Category Archives: Editing


Permission to Footnote

It’s been 17 years since my realization that I was hoarding footnotes. I was using plenty of footnotes in my own academic work: I had been doing that since graduate school. But I was withholding footnotes from undergraduates.

Not that I was actively forbidding undergraduate students from inserting footnotes into their essays. But I wasn’t teaching them how to do it either, which meant that their essays included exactly zero footnotes.

I was teaching a senior seminar at the time of the realizatio…


The Gray Lady Gets Jiggy

Jon Stewart

Jon Stewart: “If you smell something, say something”

August 8 was a momentous day, at least in my geeky world. That was because The New York Times decided “bullshit” was Fit To Print. Twice before in its 164-year history (in 1977 and 2007), the paper quoted someone as saying the word, and it has appeared on the paper’s website, but its first straight-up print appearance, with no quotation marks, was in this sentence from Neil Genzlinger’s article about Jon Stewart’s final broadcast: “He delivere…


Hyphenation, Carbonation, and X-Rays

The catcher and sage Yogi Berra was allegedly once asked if the name of the bottled chocolate beverage he endorsed was hyphenated. “No ma’am,” he is said to have replied. “It’s not even carbonated.”

Yogi was wrong on the first point, as you can see from this image.


But his confusion is understandable, so thorny can the subject of hyphens be. Even the Yoo-hoo folks appear to be hedging their bets, judging from the tininess of the hyphen on the label.

Hyphens are on my mind because a physician fr…


But, Seriously

Anyone who reads college papers — and who pays attention to the punctuation therein — will recognize a fairly recent trend of students following a sentence-opening conjunction with a comma. As in: “But, that’s incorrect!”

I will immediately and quickly address the “gross canard” (Garner’s Modern American English) that starting a sentence with But, And, or any other conjunction is problematic. Every stylebook I’ve ever seen agrees it is perfectly kosher; the only mystery is how so many middle-sch…


Laying Low

laying low 2Last week a friend texted to see if I wanted to go out for dinner. I was recovering from some minor surgery and had been told to stay mostly indoors and take it easy. So I texted back a regretful no and added, “I’m just laying low this weekend.”

I stared at the sentence on my phone (having not yet hit send) and thought, “Wait, is it ‘laying low’?”

Another voice in my head responded, “No, it must be ‘lying low.’ It’s clearly intransitive.”

“But,” I protested (in my head), “‘laying low’ …


Legal and Illegal Commas

One of the commenters on “Dumb Copy Editing Survives” last week said something that worried me. My topic was the contrast between sentences of the sort seen in [1a] and [1b] (I prefix [1b] with an asterisk to indicate that it is ungrammatical):

[1] a.  We are none of us native or purebred.
b. *We are, none of us, native or purebred.


What the commenter said was: “If I read the erroneous version, I would have still taken away the exact same meaning. I’d just think there were too many co…


Dumb Copy Editing Survives

Once, when I was younger, I was (you’ll find this hard to imagine) somewhat abrasive, and I openly despised copy editors and all their kith and kin. I had formed the impression that they are all irritating, pusillanimous time-wasters. Primitive, mindless creatures whose instincts drive them, antlike, to make slavishly defined changes.

They would unsplit infinitives that I had split for good reason; they would reflexively change since to because even if I had deliberately avoided the latter becau…


Academic Writing as Such

I am being a stick-in-the-mud about the phrase as such, and I have decided I need to change my ways.

As the graduate students whose dissertations I have been reading over the past few weeks will attest, I have been underlining many — but not all — of their uses of as such. Finally one of them asked me what the problem was. She said, “I’m thinking perhaps I don’t know how to use this phrase.”

Or perhaps she knows exactly what this phrase means to many of her readers and I am just behind the times…


Truly Incompetent English


Purist curmudgeons, opinionated columnists, and angry commenters keep telling us that English is disintegrating and soon we will be unable to understand each other. Even academics allege such things (“Grammar is defunct” among students, said Paula Fredriksen, a professor of religion emerita at Boston University, in a 2013 speech at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences).

I regard such claims as wildly overstated. Sporadic acorns of innovation or idiosyncrasy are mistaken for pieces of a fal…


The Double Meaning of ‘Bi-’

Poster by Chris Corneal, Michigan State U.

When we clash about usage, sometimes the arguments are so fierce because the stakes are so small. Does it really matter, for example, whether we say “20 items or fewer” or “20 items or less”? Of course it does, to those who see “less” as a sign of the collapse of civilization, but not much to the rest of us. Either way, there’s no question what the sign means. Count the contents of your cart, and direct it toward the appropriate aisle.

Most other questi…