Tag Archives: Editing Tips

Collective Nouns and Pronouns the Right Way

One of the most frequent errors I see in newsletters, emails and even in the media is non-agreement of collective nouns and pronouns. Most people know that collective nouns take singular pronouns (that is, a company wins its award, not their award). When the collective noun in question is a company or team name, however, confusion reigns; all the more so if the proper name is plural. Two recent examples:

AgriLife is one of the country’s largest purveyors of products for a simpler lifestyle. They have been very successful providing cheese-making kits to their customers for the past two years.

Smith Brothers Food Markets wants to emphasize their growing line of cleaned and pre-cut vegetables for busy, active cooks.

Team: Is it singular or plural?

Team: Singular or plural pronoun?

In both sentences, all the pronouns should be singular (it, its, itself, not they, their, themselves). While generic collective nouns (such as army, crowd, team) can be singular or plural, depending on whether the group is acting in unison or as individual members, named businesses, schools and organizations are always singular.

This seems logical to me. Many individuals comprise a business, company, governmental unit. school, or team, but each organization operates as a single entity.

As noted above, however, when the members of an unnamed group act in unison, everyone doing essentially the same thing at the same time, then the collective noun is singular and requires singular pronouns for agreement. But when an organization’s members act as individuals, taking separate or different actions, then the collective noun is plural and requires plural pronouns for agreement. While grammatically correct, this generates awkward-sounding sentences:

At the rehearsal, the cast took their places so that each actor could see the spacing between them.

The council disagree whether they should overturn the mayor’s veto.

If deciding whether a particular collective noun should be considered singular or plural confuses you, there are ways to write around it.

  • Substitute a plural noun for the collective noun, allowing use of the more natural-sounding plural pronouns: The cast (actors) earned $500 each for their roles.
  • Add the word members after a collective noun. Members, serving as a plural antecedent, requires a more natural-sounding plural pronoun: When the curtain falls, the cast members take their bows. The council members voted to return the surplus money to the taxpayers.

Still having a hard time with this collective thing? There’s a smarter, more effective alternative: Give up and hire an editor!


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Should Sleeping Dogs Lie or Lay, and Other Grammar Puzzlers

Grammar’s burning questions confronted.

In the adage “let sleeping dogs lie,”  is “lie” correct, or should it be “lay?” Do members comprise a committee, or do they compose one? Head-scratchers like these come up often, and each time they befuddle me anew. But do they continually befuddle me? Or is “continuously” the word I’m looking for?

Thankfully, the answers to such perplexing questions are now but a few keystrokes away. Any time you’re not sure whether you’re using the correct word or phrase,  just type the words that confuse you into a search engine and you’ll turn up more choices for grammar answers than you’ll ever need–and almost as many opinions about what’s right.

Here are a few examples:

Lie or Lay?

You lay or place something, as in: Lay the carpet or lay the book on the table. But you lie on a bed or other flat surface.
Therefore, the following  sentences are incorrect: He is laying on the bed. Why don’t you lie it on the bed? The correct forms are:  He is lying on the bed; why don’t you lay the book on the bed?

Here’s where it gets really confusing: The past tense and past participle of  lay is laid (they laid the groundwork; he had laid the plans), while the past tense of lie is lay and its past participle is lain: He lay on the floor face down; she had lain in bed for hours.

Continuing, Continuous or Continual?

Sorry, these words are not interchangeable.

Continual implies recurrence at regular or frequent intervals–for example, playing baseball requires continual practice. Continual means duration over a long period of time, but with intervals of interruptions.  A corporation evaluates the effectiveness of its products and implements change on a continual basis.

Continuous means extending uninterruptedly in time: For example: a continuous rain fell in Seattle for two days. Continuous is duration that continues over a period of time, but without intervals of interruption. For example:  The plan called for continuous improvement.  The electric fan emitted a continuous whirring sound.

