Tag Archives: editing

Plain Language, Please

Last Wednesday Congress passed H.R. 946, a bill requiring federal agencies to use plain language in their forms, letters, and other documents. The bill passed overwhelmingly, despite a few naysayers who argued that the annual cost ($5 million) was too high for our high government deficits.

Good for Congress. Yes, five million dollars is a high price to pay for simple English. But it seems likely that great amounts of time and (more important) money will be saved in the long run when officials and citizens can understand government documents.

What flabbergasts me is that it’s going to cost $5 million to get officials to do what they should have been doing all along – writing plainly.

This morning I found a marvelous government website that offers many resources to help officials (and, incidentally, you and me) write more clearly: www.plainlanguage.gov.

Way to go, Congress!

(For more tips about clear, up-to-date business style, click here.)


Pronoun Case, Anyone?

Discouraging – that’s what it is. AOL (which certainly has enough extra money lying around to hire an editor) allowed this ad to go up on its website with a pronoun error.

Let’s find out what’s wrong, using the “Thumb Rule” (Rule 3 on Pronouns Made Simple).

The question is whether it’s “Champ and I” or “Champ and me.” These I/me questions crop up all the time. (Similar questions arise with he/him, she/her, we/us, and they/them.)

Here’s how you do it: Make the sentence shorter so that you can hear which word is correct: I or me.

Here is a new photo of I.

Here is a new photo of me.

Which is right?

Here is a new photo of me.  CORRECT

So…use “me” when you make the sentence longer:

Here is a new photo of Champ and me. CORRECT



If and When

I always look forward to opening my mailbox and finding the latest copy of The New Yorker magazine there. The articles and reviews are fun to read, and an additional bonus is the meticulous care that the writers and editors bring to their work.

For example, I always look for the dieresis in coöperate. Hardly anyone else still uses it (I confess that I dropped the dieresis decades ago), but I always get this warm feeling: Someone cares! (For the record, I’m one of very few people who still use an apostrophe in Hallowe’en.)

So it was a shock to come across this sentence in the September 20 issue (“The Face of Facebook”):

If and when Facebook decides to go public, Zuckerberg will become one of the richest men on the planet, and one of the youngest billionaires.

“If” includes “when.” The sentence should read, “If Facebook decides to go public….”

Maybe we should all take heart: Even the meticulous New Yorker is capable of a lapse now and then. It’s ok to be human (especially if you’re still using those beautiful umlauts!).

[P.S. I chose a risky construction for this sentence: Im one of very few people who still use an apostrophe in Hallowe’en.

Many people would make it “still uses.” My reasoning is that I’ve put together two sentences that read like this:

I’m one of very few people. Those people still use an apostrophe in Hallowe’en.

You can read more about this debate by clicking here and reading Rule 6.]


Double-Check It, Please

In my July 28 post I mentioned Tinker Bell, the fairy in Sir James M. Barrie’s wonderful Peter Pan. I typed it as one word, with an “e” at the end. Because I’m an editor and trained to be accurate, a couple of minutes later I started to wonder about that final “e.” After a quick Google search I discovered two things: That “e” had to go, and the fairy’s name is two words, not one.

Good editors are doubters, and good editing is very different from good reading. A good reader takes in the message and information in big chunks. Editors creep along slowly and stop to ask many questions along the way. Is that really how he spells his name? Is New York City really the capital of New York (no, it’s Albany). Should capital be spelled with an “o”? (Only when it’s a government building or a business that spells its name that way, such as Capitol Records).

I edit college documents for the institution where I worked as a professor for almost 30 years. Knowing the faculty and staff can be a huge advantage. I often notice factual errors (she goes by her middle name, he lives in another city) that an outsider might miss.

Because checking and double-checking are so important to me, I’m endlessly astonished at the “So what?” attitude of so many writers. Last week I was flabbergasted when I read the title of this new movie in our newspaper: The Kids Are Alright. The movie was listed that way in two places – the review and, a few pages later, in the local schedule of showings.

The name of the movie (I checked it!) is The Kids Are All Right. But somebody who works for our local newspaper apparently decided that the movie producers didn’t know the correct title of their own movie – or figured that it didn’t make any difference.

