Friday, August 20, 2010

Insta-Poll: Is The Bedeviling In The Details?

What are the most common errors you see when line-editing manuscripts?

I've been a copy editor for the last 10 of my 23 years in newspapering, and recently I've been keeping loose track of the kinds of errors I spot in the news copy I read five nights a week. Tell us how often these kind of mistakes pop up in your own red-pen adventures.

In no particular order (and leaving out typos because spellcheck usually identifies those, and often they're mistakes of speed-typing rather than deliberate ignorance):

Sentence-Smoosh Syndrome. Example: "The sergeant, who found the car to be stolen, attempted to pull it over, but the man refused to stop, and a pursuit began, going down Auto Center Way, onto Kitsap Way, and eventually to Chico Way." I realize that in fiction, long sentences can convey a certain intense dramatic flow or sense of unrelenting action. But it takes a high degree of skill to keep from losing a reader by cramming too many thoughts into one cerebral bite. Too much of this bite is certain to spill down the reader's cerebral shirt.

Proper-Noun Pinches. This may be a pet peeve more than an objective rule, but I believe that phrasing like "Joe Friday met with county commissioners" when you mean to convey "Joe met Friday with county commissioners" is clearly the enemy of clarity.

Homonym Homicides. I can't tell you how many otherwise intelligent writers say things like "she acted on principal" when they obviously meant "principle." Or mistaking "affect" for "effect," or being painfully perplexed when picking among "peak," "peek" and "pique." To my mind, anybody who purports to practice the writing art ought to have mastered this piece of craft in their formative years. But it continues to be an enduring weakness for many professional writers who turn in otherwise clean copy.

Tense Tangles. This often goes hand in hand with overstuffed sentences. A typical meandering journey might see a writer start with past tense, take a left turn at the comma down Past Perfect Place, hang a U-ie at Conditional Corner and run a stop sign at Simple Present Street. And I'm not being a snob here: Even I struggle to this day with "lay" vs. 'lie." Really. I cannot tell a lay.

Hyphen Hellspawning. Some of these are errors and some are subjectively interpreted, and I come from the school of thought that sees hyphens as reading speed bumps except where clarity is directly threatened (and this has been the toughest part of my ongoing transition from an Associated Press style mindset to a Chicago Manual one). As such, I try to insert them only when necessary, or to ensure consistency (inconsistency, I find, is the hobgoblin of deadline-writing minds). Then again, sometimes a mistake is a mistake, and constructions such as "I met her six-weeks-ago" and "one of a kind human being" can't be bloodied enough with the tip of one's red pen.

So, what common errors do you run across in your own work? And how do you distinguish between errors and peeves?
By our new contributor, Jim Thomsen, who hasn't found a good picture or bio yet. :)


  1. I'm the hellspawn hyphener. I use them too often, or I don't use one at all and write things like "ex football player" or "ex husband." I generally will either refer to AP or Chicago Manual to determine which is correct when I'm cleaning up the copy.

    And while I know the difference between homonyms, I sometimes have trouble getting the right one down on the page (affect/effect and principle/principal are my main foibles). So I double check when cleaning up the copy.

    My biggest peeve when reading something is the comma splice bonanza. Gah. Makes you go crosseyed when you try to follow those smooshed-together sentences.

    Another peeve? It is "it's/ its." I get so annoyed at that one. yes, ironically, I do it all the time and have to correct the error. In fact, I specifically search for "it's" to double check myself.

  2. Great post, Jim. Had to read aloud to my husband the one on tangled tenses and we had a good laugh. And thanks for the Dragnet memories--loved Joe Friday! hahaha

  3. I'm a Homonym Homicider. I like to blame my first grade teacher who taught reading by phonics (decades before "Hooked on Phonics.")

    I suspect that my mind operates by the sound of words instead sight, which screws me on homonyms. I don't spell worth a damn, either, but spell checkers help on that.

    I wish there were a good "commonly mis-used words" checker that would flag homonyms. I know most of them, but have a very tough time seeing mistakes in my own work.

