Tag Archives: Editing

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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Filed under Editing Tips, Grammar, Uncategorized

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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Good Grammar Is a Necessity, Not a Luxury

Good grammar and writing skills are important to presenting you and your business in the most positive light, according to Kyle Wiens, CEO of  the free, online repair manual iFixit.

“Good grammar is credibility, especially on the Internet. In blog posts, on Facebook statuses, in emails, and on company websites, your words are all you have. They are a projection of you in your physical absence. And, for better or worse, people judge you if you can’t tell the difference between their, there, and they’re.

“Good grammar makes good business sense — and not just when it comes to hiring writers. Writing isn’t in the official job description of most people in our office. Still, we give our grammar test to everybody, including our salespeople, our operations staff, and our programmers. If it takes someone more than 20 years to notice how to properly use “it’s,” then that’s not a learning curve I’m comfortable with. So, even in this hyper-competitive market, I will pass on a great programmer who cannot write.”

Read Wiens’ full article on why he won’t hire people who use poor grammar here.

And when you’re not comfortable with your own writing or grammar prowess, maybe it’s time to hire an editor to polish your words.

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Filed under Commentary, Grammar

Find Out What an Editor Does

The Editors’ Association of Canada (EAC) has published the 11-page brochure “So You Want to Be an
Editor, ”  a guide for people interested in editing as a profession. Many parts of it would also be beneficial for someone thinking about hiring an editor, explaining the many things editors do and the many reasons efficient communication is important in all fields.

Here’s favorite list in the brochure (edited by me, of course!):

  1. Editors think for a living.
  2. Successful editors turn their love of language into a way to earn a living and have an impact on the world around them.
  3. Editors are team players, often working with writers, publishers and other editors to reach a common goal.
  4. Technology is changing the way that editors do their work and the types of documents they deal with, but not the reason for editing. An editor’s goal is always the same: to improve communication.

Nicely said.

EAC is making the brochure available for free. Read the text or download it as a PDF from

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Filed under Editing Tips, Strokes & Plugs

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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Filed under Editing Tips, Writing Tips

Sending an Email: Why You Need an Editor

Version 5 of Microsoft’s Style for Technical Communications, which came out in June 2010, changed the company’s style of hyphenating e-mail and writing Web site as two words, capitalizing Web. Henceforth in Microsoft communications, email (a noun, still never a verb) will have no hyphen. Web will now be lowercase, “except when referring to a UI element or feature name, such as Web Slice, or in the phrase World Wide Web.” Website and webpage have become one word, but all other two-word web terms remain as two words.

A Microsoft memo explained; “We’re making this change to Microsoft style to improve consistency across Microsoft content and to align with the evolution of these terms in technological and general usage.” The memo also noted, “Dropping the hyphen from email is a style decision particular to this word. Other e-words, such as e-commerce, will keep their hyphens, and all other words with hyphens will continue to be hyphenated. However, avoid e-words when you can use words without the prefix, and don’t coin new e-words. For example, use commerce and mail rather than e-commerce and email when the context is clear.”

What’s important here is not what policies Microsoft adopts, but that Microsoft is yet another powerful and accepted authority in the field of grammar, style and usage–one of many, in fact. So many well-argued interpretations are on the Internet today that many traditional rules on grammar and spelling are becoming more arbitrary than absolute.

Certainly, in many cases there can be more than one way (or should it be over one way?) to be correct. However, there is only one way to be consistent. Companies, organizations and individuals should set their own style guides for words and phrases common to their communications, and then stick to them. Another pair of eyeballs can never hurt in accomplishing that goal. Hire an editor.

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Filed under Behind the Words, Commentary, Editing Tips