In some cases, however, continuous can be interchangeable with continuing. If we look at them both as adjectives, continuous means unbroken and continuing usually means from a given point onward. Both can describe time or distance.  Some examples:

At one time, Route 66 was a continuous length of highway, stretching from Los Angeles to Chicago.

Ever since I’ve known you, your complaining has been continuous.

Your continuing tardiness will not be tolerated.  (into the future)

As a present participle, continuing is often used in verb forms and as a gerund:  Continuing with this charade would be a grave mistake! (gerund)

The train passed through St. Louis and was continuing to Chicago. (participial phrase)

She was continuing to annoy me.  (past progressive tense)

Comprise or Compose?

Comprise means “is made up of” or “consists of.”  The whole comprises the parts. Compose means “make up” or “”make.”  The parts compose the whole.

Incorrect:  The Beatles was comprised of four musicians.

Correct:  The Beatles was composed of four musicians.

Correct:  The Beatles comprised four musicians.

Correct:  Four musicians composed the Beatles.

Searching for answers.

Once again, in practice it’s not that cut-and-dried. What about the phrases “is comprised of” and “is composed of”? In her excellent essay on this subject, Grammar Girl notes, “One of these (phrases) is allowed among grammarians, and one is not. ‘Is composed of’  is OK. You can say, ‘Our nation is composed of many ethnic groups.’ On the other hand, most grammar sources agree that ‘is comprised of” is an incorrect phrase. Just as you can’t say, ‘The house includes of seven rooms,’ you can’t say, ‘The house is comprised of seven rooms.’ You have to say, ‘The house comprises seven rooms.’”

Even this rule may be changing, however. Grammar Girl cites a survey by the  American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and StyleThe survey reports  that in 1965, 54 percent of the usage panel disapproved of the phrase “is comprised of,” whereas in 2005, 65 percent approved of it, and only 35 percent disapproved. This traditional distinction may be destined to fall by the wayside.

Confusing? Of course! So don’t frustrate yourself with such arcane rules. When it comes to getting your words shipshape, just hire an editor and let an expert decide.


Filed under Behind the Words, Editing Tips

The KISS Method: Keep It Short, Stupid


USA Today Founder and Columnist Al Neuharth

When Gannett began publishing USA Today in 1982, journalism pundits roundly ridiculed the five-day-a-week paper for its “McJournalism” style: short, punchy articles as lean as editors could make them. Today, in the Internet Age, that style almost seems long-winded, at least compared to 140-character-or-less tweets.

USA Today founder Al Neuharth’s Plain Talk of March 25, 2011, discussed how he writes his weekly column, which is never more than 300 words.

“When I do the first draft,” Neuharth wrote, “it sometimes runs 500 words or more. That’s easy. Trimming it down is difficult. That sometimes takes me two or three hours.

“Getting things short and to the point us the most important thing we should keep in mind in our personal or professional lives. In writing or speaking. From grade school to high school to college to our job.

“Long-winded stuff loses the attention of listeners., readers, viewers, friends, even family. That’s true in one-on-one discussions, group gatherings or the mass media.”

That’s great advice. But when you don’t have the time to polish   writing yourself, find yourself a good editor.

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What an Editor Does, for the Most Part

To edit a document, whether it’s a single-page letter or a lengthy article, I try to read it, beginning to end. If  I can keep reading all the way to the end without stopping, then the writer has done a pretty good job. If I can’t get through the first paragraph, well, the writer may need some help.Regardless, I skim to the end of the document. Then I go back to the beginning and start playing with the words.

Pen in HandTo begin, I must first know the purpose of the document, its desired length and its intended audience. Those three variables determine the language and style that will be utilized.

When I edit the writing, I am not  necessarily looking to cut. I edit the writing to:

  • Omit needless words.
  • Aid clarity. 
  • Vary language, so specific words are not used too often, such as twice in one sentence or paragraph, or in related headlines.
  • Vary sentence length and punctuation to establish a conversational rhythm and flow to the writing, or vary the rhythm for effect.
  • Ensure adequate transition from sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph, section to section.
  • Capture and keep a reader’s attention.
  • End on a definitive note.

