Today I present 10 common errors that even the pros make in their prose.
As a long experienced copy editor (insert your pity here ▭ ) I have seen these things come up again and again. There’s the kind of unforced errors that make smart people look dumb, and dumb people reveal themselves. As a reader of this blog, you’re naturally of high intellect and discerning taste, and of course good-looking, but even you may make some of these errors.
Follow these tips and make it that much less likely you’ll be taken for a dumb person.
1. Single space after period: Your old teacher told you to put two spaces after a sentence while typing. That was the style for business correspondence circa 1950. It was old-fashioned by the time the IBM Selectric was the universal tool for writing. One space is adequate.
2. None is singular. For example: “None of these writers has any sense.” (None being the subject, not writers.) Mind you, I’ve actually fought this through with other copy editors, who think “None of these editors have any sense either” is okay. These other copy editors are mistaken. They are siding with colloquial use over clarity. In formal writing, never do this.
3. When abbreviating measurements, don’t use smart quotes (i.e. “curly” quotes) for feet and inches. Use “dumb quotes,” what are formally called prime and double prime. “Fred photographs 5′6″ [prime/double prime – yay!] but in real life he’s actually 6’5” [smart quotes – boo!].”
4. Quick one: When responding to a friend’s baby picture the word is aw, not awe. Awe is what you feel if you see, maybe, the baby Jesus. “Here’s a picture of a cute baby.” “Aw!” “It’s baby Jesus.” “That fills me with awe!”
5. Another quick one: The things that stop your car are brakes, not breaks. A break is what happens to your car and maybe you if your brakes fail. You’d be surprised how often I see this.
6. If you want to be correct about someone’s rapid eating, say that they scoff their food, not scarf. Scarf is actually acceptable, but only because people got it wrong for so long that it became a dictionary-approved variant. Prefer scoff. Snarf is right out.
7. Use the serial comma. Sometimes called the Oxford comma by people who want to sound smart. It’s the one that’s used for the last item in a series (“We had ham, eggs, and coffee”). Why should the last item be neglected? You know the argument—how the serial comma prevents embarrassment. Again, why choose to be less clear?
8. This is kind of inside-baseball stuff, but: The thing at the beginning of the book, normally written by someone other than the author, is called the foreword, not the forward. It comes before the other words. Similar parts of the front matter (which is all the stuff before the main text) may include a preface or an introduction. Not to mention the copyright page, table of contents, title page, half title page, dedication, and acknowledgments. And in the back, the afterword, references, index… Hey, there’s no room left for the text!
9. You psych someone out; you don’t psyche anything. One’s mind, soul, or personality may be one’s psyche. Psyche is not a verb. Bonus: When your mind is blown, you have been fazed, not phased. To faze is to daunt, to discombobulate; phase is used as a verb for changing the state of something, as in phasing in a new procedure.
10. Should I go for the whole "lay lie laid" thing? You know, I think I’ll come back to that another day. It deserves something like an epic poem. Instead, remember this for tip 10: Who is a subject, whom an object. Who does things; things are done to whom.
Sometimes in my work I have irritated writers who are attached to the little erroneous rules they were taught or peccadilloes they have developed, but as I like to remind them, the copy editor is not here to make them feel as if they are stupid, the copy editor is here to make them look as if they are smart. So there.