Some questions, some answers

Originally posted on Grammar Monkeys on July 16, 2010.

We get lots of questions on Twitter, mostly ones about grammar, spelling and usage (we do answer, and we’re happy to help), but there are some questions we’ve had a few times that we thought we’d answer here on the blog.

1. Do people really mess this up?
Almost all of our examples come from real news stories we edit or read online. Some come from news releases. We change the wording sometimes to fit into 140 characters, to protect the guilty, or just to make the example a little more silly. But yes, people really mess this up.

2. How do you come up with answers to questions?
We have piles of word books here on the Eagle’s copy desk, both the serious kind and the fun kind. The one we usually consult first is Garner’s Modern American Usage, which we consider the definitive reference on, as the name implies, modern American usage. We have various dictionaries, general and specific, even an OED. We have books of grammar tips, grammar reference books, punctuation books, style manuals, and usage manuals old and new and British and American.

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And there’s the Internet, which has some great reference sites as well, and is also a good way to find out how often certain usages appear in contrast to others. Even with all of this knowledge at our disposal, there are still some questions to which there is no one right answer. So we discuss, sometimes noisily, which way it should go (in the process annoying the sports desk).

3. What do copy editors do, anyway?
At most newspapers, copy editors’ primary job is to make sure the news stories are accurate and clear. We check facts, check spellings, smooth out rough syntax, make sure there aren’t unanswered questions in a story, fix typos, check punctuation, fix awkward grammar and make sure everything conforms to AP and Eagle style. We also write headlines for the paper and the website, write photo captions and edit online photo galleries, proof newspaper pages, and do a bunch of other jobs necessary for getting the paper out and maintaining the website. In addition, many of us write, or blog, or both.

4. Sometimes you say something is a style question, not a grammar one. What does that mean?
Publications usually follow a stylebook, such as AP or Chicago, which lists things like how to abbreviate states, preferred spellings of words, how to use punctuation, when to use digits and when to spell out numbers, how to format quotes and citations, etc.

An example of style is the serial/Oxford comma (the comma after apstylethe second-to-last item in a list, before the “and”): AP says to leave it out (red, white and blue); many other styles leave it in (red, white, and blue). Neither is “wrong,” it’s a matter of what style your publication follows.

5. Is everything I learned in school wrong?
Probably not. But there are a few “rules” that people have had drilled into their heads, either by overzealous English teachers or old-school journalism professors, that have no basis in English grammar. Some examples: It’s OK to split an infinitive, it’s OK to end a sentence with a preposition, it’s OK to begin a question with “who” even if it’s an object, it’s OK to begin a sentence with a conjunction, it’s OK to put an adverb between the auxiliary verb and the main verb. And so on. If split infinitives are your peeve, write around them if you want, but they aren’t wrong. And instead of wasting time worrying about these sorts of trivialities, spend your time making sure the writing is as clear and smooth as it can be.

6. What about poetic license?
We do news, and the tips we offer are intended for people writing news, reports, memos, news releases, professional communication and other nonfiction writing. Most of the tips apply to fiction, too. We don’t censure flowery language in general. We do, however, question its place in news stories (although sometimes it stays in, as does humor and the occasional silliness), and hope to save people from cringe-worthy fits of purple prose or hilariously mixed metaphors. As for poets, they can play with the language however they like.

7. Do people REALLY mess this up?
Yes, people REALLY mess this up!

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