Good editing should not change the original voice of the writing, just make it communicate better and more efficiently.

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Finding the Right Words: An Editor Can Make a Difference

When this is the first e-mail I read in the morning, I know I still have a place in this world.

“Can you take a look at this and make sure our grammer and messages flow correctly?”

If the clients can’t spell grammar, can they possibly have a clue how to use it properly?

Tools of the trade.

In a world that wants to communicate in 140-character snippets, perhaps only snooty English teachers and persnickety editors still care about grammar and spelling. Certainly not a day goes by that I don’t see examples of bad grammar, misspellings and incorrect choice of words in published articles or ads in print and on the Internet. Only the perpetrators know whether the mistakes can be blamed on ignorance or carelessness.

From the Tacoma News-Tribune Mariners Insider Blog: “The Seattle Mariners had a fine season, though a few ex-patriots are having better ones – and unless the Minnesota Twins win the World Series, some former Mariner is going home with a ring.” (As far as I know, all ex-Patriots played in the National Football League. Expatriates would be the correct word here.)

From the Magnolia-Queen Anne News: “When he’s not hanging out with his wife, and daughter, Beaudoin can be found in his office in Fremont and sometimes tapping his next tomb at the Magnolia Tullys.” First, ditch the unnecessary comma between wife and daughter. Then the problem with spell check surfaces: It’s probably just a typo, but “tomb” is spelled correctly nonetheless. Unless this author is chiseling his own tombstone while sipping his latte, “tome” would be a more likely candidate.

Changing rolls in the Mariners bullpen?

A Seattle Times sports section headline: “League, Kelley fill Lowe’s roll.” What kind of filling did the two relief pitchers provide–grand salami and high cheese, perhaps? (At least the first paragraph under the headline used the word role correctly.)

One of my own pet peeves has been the choice between “over” and “more than.” In American newspapers, where I learned my grammar, the Associated Press Stylebook said that “over” denotes a spatial relationship (I hold my hand over the desk), while “more than” and “fewer than” (or “less than,” but that’s another topic altogether) are used in a numerical relationship (his salary increased more than 12 percent).

In the world at large, however, the choice is not so clear. While the Associated Press Stylebook states, “More than is preferred with numerals,” The Chicago Manual of Style says “As an equivalent of more than, [over] is perfectly good idiomatic English.” Three grammar blogs (Grammar Girl, Business Writing and The Writer’s Bag) have three different opinions. The long and short of it: Go with common sense and what sounds right.

Look at this recent article from The New York Times. The headline: “Over 14 Years, an American Inmate and Peru Itself Found Ways to Transform.” The article begins, “When Lori Berenson was jailed in Peru on terrorism charges over 14 years ago, she was a fiery young leftist from New York.” Clearly, “over” is the right word in the headline. But in the first sentence of the article, the choice is not as cut and dried. “More than” to me sounds clearer, more dignified. It fits the sentence and the publication better. “Over” isn’t wrong, just not as good.

In your own writing, choosing the right words in each particular situation can make a difference in how your message is perceived. Making those decisions may require the expertise and feel of an experienced editor.

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How to Be Your Own Editor

Sometimes I (jokingly) tell my business clients that they don’t really need to hire a professional editor. And they wouldn’t–as long as they did these six things:

  1. Declare a Designated Proofreader and Grand Poobah of Writing for your office. It can be you, but it’s even more effective if it’s someone else–especially if that someone is careful and likes to read. Make that person your document QA (quality assurance) specialist.
  2. Get a dictionary. I’d recommend Webster’s New World College Dictionary (Fourth Edition), the accepted standard throughout journalism. Get a discounted price on Amazon.com by buying the accompanying Roget’s A-Z Thesaurus at the same time.
  3. Get an Associated Press Stylebook. It provides logical, easy-to-look up rules for capitalization, abbreviation and more. It’s now available online and on phone applications, but keeping a printed copy in the office bookcase is a good idea.
  4. Get The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. This thin, breezily written volume resolves 99 percent of the grammar issues you’ll ever come across, plus the best advice on writing I’ve ever gotten: Omit needless words.
  5. Develop a style guide of your own. Just open a Word document and make entries when you think of it regarding how you want to spell and punctuate terms at your company. Be sure to list them alphabetically so they can be retrieved easily, and your company style guide will gradually evolve. Circulate it periodically, so everybody in the organization knows the rules.
  6. Don’t just guess–look it up! Use these tools whenever you prepare a document, and your writing will communicate better and look sharper. And don’t ever trust a computer program to perform an accurate spelling or grammar check.

