations of local groups and state Department of Transportation sign-makers were grammatically accurate. Should it be historic or historical, or are the two similar words interchangeable?

According to the Associated Press Stylebook, “a historic event is an important occurrence, one that stands out in history. Any occurrence in the past is a historical event.” But should the same rule apply to buildings, neighborhoods or districts? Are these places merely old, or did something significant occur there? The Grammarist website notes, “Buildings, villages, districts and landmarks deemed historically important are often described as historic because they are historically significant in addition to being of or related to history. Societies dedicated to recognizing and preserving these things are called historical societies because they are concerned with history but not momentous in themselves.” So a historical society might be responsible for maintaining a historic site. Got it?

The best and most thorough discussion of proper usage of historic or historical that I’ve found is this one. Its author points out the other wrinkle in this conundrum: Is it correct to put “a” or “an” in front of historic or historical? (Unless your audience is British, there’s little debating “a” is the correct way to go.)

Historical MarkerSo what about those I-5 road signs? As the late columnist and linguist William Safire said, “Any past event is historical, but only the most memorable ones are historic.” So when it comes to the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park in Seattle, the Fairhaven Historic District in Bellingham and the “historic waterfront” of LaConner, we’ll let the tourists judge for themselves. If they can’t make up their minds, hire an editor.

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Never Assume Anything, I Presume

Man Scratching HeadI assume you are reading this because you presume my blog will be an accurate source of information about word usage. I can only assume that because I don’t know who you are nor why you are really reading this post. It’s just a guess. You, on the other hand, would presume my expertise, since I have identified myself as a professional editor. Until proven otherwise, a presumption carries more weight.

In everyday speech, “assume” and “presume” are often used interchangeably, but that’s incorrect. According to the website Grammarist, while both words can mean to take something for granted as true (among their other definitions), the difference is in the degree of certainty. A presumption is more authoritative; to presume is to make an informed guess based on evidence, while to assume is to guess with little or no evidence.

Take these examples:

Looking at the photo, I presumed the band had five members, but in concert it turned out to be a quartet.

I assumed the reporter had interviewed the band, although I did not know that he did.

In the first, presume is the better word to use, because the guess is based on irrefutable evidence. In the second, the guess is clearly a guess.

Got it? Whenever you’re having trouble finding the right words in your own documents, it’s time to hire an editor.

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Make Grammar Your Ally

In an advice column in the Washington Post Magazine, writer Bradley Demerich provides five pointers for success in online dating. Topping his list: grammar.

grammar“Good grammar and writing go a long way,” he writes. “Not only do they show that you have the cognitive ability to be a functioning adult, but they also give people fewer reasons to ignore your profile/messages.”

Demerich offers another piece of good advice on presentation: “When you’re finished writing something, proofread it. One young man put on his profile, ‘I am very good at showing of the making girls feel beauty.’ Not sure if he was typing quickly or if English is his second language; either way, it shows the importance of reading over (or asking someone to read over) your profile.”

That goes for online messages, LinkedIn pages and just about anything you have to write for or about yourself. Letters, emails, web page content, job applications, reports, white papers or anything else, written communication always requires and benefits from editing and proofreading.

So when you need another set of eyes and your mother or significant other won’t do, hire an editor. When readers are impressed, it will be worth it.

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They, It Isn’t So

Pronoun TheyThere’s much debate in editing circles about using “they” as a singular as well as a plural pronoun.  At the April 2015 conference of the American Copy Editors Society (ACES), the topic came up several times, according to linguist and Wall Street Journal language columnist Ben Zimmer, a panelist who also covered the event. Zimmer wrote he “found growing acceptance of a usage that has long been disparaged as downright ungrammatical.”

Standard grammar dictates “they” and its related forms agree with plural antecedents only. However, English lacks a gender-neutral singular third-person pronoun, and “they” has for centuries grudgingly served that purpose, much to the grammarians’ chagrin. Still, as pointed out by ACES panelists, writers from Chaucer to Shakespeare to Jane Austen have done it.

“They” often becomes singular in common usage. Usually its antecedent is generic, not referring to a single known person, as in, “The crowd screamed for a foul, and they clearly affected the referee.” Thornier situations ensue when the antecedent more clearly refers to one person, however. A follower of this blog may not like what they see in this sentence, for example.

Lately, transgender issues (including extensive coverage of former Olympic decathlon champion Bruce Jenner’s announcement) have highlighted the need for a more inclusive pronoun.  “The singular ‘they’ avoids having to assign a static role to someone transitioning from one gender to another,” Zimmer notes. “Many who identify as transgender or gender-fluid would prefer the use of the pronoun ‘they’ rather than he or she.”

Pronoun PosterIn my view, the best way to write your way out of this grammatical quandary is to make the antecedent of “they” plural whenever possible, as in these examples:

The job of an independent journalist is to find out what they can and let their readers and viewers know.

Better: The job of independent journalists is to find out what they can and let their viewers and readers know.

