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Release Your Peeves

I pay the bills as a newspaper copy editor. This is an altogether different creature from a book editor. Those of us who punch daily deadlines are the short-order cooks of the publishing world; we read and edit reams of copy in a compressed window of time.

In many ways, the pressure-cooker aspects of the job lend themselves to the cultivation of pet peeves -- little word burrs under our saddle that we automatically change to something more palatable (to us, if to no one else). But copy editors aren't alone in this tendency. Anyone who spends time pushing words -- writers and editors -- ends up adopting some of these needy pets. It's all well and good until a few pets become an unmanageable zoo that detracts from the more important aspects of job.

Here, then, are some common peeves that often require too much care and feeding to be worthwhile:

Split infinitives: In the 1994 film Quiz Show, Charles Van Doren (played by Ralph Fiennes) rather pedantically points out that a TV show's question contains a split infinitive (an adverb between the "to" and the verb). Van Doren was wrong, and so was your uptight teacher, Miss Thistlebottom. Split infinitives are perfectly acceptable, and in many uses are preferable to the alternative. So split away. The Chicago Manual of Style would approve.

While we're splitting ...: Many editors inveigh against split verb phrases (e.g., "will eagerly await"). Such a stance tilts at windmills. Writers, trust your ear on this one: In general, the best place for an adverb is where it sounds best. The Grammar Girl says it's OK.

Ending a sentence with a preposition: If you can find a more elegant solution, by all means pursue it. But, please, don't perform painful grammatical gymnastics to avoid it. Winston Churchill, at least according to lore, has your back on this one.

I've stoked the fire. It's your turn to add fuel. What peeves do you hold close? Which ones do you want to let go?

Craig Lancaster's first novel, 600 Hours of Edward, was a 2009 Montana Honor Book and is a finalist for a 2010 High Plains Book Award. His second, The Summer Son, will be released in January 2011 by AmazonEncore. He's also the owner and editor of Missouri Breaks Press, a boutique literary press in Billings, Mont., and offers editing, typesetting and design assistance. Learn more about him and his services at


  1. Oh my god. I love you.

  2. Sometimes ending a sentence with a preposition can't be helped! But I always try to reword it when that happens because sometimes there is a better way to write the sentence.

    As demonstrated above, I also begin sentences with a conjunction. That was a no-no in grade school and high school. Later I learned it's okay if written correctly!

    Instead of telling students what not to do grammatically, teachers should show students how to do it the right way.

  3. My word processor consistently flags sentences that begin with "But" or "And." I have to admit that dropping the offending conjunction often results in crisper writing. But the suggested "nevertheless" or "however" is pompous.

  4. My biggest peeve is the politically correct (non-sexist) practice of using "their" as a singular possessive pronoun replacing "his" or "her." I can't get used to it, I don't do it, and I think it's a silly solution to an imaginary problem.

    Just use the singular pronoun (and mix up the "his" and "her" if you're that worried about appearing sexist), or make the subject of the sentence plural.

    Phew! I feel better now. Thanks, Craig.


  5. Thanks for pointing out that there are rules and then there are always times the rule makes the writing more cumbersome. I especially enjoyed the link to all the quotes from Churchill.

    One of my pet peeves is the overuse of reflexive pronouns. Sometimes one is needed, but often it can be omitted. "Jane went to the coffeepot and poured herself a cup." If there is no one else in the scene except her cat, it is pretty certain she poured the coffee for herself.

  6. I'm with Patricia on pronoun/antecedent agreement. One more thing about pronouns and antecedents: they need to be clear. An ambiguous antecedent often results in the reader's thinking "huh?" while he stops reading to look back for the who/what the "he," "she," or "it" refers to.

    An even bigger peeve involves the use of passive verbs and forms of "to be" that water down a point or a scene or are compensated for with a string of adverbs. (Yes, forms of "to be" and passive verbs do have a place in good writing; it's the overuse I'm faulting.) I also urge writers to limit adverbs to the places where they shine and to implement, instead, powerful verbs that give the sentence punch and SHOW the reader the action.

    Sentence structure often activates another peeve. Some writers use constant subject/verb structures of similar length. This reminds me of painting a room beige and furnishing it in beige. Variety sings! Well chosen colors add warmth and pizzazz. The same holds true for sentences. Vary structures and lengths. But always keep in mind the flow because, when a sentence sounds contrived, the reader will be pulled out of the story.

    Oh my goodness, I seem to have a lot of peeves. I think I should be quiet now.

  7. I'm the queen of 'was' and 'is' in my first draft and the butcher of both in the second.
    N. R. Williams, fantasy author

  8. One of my peeves is using words that have mostly fallen out of use to attempt to sound grand. Hollywood is a big culprit: "A movie based upon a book"; it's based ON the book; no one uses "upon" anymore.

    Word 4 Writers on HearWriteNow
    Blood-Red Pencil

  9. My biggest pet peeve in my writing is the word "then". Oh, I have so many thens. I cut a lot and still have too many. THEN, I find myself getting confused at comma usage with "then" in the middle of a sentence. If there are any experts here, I'd love some opinions.

    For example: She finished the dishes, let the dog out, and then started to town.

    I find myself wanting to say, She finished the dishes, let the dog out then started to town.

    Great post!


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