Even veterans in the fields of journalism and marketing communications can benefit from stopping once in a while to consider some common writing mistakes that copy editors fix all the time. None of us are immune to the pitfalls of our language. (Or should that be None of us is immune? Read on!) If you master the following, you will have ten fewer corrections on your next batch of copy.
- Don’t dangle your modifiers.
Dangling modifiers: They’re everywhere. They’re often funny. But we need to fix them. Think of them as tiny puzzles you get to solve.
“Walking past the bakery, a pie enticed me.” Though a good pie does seem to have human powers to entice (superhuman if it’s chocolate peanut butter), it probably can’t walk. One possible fix: “As I walked past the bakery, a pie enticed me.” Without the “I,” the sentence is devoid of what is being modified.
Note that danglers don’t only appear at the beginnings of sentences: “Leanne made a chair for her aunt with claw feet.” I wonder what Leanne made for the aunt with crow’s-feet. Make it: “Leanne made a chair with claw feet for her aunt.”
- Know how to use compose, comprise, and make up.
When my daughter who is a junior in high school got a brochure in the mail from an elite college with copy that read (I paraphrase to avoid singling out one of many institutions that produce less than perfect publications), “Apple, Banana, and Cherry Colleges together comprise the Totally Awesome College Consortium,” I told her she was not allowed to apply to that school. It’s simple, really: The whole comprises the parts. In this case, the consortium comprises the three colleges. One could also write that the three colleges make up or compose the consortium. Though Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (eleventh edition) lists “compose, constitute” as the third definition of comprise, a note points out that “you may be subject to criticism” for using it in that sense, and that “you may want to choose a safer synonym.” We don’t want to wrench the reader out of the substance of the writing to question our linguistic precision. On a related note, don’t write comprised of if you don’t want readers to be distracted by what many of them have been taught is an error.
- Be careful with the word ironic.
Don’t use ironic when you mean unfortunate or surprising or improbable or coincidental. Just ask Alanis Morissette, whose 1995 song Ironic sparked debates that have persisted for more than two decades. While some argue that her song demonstrates situational irony, most language mavens dismiss her examples as patently not ironic (a traffic jam when you’re already late is annoying, yes, and a bummer, certainly, but it’s not ironic). Do use ironic when the firehouse burns down.
- Don’t qualify absolutes.
Speaking of Morissette, singer Katy Perry described Jagged Little Pill, the album on which Ironic appears, as “the most perfect female record ever made.” Unless you’re quoting the preamble of the U.S. Constitution, don’t qualify absolutes such as perfect, flawless, and unique. No matter how much beading and lace my bespoke gown has, I would never write that it is more unique than yours.
- Use that and which properly.
If you’re writing for a British publication, you may breeze through the sub-editing (i.e., the copy-editing) department with the sentence “She held up the box which was broken.” But write that sentence for an American magazine, and the copy editor may well ask if you mean “She held up the box that was broken” (this sentence specifies which of the boxes she held up) or “She held up the box, which was broken” (what follows the comma is additional information about the one box and could be deleted without changing the meaning of the sentence). The Associated Press Stylebook (2017) refers to this distinction as one between essential and nonessential clauses. Other style guides use the terms restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses. Nonrestrictive clauses, set off by commas, give bonus information and thus could be deleted without changing the meaning of the sentence.
- Know whether none is singular or plural.
It is a myth that none always takes a singular verb. “If a rule is needed,” writes Theodore Bernstein in The Careful Writer (Atheneum, 1965), “a better one is to consider none to be a plural unless there is a definite reason to regard it as a singular.” The singular is indeed needed in a sentence such as “None of the food was fresh,” but only the plural makes sense in “None of the negotiations have succeeded” because, in Bernstein’s words, “you couldn’t possibly be thinking of a single ‘negotiation.’” Make none plural except when the meaning is not one or no one—and then consider rewording. From Bernstein: “Five persons were in the car but none [better: not one or no one] was hurt.”
- Beware the perils of subject/verb agreement.
While subject/verb agreement might sound like a topic you’d study in sixth grade rather than on the job as a writer or an editor, there are a few instances that trip up the best of us. Case in point: Would you write “He was one of those men who was afraid of dogs” or “He was one of those men who were afraid of dogs”? The latter would be correct. According to Bernstein in The Careful Writer, in such a construction, “the word one does not govern the verb.” This becomes clear if you turn the sentence around: “Of those men who were afraid of dogs, he was one.”
Sometimes it behooves us to uninvert sentences to make sure we have our verbs right. Another example from Bernstein: “Into each missile goes tens of thousands of parts, each of which must work perfectly” should be changed to “Into each missile go tens of thousands of parts, each of which must work perfectly.” If the sentence were not inverted, it would read: “Tens of thousands of parts…go into each missile.”
- Choose wisely when it comes to likely, most likely, and probably.
When the word likely is used as an adjective, Merriam-Webster says it can mean “suitable” (“a likely place for a party”); “very probable” (“Rain is likely today”); “credible” (“a likely enough story”); and “promising” (“a likely candidate”). According to Bernstein, “Idiom requires that when likely is used as an adverb, it be preceded by very, quite, or most.” Thus “I will most likely go to the store today” or “I will probably go to the store today” would be acceptable.
- Look out for commonly misused words and phrases.
If fixing a dangling modifier is like solving a puzzle, homing in on the nuances of word meanings provides a sort of meditation, an opportunity to slow down and not let your brain fly along with its usual assumptions. You are probably aware of many commonly confused words, including flaunt/flout, principal/principle, and adverse/averse, but did you know that the phrase for a deserved punishment or reward is just deserts? It makes sense if you stop and think about the fact that it refers to something deserved. The word desert is pronounced like the yummy dessert but is spelled like the arid desert. Whenever I see a magazine or newspaper story with recipes for strawberry shortcake or tiramisu titled “Just Desserts,” I can’t help but wonder if the editors are punning on the correct spelling or just assuming that’s how it’s always done…
- Respect the brand, but do your research.
The terms aspirin, escalator, and thermos were all at one time registered trademarks. In fact, Aspirin is still a trademarked term (thus the capital A) in certain countries (the United States not among them).
The process of genericization can give editors headaches when it comes to knowing when to lowercase and when to uppercase. Xerox still fights to retain the name of its product as a trademark even though Merriam-Webster uppercases Xerox as a noun but lowercases it as a verb. Similarly, the verb google is lowercase, but the noun Google is uppercase.
And you use Twitter to tweet a tweet, according to Merriam-Webster.com. It’s enough to make you need an aspirin.
Donna Levine has worked as the copy chief of Vogue and an editor at Discover and other magazines. She has also copy edited several books for such publishers as HarperCollins and Little, Brown and Co. She currently works as the copy chief of Garden & Gun and teaches editing at the University of Mississippi Meek School of Journalism and New Media.