When a reporter digs out information, they are doing their job.

Better: When reporters dig out information, they are doing their job.

When that simple fix isn’t feasible, using “they” definitely sounds and looks (on the printed page) less clunky and more natural than singular alternatives that seek to include both genders, such as “he or she,” “he/she” or “(s)he.” Sweden has enjoyed some acceptance of the pronoun “hen” as a gender-neutral alternative to “han” (“he”) and “hon” (“she”), but English alternatives (also including “thon,”  “xe” and “ze”) have failed to gain traction. “They, “‘ on the other hand, is already in common use. “Even grammatical sticklers may be coming around to it,” Zimmer wrote in his column.

Ironically, as noted by Merriam-Webster associate editor Emily Brewster at the conference, the main force blocking acceptance of the singular “they” is persnickety editors who take it out. The esteemed Chicago Manual of Style (16th edition) says, “While this usage is accepted in casual contexts, it is still considered ungrammatical in formal writing.” So there.

Personally, if I thought the situation sensitive, I would ask the client for his or her (or the corporate “its”) preference. If you can’t make that kind of decision, better to hire an editor to make it for you.

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How to Accentuate the Appositive

Commas can be  a writer’s best friend, but lately I’ve seen too many sentences  like this one:

Left-handed pitcher, Todd Jones, won 10 games for the Mariners last season.

Wyoming naturalist, John Smith, attended the reception.

Why commas in those sentences? In my opinion, inserting those two mental pauses disrupts the flow of the sentence. When that happens, the reader may stop.

commaThe commas are not necessary. Both sentences seem to treat the proper names “Todd Jones” and “John Smith” as appositives, not as the subjects of the sentences. An appositive is a noun or noun phrase that immediately follows and renames another noun or noun phrase. “Todd Jones” and “John Smith” qualify, I suppose, but as the Associated Press Stylebook notes, “A decision on whether to put commas around a word, phrase or clause used in apposition depends on whether it is essential to the meaning of the sentence (no commas) or not essential (use commas).”

In the sentences above, surely the names of the pitcher and senator are essential. So dump those commas. To keep these sentences grammatical and improve their flow, they could be rewritten in one of two ways:

Todd Jones, a left-handed pitcher, won 10 games for the Mariners last season.

John Smith, a Wyoming naturalist, attended the reception.

This is a more traditional use of the appositive, adding more specific description to the proper noun that precedes it. While the nonessential phrase “left-handed pitcher” and “Wyoming senator” could be dropped without destroying the sentences, the reader’s pause for the comma is shorter, less pronounced. The reader is willing to put up with the pause because the words and pause seem natural, like everyday speech.

However, my editing preference would be the leaner versions below, which eliminates the need for commas:

Left-handed pitcher Todd Jones won 10 games for the Mariners last season.

Wyoming naturalist John Smith attended the reception.

Putting the adjective phrase before the noun is terser, quicker to the point. Writing is all about establishing rhythm and flow, making the words easy to follow. When your ideas are strong, editing can make them stronger. See what a good editor can do for your writing.

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How to Distinguish the Hyphen from the Dash

The last thing I expected on a football weekend across the country in North Carolina was a grammar lesson. But that’s what I got in Winston-Salem, sometimes referred to as “the Dash.” Or so I had read.

Winston-SalemI asked a volunteer at the visitors’ center if the city (and more recently, its minor-league baseball team ) took the nickname from the punctuation mark between the names of what were originally two adjacent towns (they officially merged in 1913). “No, she said, pointing to the tiny spot on a poster. “That’s not a dash, that’s a hyphen. A dash divides; a hyphen unites.”

We both chuckled, but I knew she had a point.

According to the website (I kid you not) dashhyphen.com:

“The hyphen is the shorter mark. often used to link two or more words together. For example: user-friendly, part-time, up-to-date, back-to-back. Note that a hyphen never has spaces on either side.

“The dash is the longer line used as punctuation in sentences – coming in between words (as in this sentence). It can also be used – as here – in pairs. For example: Paul sang his song terribly – and he thought he was brilliant!

He’s won the election—granted, there was only a low turnout—but he’s won!”

The eagle-eyed among readers of the preceding sentences may have noticed they included two different types of dashes, perhaps heightening the confusion. “The en-dash is the shorter version of the dash, named en-dash as it should be the same length as the letter ‘n,’ dashhyphen.com says. “The en-dash should always have spacing before and after. The first example above uses the en-dash. The em-dash is the longer version, named em-dash as it should be the same length as the letter ‘m.’ The em-dash should never have spaces before or after it. The second example above uses the em-dash. The first version, the en-dash, is the most commonly used form.” See dashhyphen.com for more detailed  information.

I smiled at the visitors’ center volunteer. “So ideally, you’d like this city and its baseball team to be nicknamed the Hyphen, not the Dash?” I asked. She nodded affirmatively.

Good luck with that, I thought. When good grammar and catchy marketing clash, we know what wins.

When you need a little help in either area, consider an editor.

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