If you don’t care about accuracy, you shouldn’t be working for a newspaper. (And if you don’t know that all right is always two words, you shouldn’t be holding any kind of writing job.)

Years ago, when I was a prison teacher, I submitted an article to The Journal of Correctional Education. The editor called to tell me that my article was going to be published after she corrected the spelling errors.

“I don’t make spelling errors,” I told her. There was silence at the other end of the phone.

Six months later, when my article was published, she’d changed my correctly spelled argument to the incorrect arguement.

She didn’t own a dictionary?

I talk to many people who wish they were better writers, and I’ll be the first to admit that good writing is a challenge. But there’s a simple principle that will instantly make any piece of writing better: Double-check what you’ve written.

 Today’s Quiz ANSWER

You can improve this sentence by removing the unnecessary word “currently.”

She currently lives in a beautiful apartment high over the city of Toronto. ORIGINAL SENTENCE

She lives in a beautiful apartment high over the city of Toronto. BETTER

Incidentally, you could argue that “the city of Toronto” can be shortened to simply “Toronto.” It’s also possible, however, that “the city of” helps you see Toronto in your mind’s eye. I’d call this one a judgment call.


Please RSVP

 I enjoy reading “Miss Manners,” an etiquette column in our local newspaper. (Her real name is Judith Martin.) Although I don’t always agree with her advice, her column is provocative and entertaining.

But this week Miss Manners wandered away from table manners to make a pronouncement about English. She holds a degree in English from Wellesley College, so she’s entitled to do that. But I found her reasoning faulty.

A reader complained about receiving invitations that included the request to “please RSVP.” The reader noted that RSVP (literally “respond, if you please” in French) already includes the word “please” and is therefore redundant. Would it be permissible for her to give a quick French lesson to the friends who issue the invitations?

Miss Manners thought not. But she did issue a request for readers to use the English language, not French, when issuing an invitation: “Please respond” or “The favor of a response is requested” would be better than the French RSVP.

Whoa. If we were to banish every French word from English, we would lose thousands of useful words. And I’m not just talking about obvious imports like “champagne,” “souffle,” and “saute.” We’d have to get rid of every -tion word (“election,” for example). And there are countless others that came from directly from French to English.

It’s true that Miss Manners’ suggested response doesn’t employ any French words. But “Please respond” is a Latin derivative, and so is the word “requested.” If we wanted to get rid of every Latin word, we’d really be in a pickle. (That sentence I just wrote is almost 100% English, but the rest of this post is replete with imported words. I don’t think I could write without them.)

Miss Manners’ campaign for English rather than French reminds me of the people who want us to install only native plants in our landscape. (My husband, a garden writer, runs into this kind of thinking all the time.) Crape myrtles, my favorite shrubs, aren’t native. They come from Japan. But they’re perfectly suited for Central Florida, where we live. In addition to the gorgeous blossoms, crape myrtles display attractive bark. They are pest resistant, drought resistant, and disease resistant. And they’re not invasive. Who cares about their ancestry?

Back to the French vs. English argument. (“Versus” is a Latin word, incidentally.) English usage is not based on historical principles, and logic isn’t useful either. The sole criterion is whether your target audience is comfortable with the word or expression in question.

Based on that reasoning, RSVP is in. Now, you could argue that “The favor of a response is requested” is more elegant. I’m with you. Or you could say that “Please respond” is more friendly than those four letters from the alphabet. I’m still with you.

But skip the specious reasoning, s’il vous plaît. Merci! (Maybe I should restate that: Skip the specious reasoning, please. Thanks!)

RSVP Dollar ok



This week my husband and I took Amtrak to Jupiter, Florida, where we spent two days fishing (and releasing our catch) with a guide. I had bought a Sony Pocket Reader expressly for trips like this one. It’s a lightweight electronic reading device, similar to a Kindle, that can hold plenty of books, saving space and weight in my suitcase.

Turns out I should have saved some of that space for an unabridged dictionary. One of the books I loaded onto my Pocket Reader was an anthology of writings by Oliver Sacks, a neurologist whose articles and books I’ve always enjoyed. In a reminiscence about a patient who’d had sleeping sickness, I came across these three words: oculogyria, palilalic, and coprolalic.

