Part of my job is running the Bremner Editing Center at the University of Kansas, where journalism students can get one-on-one help editing their work. It’s always best to have a second set of eyes on anything you write for publication (or a grade), to catch awkward or unclear passages as well as typos, skipped or duplicated words, and tricky homophones. It’s hard to see mistakes in your own work, since you already know what you meant to say, even if it’s not what you actually wrote.
However, sometimes getting an editor is just not possible – nobody ever writes anything the day it’s due, right? So if you’re in a pinch, here are a few things you can do to try to catch your own mistakes:
Many editors own a T-shirt, sticker or button bearing this slogan, marking them as people who care about language, or at least have a sense of humor about it. However, others think it’s not at all funny and is yet another reason for people to think editors are snooty pedants who gleefully scold the less-educated.
Both have a point, but I’d like to point out that once an editor has spent years developing and honing language skills, it is (at least for some of us) really difficult to “turn it off.” We notice typos, misplaced apostrophes, incorrect usage and grammatical errors everywhere, because it’s what we do.
I’m not going to apologize for that, but I am going to suggest that we all focus on the “silently” part rather than the “correcting” part.
I’ve had plenty of friends and relatives say things to me along the line of “I’d better watch how I talk around you!” It’s meant good-naturedly, but I always tell them I don’t correct unless I’m paid or asked to. I’m not going to think any less of a friend who says “between you and I…” or a relative who was “supposably” in charge of the picnic. While I may notice — I can’t NOT notice — I’m certainly not going to say anything. That’s just called “not being a jerk.”
Metaphors — comparisons of one thing to another in a poetic sense — are not just for poetry: they are an integral part of language. Metaphors help us communicate an idea more clearly by making it more vivid, more relevant or less complicated. We use metaphors every day: whenever we compare sports to war, a corporate merger to a romance, a political campaign to a horse race.
Metaphors are a useful linguistic device, but sometimes they can go off the rails (a train metaphor). Writers sometimes get carried away (a nautical metaphor) and shift gears (an automotive metaphor) in the middle of a metaphor, which can befuddle readers instead of making an idea clearer to them.
A recent news story I saw said that my employer, the University of Kansas, “pushed ahead by a few nose lengths” in an annual college ranking. I’ll buy a horse-race comparison here (though this annual ratings scramble seems more aptly compared to a decathlon), but horses can win by a “nose,” or by a “length.” A “nose length” is not a distance used in horse racing, so instead of making the idea clearer, this metaphor confuses the issue. Plus, a ranking doesn’t really need a metaphor to make it more easily understood. “Moved up a few spots” would have been perfectly clear.
In my career as a copy editor, I’ve run across a lot of mixed or mangled metaphors. Some made me scratch my head (figuratively) and others made me laugh out loud (literally). Here are a few:
“When this critical column buckled due to lack of floor supports, it was the first domino in the chain.” Domino effect / links in a chain — pick one.
The rival teams “find themselves with their backs against the wall as if they were stuck in a linen closet.” The backs-against-the-wall part is clear (if a bit cliched), but how the heck does a linen closet enter into things?
“We’re just about ready to start putting the pieces of this puzzle together in a way we can put some real structure on this skeleton.” Is it a puzzle, or a building, or a skeleton?
“A lot of people think they were born on third base and hit a home run.” How this usually goes is “He was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple,” which is a sports metaphor applied to a person who comes from a privileged background but is oblivious to the fact he got a head start. How the home run connects here I can’t imagine.
“As you go in the belly of the beast, you will run into this brick wall every single time.” Since when are there brick walls inside beasts?
The reason to use a metaphor is to help readers understand something. If it doesn’t do that, it’s not working — and your best bet (a gambling metaphor) is to rewrite.
Earlier this year, I gave a presentation called “Sweat This, Not That: Real Rules vs. Grammar Myths” at the American Copy Editors Society national conference. The point of the presentation was that it’s easy for editors to get hung up on “rules” of language that are nothing more than peeves, shibboleths or outdated rules – and that wasting time and energy focusing on these can distract us from spotting and fixing more serious errors.
By now we all know (I hope) that it’s OK to split infinitives, end sentences with prepositions, begin sentences with conjunctions, and use the passive voice and sentence fragments judiciously. But there are other oddly persistent language “rules” that editors need not worry about.
In this post I want to talk about “due to” vs. “because of” and why there’s no reason to rack your brain trying to figure out when to use which. This is where some of you may gasp and say, “but they’re NOT interchangeable,” and a few of you might even think that this is another sign of the Decline and Fall of the English Language. To address the first, they aren’t exactly interchangeable, but they are much more flexible than certain strictures would allow, and to address the second, people have been complaining for centuries about someone or other ruining the language, and English is doing just fine. Continue reading Don’t sweat it: Due to / because of→
I’ve started this blog to have a place to put stuff too big for Twitter and too opinionated, tangential or snarky for my official work website. You can read the “About” page to see more about me.
My goal for this blog is to have a place to share thoughts and tips about grammar, language, words and editing, and teaching all of those, in journalism particularly; to point out egregious errors in the hopes that they will help others avoid such mistakes (or give some folks a laugh for the day); and to explore different and changing usages in English.
As an editor, I know that “standard” language is important in professional writing, and that certain rules need to be followed for a writer to be taken seriously. As a teacher, I know that students need to have a good command of the rules to understand how language works and how to write clearly, then to know when they can successfully break or ignore these rules. But as a linguist, I know that “rules” are a moving target — only dead languages never change. It’s not impossible to reconcile these three aspects, and I strive to be a “reasonable prescriptivist.”
Originally published on Grammar Monkeys on Aug. 13, 2010.
Sometimes in journalism we have to — gasp! — do math, because it’s part of the news. We have to get the numbers right, just as we have to get the facts right and the language right. To those who think a journalism or communications degree means you can forget about math, think again: Math is a key part of many news stories, corporate memos, nonprofit reports, etc. And it needs to be done correctly.
So, in the spirit of the upcoming election season and its steady stream of polls, a note on the difference between “percent” and “percentage point.” This is also relevant when talking about tax rates, test scores, and so on.
Percent is a fraction of something. Percentage points are how percents are measured.
They are not the same thing, so if you are comparing two percents or rates, be careful how they are expressed. Here are a few examples:
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.
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). Continue reading Some questions, some answers→