Category Archives: Commentary

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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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 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)

“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,’ 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 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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Wilde About Editing

Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde

An editor is never really satisfied with the words in front of him (or her). In the words of 19th century Irish playwright Oscar Wilde, “I was working all the morning, and took out a comma. In the afternoon I put it back again.”

If you think an editor can help your own words communicate more effectively, find one who provides more production per hour than Mr. Wilde.

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New Evidence That Every Word Counts

A Seattle attorney had a traffic-camera-generated speeding ticket dismissed recently, and he didn’t deny he was speeding. He won because there were too many words on the sign warning motorists to slow down.

The sign said the posted 20 mph speed limit would be enforced “WHEN LIGHTS ARE FLASHING OR CHILDREN ARE PRESENT” in two-inch-high capital letters. But domestic law attorney Joe Hunt found a diagram in the federal government’s Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices that prescribes the shorter phrase “WHEN FLASHING” for that sign. Hunt argued that with more words, the posted sign was harder to read, diminishing the driver’s ability to heed it before a mounted, automated camera enforces the 20 mph school zone. According to Washington State law, automated camera zones must comply with the federal manual.

After the ruling, the City of Seattle announced that Department of Transportation crews will replace 40 such signs before school resumes in September. The new signs will read “WHEN FLASHING.” Fewer words that are more concise, more emphatic, easier to read and comprehend.

It’s amazing what a little editing can do. “Shorter language is easier to comprehend,” spokesman Neil Gaffney of the Federal Highway Administration noted in the Seattle Times.

If you ever need an editor to condense, organize and hone your own writing, look no further.

Another pair of eyes can make a big difference.

Incidentally, attorney Hunt estimated the dismissal of his $189 ticket cost him about $578 in services, equipment and fees. Hiring an editor is much cheaper than a hiring a lawyer.


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How to Choose the Right Words

Using literary metaphors in your writing makes your writing seem smarter, as long as you use them correctly. If you muff it, however, it can have the opposite effect.

For instance, in explaining how President Obama forged a bipartisan agreement with Capitol Hill Republicans to avoid another federal government shutdown last fall, Washington Post columnist Zachary A. Goldfarb wrote, “Obama gave the flimsiest of fig leaves to the Republicans.” Only if he were trying to cover up his nudity, actually; olive branches would have been more appropriate here.

In another instance last year, The Post reported, “The sale of football tickets and fundraising will be the keys for Maryland as it digs itself out of a financial hole.” Perhaps, but climbing out of the hole would be a better strategy. Digging would likely get Maryland further into the hole.

Let’s hope that under the ownership of mogul Jeff Bezos The Post will remain at the forefront of American journalism over a range of media. Hiring more copy editors would provide a good initial boost.

If you’re not Jeff Bezos, you might still need to hire an editor before you turn an olive branch into a fig leaf.

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Author Elmore Leonard: Less Was Elmore



American crime novelist  Elmore Leonard,  who died Aug. 20, was known for hard-boiled characters and lean prose. In a Detroit News obit,  editor and close friend Otto Penzler said Leonard wrote every day in longhand on unlined legal pads, ordering a thousand a year.

“I’ve seen his manuscripts,” Penzler said. “I can see the amount of rewriting he did. He didn’t change words so much as sentence structure … to maintain the cadence. There was a cadence to his writing, frequently compared to jazz.”

Good writing flows. Bad writing stumbles. When your own words are not in rhythm, you may need an editor to make them sing.

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Post Purchase Promotes Prose CEO Jeff Bezos’ purchase of the Washington Post  may or may not turn out to be a good thing for journalism, but there are some encouraging signs.

Washington Post LogoIn an interview published in The Post, he called it “an important institution” and expressed optimism about its future. “I don’t want to imply that I have a worked-out plan,” he said. “This will be uncharted terrain, and it will require experimentation. There would be change with or without new ownership. But the key thing I hope people will take away from this is that the values of The Post do not need changing. The duty of the paper is to the readers, not the owners.”

Bezos also has demonstrated great respect for writing. He is known to be an avid reader and his wife is a novelist. This anecdote may help explain his interest in owning a venerable benchmark of the seemingly dying newspaper industry, as told by Post Company (soon to be renamed) Chairman Don Graham to columnist Ezra Klein: “When Jeff holds meetings are Amazon, he asks people not to use PowerPoints but to write an essay about their product or program or what the meeting is to be about. For the first 10 or 15 minutes, everyone sits and reads the essay. His point is that if you write at length, you have to think first, and he feels the quality of thought you have to do to write at length is greater than the quality of thought to put a PowerPoint together. ”

Bezos understands that writing is important. Good writing is even more important, but for some it’s just hard to do. The ideas are there, but not the prose. That’s when it pays to hire an editor.


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Style Books Battle

2013 AP StylebookAfter ordering my own  copy of the recently issued 2013 Associated Press Stylebook, I was amused when an editor friend sent me this news item:
4 Copy Editors Killed In Ongoing AP Stylebook , Chicago Manual Gang Violence
NEW YORK—Law enforcement officials confirmed Friday that four more copy editors were killed this week amid ongoing violence between two rival gangs divided by their loyalties to the The Associated Press Stylebook and The Chicago Manual Of Style. “At this time we have reason to believe the killings were gang-related and carried out by adherents of both the AP and Chicago styles, part of a vicious, bloody feud to establish control over the grammar and usage guidelines governing American English,” said FBI spokesman Paul Holstein, showing reporters graffiti tags in which the word “anti-social” had been corrected to read “antisocial.” “The deadly territory dispute between these two organizations, as well as the notorious MLA Handbook gang, has claimed the lives of more than 63 publishing professionals this year alone.” Officials also stated that an innocent 35-year-old passerby who found himself caught up in a long-winded dispute over use of the serial, or Oxford, comma had died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Relax before taking this TOO seriously. It came from the satiric Onion website.

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