Monday, March 14, 2011

An A to Z of Editorial Peeves: B

The continuing laundry list of writing errors and usage choices that drive me nuts as a copy edior editor [I'm dying of irony here]. See the intro here.

Between with an en dash

If you’re going to indicate a numerical range — be it years, monetary amounts, ages, or whatever — you have two options: use words or use an en dash. But not both. If you’re going to use between or from before a numerical range, don’t use a dash.

Bad, icky, repugnant:
  • "The tickets will cost between $20–$100."
  • "Lincoln was president from 1861–1865."
  • "The tickets cost $20–$100."
  • "The tickets cost between $20 and $100."
  • "Lincoln was president from 1861 to 1865."
  • "Lincoln was president during the years 1861–1865."
On a related note, I don’t expect most people to know the difference between a hyphen (-), an en dash (–), and an em dash (—), but if you want your writing to look more polished and professional, you might want to take a little time to educate yourself about them.

biannual vs. biennial vs. semiannual

This is a peeve of mine, but not in the same sense as the others. It doesn’t annoy me when people get this wrong. What annoys me is that I have to pull out the dictionary every time I need to use one of these words, because I can never remember.

According to my dictionary, biannual means every two years, and biennial means twice a year. Semiannual — the one of the three that I’m most likely to remember — is the same as biannual biennial [sheesh!]. (Remember that a semicircle is half a circle; something that happens semiannually happens every half-year.)

Binary thinking

Discussions about grammar, usage, and style can often turn into arguments about grammar, usage, and style because of binary thinking: The belief that all questions can and must be answered with 1 or 0, yes or no, true or false. Binary thinking deals only in absolute values, in black and white with no shades of gray.

Editing is as much an art as it is a science, which means that the editor must make stylistic choices that are not governed by any hard and fast rule. There are millions of ways to make any statement, and the author and editor work together to state it in the best way for the situation. You can debate which is better — Oxford comma or no Oxford comma, homogenous or homogeneous, pepperoni pizza or mushroom pizza — but when you start arguing that one is right and the other wrong, you’ve crossed a line, and you’re missing the point.

Remember: The number of rules that govern all forms of communication is exactly zero. Whether you’re writing, editing, or hosting a game show, you won’t win all your arguments. Accept that now and you’ll be a much happier person.

If you get in a discussion about a point of grammar, style, or usage, try to keep your head and recognize what place the discussion holds in the grand scheme of things. And stay civil. You won’t win the argument with personal attacks.