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The Editing Hour: Usage and Punctuation

I am reluctant to get too much into copyediting because I am a stickler for grammatical and other errors, and I hate to get too caught up in that and lose sight of the more important things in a story like plot, dialogue, characters, etc. But here we go. A lot of common mistakes I see when editing manuscripts:

1. That vs. which—which needs a comma; that doesn’t. Which is used with parenthetical clauses, a clause that (not which!) can be removed and still have the sentence make sense. For example, “I loved the chocolate soufflé that was straight out of the oven” vs. “I love chocolate soufflé, which was straight out of the oven.” In the first example, there was more than one chocolate soufflé, so you need the clause beginning with “that.” In the second, you could eliminate everything after the comma and the sentence would remain unchanged.

2. Parallelism—when things are listed in a series, they must be parallel. For example, you can’t say, “I love to eat, to sleep and swimming.” You have to say, “I love to eat, to sleep and to swim.” Seems obvious, but in more complex sentences, people get it wrong.

3. I vs. me—I have to admit, this is my least favorite because even me screw it up, I mean I screw it up. For example, “Let’s just keep this between you and me” is correct, not “between you and I.” The rule is that when you’d use a subject, like he or she or they, you’d use “I”. When you’d use an object, like “him” or “her” or “them,” you’d use “me”. Same goes for who and whom. Who is a subject, whom is an object. But I still get confused sometimes with I and me. This is where it gets trickier: Do you say, “She is taller than me” or “She is taller than I”? Well, if the “I” is short for “I am” then it’s the latter: “She is taller than I am.” But it’s okay to say, “She is taller than me,” too. Confused? Me too. And when answering the phone, do you say, “This is she”? Yes, as awkward as is sounds. It’s correct.

4. Coordinating conjunctions, better known as FANBOYS, are: for, and, nor, but, or, yet and so. They connect two complete sentences using a comma. For example, “I want a new car, but I can’t afford one.” The only other way to connect two complete sentences is by a period and a capital: “I want a new car. I can’t afford one” or by a semicolon: “I want a new car; I can’t afford one.” In this case, only the coordinating conjunction makes sense, but grammatically, they’re all correct. The key to using the semicolon is to make sure the two sentences are closely related, like in a contrast: “Jerry likes apples; I prefer oranges.”

By the way, the best book I know on grammar is Woe is I. I use it all the time. And everyone raves about Eats, Shoots and Leaves for punctuation.

Do you have a favorite grammar book? Or a copyediting pet peeve?

11 comments to The Editing Hour: Usage and Punctuation

  • Thanks for this. I can't stand when people mix up "that" and "which." Stephen King does not know this rule and it drives me crazy. The other ones I hate are the inability to use the correct version of your/you're, using "begs the question" to mean "asks the question" (it doesn't mean that), and using an ampersand in place of "and."

    The most important thing to remember is that few of us are experts on this stuff–as you well taught me when you patiently eradicated my failure to place a comma before "but" in most of my sentences. You'll be pleased to know I'm on red alert for that one.

  • Meghan Ward

    I hear you about "begs the question"! Another one that drives me nuts is "enormity," which does not mean enormous! And I still sometimes screw up me/I.

  • Awesome blog post! I loved "Sin & Syntax" by Constance Hale, which is the grammar book Kate Brubeck used in her Advanced Composition class.

    I know there's one more way to connect complete sentences with conjunctive adverbs: We wanted to go to the picnic; however, the weather turned bad, so we stayed home.

    This way depends mostly on the semicolon but those adverbial conjunctions are useful for students to know when they're writing formal academic essays.

    My biggest pet peeve is their, they're and there. I see it in my students' papers ALL THE TIME, even after I've discussed the differences between the three. Ugh!

  • Meghan Ward

    Stephanie, I SO need a lesson on all these grammatical terms! I didn't know what an adverbial conjunction was called, although I know how to use one. I'll have to buy Sin & Syntax. Thanks!

  • Glen

    You're number 3 is my #1 pet peeve. For some reason people like my mother in-law think that "I" is proper and "me" is informal. It doesn't matter how often I explain the concept of subjects and objects.

    My mother was an English teacher, and my 1st room mate was a linguist from Cornell. The result is a killer Scrabble game and a healthy dose of grammatical peeves.

    My #2 is "The reason is…because". This drives me up the wall. It is redundant. Say one or the other, not both! "The reason I'm late is my car broke down.", "I'm late because my car broke down.", NEVER "The reason I'm late is because my car broke down."

    My #3 is "Could care less" vs. "Couldn't care less". Let us say care is on a scale from 0 (no care) to 10 (care very much). If my care level is at 10 I could care less. If my care level is at 0 I couldn't care less. "I could care less for what Ralph Nader says" means you care what he says. "I couldn't care less for what Ralph Nader says" means you don't care what he says.

    I have been unaware of "that" vs. "which". I wonder if I've ever screwed that up.

    A new one on my list is "irregardless". Apparently the spell check here doesn't recognize it as a problem. It is a word that is a self contained double negative. The writer or speaker most likely intends the meaning of "regardless".

  • Meghan Ward

    Glen, I agree with every one of those. I also have learned from tutoring the SAT that you have to say "different from" and not "different than." I think this thread merits a post of its own—commonly misused words and phrases.

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