Category Archives: Editing

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Editor Needed

squirrelIn a junior-high-school grammar lesson about misplaced and dangling modifiers, I was given this memorable sentence to correct: “Clinging to the side of the aquarium, Mary saw the starfish.” Poor Mary. It is exhausting to be asked to hang onto an aquarium wall that way.

I was thinking about that sentence recently when my sister, a lawyer, sent me a provision from the New Jersey Administrative Code. She and her husband are trying to deal with the squirrels in the attic, and so she had checked the …

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Witnessing a Rule Change: Singular ‘They’

They mugI have a new favorite mug. It was given to me by the graduate students in the Joint Program in English and Education (JPEE) and celebrates my advocacy of singular they—with the explanatory footnote.

But when can we stop including the footnote?

We got one step closer two weeks ago, when Bill Walsh, chief of the night copy desk at The Washington Post, sent an email to the newsroom announcing some changes in the style guidelines. In addition to eliminating the hyphen in email and endorsing the spel…

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Proven Winners

Does it matter if things have been proved or proven? I ask this as a grammatical question, not a philosophical one about the nature of evidence. Does it matter if one uses proved or proven as the past participle of the verb prove?

If you’re in the it-doesn’t-matter camp, you’re not alone. But the it-does-matter camp is not deserted (yet).

Bryan Garner is one of the folks in the latter camp. In Garner’s Modern American Usage (third edition), he writes, “Proved has long been the preferred past par…

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A Day in the Life of a Lexicographer

David Barnhart comes from a lexicographical dynasty. He and his late brother, Robert, have both been in the profession of making dictionaries, following in the footsteps of their famous father Clarence L. Barnhart, author of the Thorndike-Barnhart series of dictionaries. David now works at home and in the local libraries, finding and defining words for his quarterly journal, The Barnhart Dictionary Companion.

So what is his day like? He starts by reading the paper and listening to news on the r…

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Evasive Passives in Texas

Ellen Bresler Rockmore, in her New York Times op-ed “How Texas Teaches History,” levels a grammatical accusation against history textbooks recently approved for use in Texas schools:

The writers’ decisions about how to construct sentences, about what the subject of the sentence will be, about whether the verb will be active or passive, shape the message that slavery was not all that bad.

This is a serious charge. The sheer scale of the Atlantic slave trad…

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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…

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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…

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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.

yoo-hoo_chocolate_12oz-bottle_l

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…

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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…

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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’ …