    Also, I didn't much like to old battle axe and her "Brownies." I still remember: "G is for the jug brownie, ga, ga, ga."

  4. My second grade teacher told us that there is no such words as 'than'... it is always spelled 'then'. Imagine my horror when I found out she was wrong. :)

    I have trouble in Hyphenation Nation. I have been booted out of the country.

  5. I have to tell you that I appreciate hyphens. Am sick of staring at a word only to finally conclude that it needed a hypen to make sense. The first time I really noticed this was with "miniseries". What the hell are min-NIGH-zer-eez? Gack!

  6. Problems with its/it's and lie/lay really annoy me!!!

  7. I have a laundry list of habit words that creep into my dialog and narrative. Thank goodness for Word's "Find" function.


  8. Great post and reminder of some of the basic problems with writing. Your comment about the smooth sentences applies to fiction, too. That convoluted sentence would be just as bad in a novel as in a news story. I still refer to Strunk & White a lot when writing and editing. Being concise is always good. LOL

  9. I was switched from my left hand to my right and that same year they stopped teaching phonics. I couldn't read at all in the 3rd grade, so my mother taught me using phonics and we played many word games.

    I have made it a habit to memorize rules in terms that make sense to me. But I still have trouble with then and than, so much so that I keep an explanation in a word file.

    But the really funny thing that I have started doing is nothing more then habit. (Did I get then right?)

    When typing my blog or sending an e-mail I often write king when I mean kind because I've typed king so much in my epic fantasy. I correct it of course before sending it off.

    N. R. Williams, fantasy author

  10. I was an excellent speller until the year I took shorthand, which relies on phonetic script. We were actually taught to not listen to the context of the conversation but only the sounds the person was making. It wrecked spelling and also comprehension.

    Word 4 Writers on HearWriteNow
    Blood-Red Pencil

  11. I try to avoid using hyphens unless it changes the meaning of the sentence. But overall, considering these details takes more time than people imagine. When writing a first draft it's easy to become so focused on the story, and pouring out pages, that details are overlooked. I edit them out later. Tenses, a juggling act of points in time in the story—narration versus character dialogue and reference to occurrences at different points in time.
    I'm on my fourth novel and have varied in style in each. I know, consistency is important, but it offers the experience of having done it. Maybe it's because each of my novels is different than the other.

  12. Over here from Sharla's place!

    A pet peeve of mine that's really way too picky:

    She/he/I started . . . or It started . . .

    "I started to run" - if you are running you are running, once you start, it's already running.

    She started to walk to the door. Isn't she just walking to the door?

    "It started to rain" - same thing -it's either raining or not...

    Laugh - I know - isn't that picky of me? But I've "started to" rip the started to out of my work.

    What I have to watch is: She watched Jade slip on her shoes; instead of: Jade slipped on her shoes. It's implied the narrator is watching this action, but for some reason, I want my characters to watch everything out!

  13. I’m the same, Sharla. It’s picky but for good reason. Without separating the beginning, middle, and end of an action—like she started walking, she walked, and she arrived at the door, you lose that distinction and can’t work with hit. “She started reaching for him but stopped, her mind drifting to the day he betrayed her, and slowly brought her hand to her chest. She was once again somberly aware of who was standing in front of her.” It implies more tentativeness in the action which serves to capture the sentiment in it.

    Or “The two stopped talking and he walked to the door.” Unless anything else is said the character is going to reach the door. “The two stopped talking and he started walking to the door.” The character has not reached the door yet but is on his way there. Something could happen before he reaches the door. In the first example, a break in the actions would need to happen to show that something happened before he reached the door, or it is left to be read into. ““The two stopped talking and he walked to the door. But, when he least expected it, the light fixture in the ceiling fell and crashed on his head.” (Cheesy, I know, its just an example). The second example, “The two stopped talking and he started walking to the door. Only two steps along, the light fixture in the ceiling fell and crashed on his head.”
    I agree it’s a detailed consideration, and much easier to say “He walked, She ran, etc. ...) I suppose the question being, should one defer to writing that is easier? That question can make for a hot blog discussion.


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