Realize, of course, that while everybody in your organization may know that rules on grammar and style exist, only the Designated Proofreader and Grand Poobah of Writing will actually try to follow them and care when others do not. That’s why this person is so essential to your company’s internal and external communications.

If you don’t have one–or the time to do it right yourself–well, maybe you need an editor after all. Here’s one who can help you.

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Proofreading, Anyone?

In their second game of the new baseball season, San Francisco Giants outfielder Eugenio Velez wore a  jersey that read “San Francicso.” According to The Associated Press, no one noticed until after the Giants’ 10-4 win over the Astros. Interestingly, the AP story quoted  the Dominican outfielder saying “Incredible!” in Spanish. Except the AP version left out the “i” in incredible.

Another set

...of eyes can be helpful.

I had just finished reading that story in The Seattle Times when I turned my attention to a slick, expensively produced pamphlet published by Animal Health division of Novartis, one of the biggest pharaceutical companies in the world. And yet in its section on training, it refers to “methods based on punitive principals.” (Principles would be the correct word here.)

Doesn’t anybody bother to proofread anymore? A second pair of educated eyes can spare a lot of embarrassment later. Better get an editor.


Filed under Editing Tips, Writing Tips

Need an Editor? Try This Short Quiz

What’s wrong in the following paragraph?

The hotel manager ordered the house-keeping staff to dust the mantle above the fireplace in the lobby, but that does not infer the staff was doing a poor job. He also complemented their overall effort and it’s positive affect on the hotels business.

If you thought that paragraph looked fine…well, you might need an editor.

The meaning of those two sentences comes across, more or less. But the paragraph actually includes seven common errors in grammar, punctuation, capitalization, and spelling (look below to see what they are). Many people won’t even notice them. But if these were your words, these little mistakes could add up and make a reader think that you don’t pay enough attention to detail–or worse. That’s not the high degree of professionalism you want to project.

Good writing makes the best and longest-lasting impression, because printed words tend to stick around. Your customers and staff will look at the communications that you put in front of them again and again. Therefore, always make sure that you are communicating professionally and effectively. Your writing should read smart, look sharp, and put your best words forward.

An editor can help with that. Another set of eyes can sharpen and direct your language, improve its flow, increase its focus, and make it consistent from page to page in multiple presentations and platforms. An editor spots the holes in your writing, anticipates the questions it will generate, and makes your message more effective. As Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis said, “There is no great writing, only great rewriting.”

It's tough work, but somebody's gotta do it.

But do you, personally, need an editor for your writing? How many mistakes did you find in the paragraph above? “I cannot think of anybody who doesn’t need an editor,” Nobel Prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison said, “even though some people claim they don’t.”

The mistakes in that italicized paragraph are listed below. If you missed some of them, contact a professional editor .

  1. “housekeeping” should not be hyphenated; it is one word
  2. A “mantel” is a shelf over the fireplace; a “mantle” is a shroud or cloak, or something that covers
  3. “infer” is incorrect in this usage; the correct word in this case is “imply”
  4. “complemented” means “completed; “complimented” means praised
  5. “it’s” is a contraction for it is; this should be “its” (with no apostrophe), a possessive pronoun replacing “effort”
  6. “affect” is a verb; the correct word is “effect,” which is a noun
  7. “hotels” is a plural; in this case, its use is possessive, so there should be an apostrophe (“hotel’s”)

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