You don’t know what you don’t know

Copy editors learn early that, despite diligence and best intentions, writers sometimes get facts wrong. The writers don’t mean to, but they do slip up. They may have their eyes on the big picture and the overall truth but lose sight of small details. Also, writers (and all of us) don’t know what they don’t know, so a thorough reading by someone else, especially someone who might know different things, is essential. A copy editor who has read widely and well for a number of years might have just the knowledge to spot problems, but even more important is that copy editors are trained to check. Copy editors can help writers by verifying the facts, checking the spelling of names, looking up words in the dictionary, locating places on a map, and just generally being skeptical and maybe even anxious about overlooking a error. Copy editors keep their eyes on the little things.

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‘Each’ has its place

I spent probably too much time overthinking this sentence while proofing an article this morning:

If things just don’t work out for either party, your firm and the agency each have a way to exit the relationship.

The word each in that sentence made me consider whether the verb should have been has instead of have. Each calls for a singular verb. But in this case, each appears after a plural subject, your firm and the agency, so the choice is have.

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Try a new Grammar Guide quiz (No. 74 with images)

I have a new Grammar Guide quiz for you to try, No. 74. This one is fill-in-the-blank. You’ll see some images of text (click to view them larger), and your task is to figure out what word is used incorrectly (or, let’s say, not in the standard, traditional way) and to write the answer in the blank. I hope the quiz will be give you useful practice in spotting word usage problems and mangled idioms. I’ve dropped the Flash versions in favor of the HTML5 format, and I hope the quiz works for you, regardless of which device you might be using.

Click here to begin. Please send me email or leave a comment if you find a problem or if you have any thoughts on the format or the questions. Remember, no one will know your score except you—unless you want to share.

I’ve added a share link below if you want to share this quiz on Twitter.

Share on Twitter

Yes, I love “Weird Al” too

Lots of people in my circles have been sharing “Weird Al” Yankovic’s new song parody video “Word Crimes.” The lyrics are smart and funny, and the video images are just a hoot. I am sure that some too-serious language commentators (who, frankly, are starting to get on my nerves as much as the oh-so-wrong pedants) will quibble about some of the ideas the song pushes about grammar. I won’t, though. “Weird Al” is A-OK with me. I am pleased that many other people are enjoying the video and the lyrics as much as I am.

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Grammar posts good and bad

This post started as an irate takedown of “grammar mistakes everyone makes” posts that plague us via social media. This particular one got under my skin not because it gave bad advice, but because it didn’t recognize that errors in the mechanics of written language (punctuation and capitalization) are not strictly grammar. That post came on the heels of this quiz from Huffington Post, which struck me as not the least bit helpful. The quiz had some errors, too, as the commenters pointed out. These were corrected, it appeared, without comment.

But just as I worked up my annoyance over useless or shallow grammar advice, I read two wonderful and practical pieces about American English and how to use it in writing. These posts take on different subjects, but they share these traits: usefulness, clarity, and authority.

And neither takes a scolding tone. As I age, I find I don’t care for the finger-wagging aspect of writing about grammar, usage, and language. I admit to my own smugness and superficiality, but I am older now and I hope I am learning better. Thus, the irate post I started has dissipated. I would rather send readers to language essays that are meaningful and helpful.

Here are the posts I commend:

Bryan A. Garner wrote this week about “The evolution of ‘beg the question’” on his Law Prose blog.

Ben Yagoda wrote in May about common comma mistakes in the New York Times Opinionator section.

I also note that others who write about language have criticized the bad grammar advice that is available online. One of my favorite is from last fall by Jonathon Owen of Arrant Pedantry, “12 Mistakes Nearly Everyone Who Writes About Grammar Mistakes Makes.”

Self-aware fore- and afterthought: Of course, I have reminded myself that I chose a sort of shorthand [day-afterthought: I should have written “umbrella term”] for my intended subject when I chose a name for my blog almost a decade ago. Even though I called the blog “Grammar Guide,” I planned to write about usage, mechanics, and all kinds of written language issues. Nowadays, I also write about broader issues in copy editing. Still, the blog is the Grammar Guide because that’s how I branded it. Some readers might find fault with my quizzes, too. They aren’t all about grammar, and some of them probably follow “rules” that others dismiss. I will admit to a slightly schoolmarmish mindset, but I am offering advice, not law or gospel.