Monday, March 28, 2011

An A to Z of Editorial Peeves: C

An ongoing alphabetical list of the mistakes that writers make that really get my editorial goat. Check out the introduction here.


I'm not going to grouse about the can vs. may issue; I don't think there's much of an issue there. I'm not that stodgy.

No. What gets me riled up is when writers try to avoid the verb can, like this:

Bad: Most parents are able to claim the child tax credit.
Better: Most parents can claim the child tax credit.

There's nothing wrong with this little word can. It's efficient and straightforward. Using three words where one will do does not make you a better writer; it just makes you wordy. (And yes, make use of is coming up in another 10 weeks, but you can stop using it now.)

Of course, I'm not saying that can is a better substitute for every instance of are able to. But if you find yourself writing are able to, pause for a moment and consider whether your text would be more streamlined and just as accurate if you used can instead.


I've come to the conclusion that most people just don't know how to use commas. Whole books have been written about this little smudge of a punctuation mark — so much more than I could cover in this little blog post. There’s simply no way I can touch on all the nuances of comma use in a single post. And I would hate to even try.

A majority of the comma problems I encounter, though, can be cleared up simply by finding the main subject and the main verb in the sentence. Once you figure out the subject and verb (learning to diagram sentences can help you do this), these rules can keep you comma-fying with ease:

If there's only one comma in the sentence, it doesn't go between the subject and the verb.

Bad: The very last thing on my bucket list, is playing tetherball against Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson.
Good: The best thing about tetherball is that so few people play it anymore.

If there are two subjects but only one verb, you don't need a comma.

Bad: Clifford the Big Red Dog, and Casper the Friendly Ghost asked Dora the Explorer to the Prom last night.
Good: Clifford the Big Red Dog and Casper the Friendly ghost were flabbergasted to learn that Dora the Explorer had already agreed to go to Prom with Oscar the Grouch.

If there's one subject and two verbs, you don't need a comma.

Bad: Bjorn spent most of his day playing Facebook games, but was surprised when he lost his air traffic controller certification.
Good: Bjorn started looking for a new job online but kept getting distracted by Angry Birds.

If there are two subjects and two verbs, and both subjects "partake" of both verbs, you don't need a comma.

Bad: To prepare for the race, the unstoppable tortoise, and the hyperactive hare, drank copious amounts of Red Bull, and injected anabolic steroids under their kneecaps.
Good: After the race, the tortoise and the hare signed Hollywood contracts and went on to host their own talk shows.

If you find a subject, then a verb, then another subject, then another verb, you probably need a comma.

Bad: An example sentence should illustrate the point but it should also be interesting enough that people will read it to the end.
Good: Sometimes my example sentences are hilarious, but sometimes they are just lame.

The one overriding rule about commas, though, is that clarity is more important than any other rule. (In fact, that may be the only writing rule that is set in proverbial stone: Readers must be able to understand what you're writing.) I have no doubt that a skilled wordsmith with too much time on his hands could find or craft well-made sentences that violate each of these rules. And that's okay. Rules have exceptions, but when we recognize them as exceptions, we only reinforce the rules.

Compare with vs. compare to

Many language mavens will tell you that there is really no longer much of a difference between compare with and compare to, that the old prescription doesn't stand anymore. I disagree, but I recognize that I have no authority here.

That "old prescription" is this: compare to means to liken one thing to another, to say that they are similar; compare with means to note the similarities and differences of two things.

For example, when tea party types compare Barack Obama to Adolf Hitler, they're saying that Obama is like Hitler. But if they actually compared Barack Obama with Adolf Hitler, they would find that the two have very very little in common. Basically just a Y chromosome.

If you follow this old rule, no one will complain. If you don't follow this old rule, you can have all the justification in the world, but people will still call you out. 

People (mis)use compare to in both writing and speech all the time and get away with it. As a copy editor, though, it is something I would change in my and other people's text. Here's my advice: If you think compare to is just fine but you're dealing with a copy editor who thinks otherwise, decide whether it's a battle you want to have. The compare to/compare with distinction probably means a lot more to your copy editor than it does to you. It won't make a big difference in the overall text, but fighting your copy editor over this little thing can make a big difference in your relationship.

Compose vs. comprise

This is a common point of contention, but the rule is fairly simple: If you don't know the difference between compose and comprise, don't use comprise! Comprise is like a loaded gun: Only those who know how to use it should be handling it. Anyone else risks shooting themselves in the foot.

Cord vs. chord

I’m always surprised when I see these words mistaken for each other. Does this help?
A chord
A cord


And for you musical and techie types:
A diminished chord

A diminished cord

A chord is three or more musical notes played together or a line segment that joins two points on a circle. A cord is a bit of long, thin, flexible material, often consisting of several strands woven together. It’s your basic rope, lanyard, or cable. A cord is also 128 square feet of firewood. Like an electrical cord, your spinal cord carries electrical signals from your brain to the rest of your body.

The idiom is “to strike a chord”; it references a theoretical musical chord that one assumes is consonant and not dissonant.

Could(n't) care less

The battle between could care less and couldn't care less can get pretty heated. (Try to avoid such conversations.) Both camps believe that they use the "correct" phrase and have the historical proof to, well, prove it.

I'm here to set the record straight: It doesn't matter. You can argue hyperbole, sarcasm, and irony until you're blue in the face, but both versions of the phrase have become so embedded in the general lexicon that they are no longer governed by the logic or syntax of their individual words. They are idioms now, and they're both acceptable! Arguments to the contrary are pointless. People will continue using both, and that's just fine.

For the record, though, if I had to pick one, I'd go with "I couldn't care care less." I'd prefer, though, that people just stopped using this worn and controversial phrase. No one will complain if you use something more interesting and original. Least of all me.