I copied them so that I could look them up at www.Dictionary.com when I returned. “Oculogyria,” it turns out, means “The limits of rotation of the eyeballs.” (There’s a handy word!) “Palilalic” wasn’t listed at all (a Google search shows that it refers to a speech defect in which words are unnecessarily repeated). The last word on my list, “coprolalic,” was misspelled: Dictionary.com listed it as “coprolaliac” and gave the meaning as “scatalogical” (an adjective referring to bathroom humor).

Bad writing. I get the feeling that Sacks, a medical doctor, was showing off, or too lazy to try to make himself clear – or simply didn’t care whether his readers understood him or not. Even worse, his editor didn’t bother to challenge him about those three words.

I came across a similar problem in an article I edited about six months ago: The author had used the word “paremiological,” which again isn’t listed at Dictionary.com. A Google search finally unearthed the meaning. (It’s an adjective referring to proverbs.)

There’s a simple principle that all writers should follow: Make yourself clear.

Which isn’t the same as making yourself sound simpleminded and boring – a false choice that many writers talk themselves into.

In fact I think you could argue that clarity and sophistication should always go together in professional writing. The trick is making yourself understood without regressing into choppy little sentences and oversimplified word choices.

You could go a step further and say that there’s a huge philosophical issue here. Very few ideas are new. How do you make them interesting and fresh?

If this question interests you (and it should), you’re in good company – and I’m not just talking about writers.  Suzanne Farrell, the great ballerina from the New York City Ballet, said that her greatest challenge was to make the steps interesting. I’m a dancer myself (ballroom, not ballet), and I know what Farrell was talking about.

But our subject is writing. So how do you make sentences interesting when you’re using a language that’s over a thousand years old? Here are some suggestions:

1.  Go ahead and use unfamiliar words, but be careful to define them in the context. Oliver Sacks could have said, “She improvised a variety of coprolaliac limericks that astonished me. Where had this prim woman acquired a gift for bathroom humor?”

2.  Use a semicolon now and then. It makes you look brilliant, but it’s no harder to understand than a sentence ending with a period (which is pretty much what a semicolon sentence is). I love semicolons; they add elegance to my writing.

3.  Use embedded clauses, as I’m doing here, to combine two ideas. Embedded clauses, when used effectively, work much better than sentences strung together with “and.”

4.  Put yourself on a reading program. It’s a great way to absorb sentence patterns; you’ll soon notice the difference in your writing. Thanks to Bartleby.com, which is just a few clicks away, we have instant access to countless great writers.

5.  Most important, don’t be fooled into thinking that big words are going to impress readers. It’s foolish to write gloriously coprolaliac limericks – or anything else – if nobody understands what you’re trying to say.

Oliver Sacks Wikipedia 2

Oliver Sacks



Parallelism in Sentences

Very few writers use parallelism correctly. Here’s an example from a Dear Abby letter published today. This sentence isn’t parallel and needs to be fixed:

He is intelligent, financially stable, and loves me and my son.  NOT PARALLEL

Writing the sentence as if it were a poem can help you see where the problem lies:

He is


financially stable

loves me and my son

“He is” doesn’t match “loves me and my son.”

A better sentence would have been:

He is


financially stable

loving to me and my son

(He is intelligent, financially stable, and loving to me and my son.)

Or the sentence could have been written this way:

He is intelligent and financially stable, and he loves me and my sonCORRECT

The problems always arise with the third item in the list. Make sure it matches the other two – or make it a new sentence.

Here’s another non-parallel sentence. Can you see how to fix it? I’ll add a correction at the end.

We need to mop the floors, wash the windows, and the bathroom needs scrubbing.

We need to

mop the floors

wash the windows

the bathroom needs scrubbing

Correct version: We need to mop the floors, wash the windows, and scrub the bathroom.

OR: We need to mop the floors and wash the windows, and the bathroom needs scrubbing.  CORRECT

Parallelism is impressive, important, and easy to learn.

"Dear Abby" - Pauline Phillips

“Dear Abby” – Pauline Phillips