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Monday, November 13, 2006

Some usage stumbling blocks

If you want to piss off a journalist, just mark up his or her published copy with a red pen, mail into the newsroom and sign it "Miss Crabtree, former English teacher." I'm not saying mistakes don't occur in print, sadly they happen all the time. But journalistic writing is not Chicago Manual of Style and it's not the same as writing a term paper.

Copyeditors work their magic over stories, moving commas to the appropriate places, changing their to its when describing something like a company, changing like to as, etc. They, too, are not infallible. I've had copyeditors add info to make my story incorrect. One once changed reference to Darmsala to read "Darmsala, Tibet." Of course I heard from a million people who called me a ninny for not realizing Darmsala is in India. I knew that; tell it to the copyeditor. In a Sunday Arts profile about Frances Mayes, I referenced the movie, "Under the Tuscan Sun, starring Diane Lane." Enough said, I thought. A copyeditor inserted, "and Sharon Oh." The actress' name is Sandra Oh.

Hence the need to always insist on seeing the final version of your edited copy before it goes into print. Those are two clips I never use even though the book review with Darmsala error has been picked up as a blurb by many. Enough about the human foibles of copyeditors. Good ones make average writers great; mediocre copyeditors can make a good writer bad.

Good writers pay attention changes and log them into their grammatical memory bank. Unless you were born with the copyeditor gene, you're never going to remember all this stuff. Writers write and obsess over reporting and word choice, but not necessarily over where to insert the comma.

Although I always check final published copy against what I turn in, I also find there are certain certain things I can never remember and others I can never forget.

In the can't forget category are:
• utilize vs. use (this was grilled into me in J-school) it's use, not utilize. Only the business world prefers utilize and I cringe every time I hear it. It smacks of icky jargon and puffery. I've been known to correct people who use it in my presence.
• Ditto for the word irregardless and towards (it's regardless and toward)
• less vs. fewer (less refers to quantity; fewer to number)
• lay vs. lie (hens lay eggs; people lie down)

However, there a few usage rules that always cause me to hesitate.

The use of may and might may always slow me down, or is it might always slow me down. I'll be cruising along while writing and throw out one of those words, pause and then try to keep going because I'll go back to check on proper usage in the editing phase. But the word will sit there on the screen, nagging at me as I strain my brain to remember the usage rules, reading it aloud both ways to determine what sounds correct.

Another is more importantly, most important. Can't ever seem to keep the usage of those clear in my head. I don't need to keep them straight in my head because Strunk & White's "The Elements of Style" is always close by. And it is more importantly, most important.

As for may vs. might, S & W advise: "Save the auxiliaries would, could, should, may, might and can for situations involving real uncertainty." In other words, don't dilute the authority of your writing by waffling with such words. When in doubt, find another way to say what you want.

Okay, good tip. Now I've got to get back to editing the piece I wrote yesterday that is due this morning.

4 comments:

Jill said...

I'm bookmarking this, Wendy! Thanks. :)

Wendy Hoke said...

You're too funny! Thanks for thinking my ramblings worth bookmarking. :)

Greta Garbo said...

I still can't ever remember if it's "lay" or "lie"--and I figure at this point, I'll always have a problem. I keep looking for a trick to remember it by, but then I think "people get laid," which, of course, just doesn't work (because people don't lay...even if they can get laid.)

Of course, all the English slang for having sex is so bloody crude sounding, I prefer to steal from the English and their charming use of "shag." (Which also--damn it!--has an "a" in it, like "lay"!)

Chickens probably only get laid on some sicko website.

Sorry to taint your otherwise proper column here!

P. said...

There is a multitude of grammar and usage sites on the Web. The American Copy Editors Society's site, includes a page listing some of the best: http://www.copydesk.org/reference.htm
Bill Walsh's "The Slot" is among the most readable.