Thursday, March 31, 2011

Friday Flash: Looking Down

The rings snapped on the steel rod as the curtain was whisked closed. "So," the nurse said, "it's your hand, is it, dear?"

"My finger, actually." The man on the gurney held up his right hand, an indistinguishable lump wrapped in several towels, now slightly reddish. "My middle finger. The tip."

"Well, let's just see what we're dealing with, shall we?" She reached for his hand, but he pulled it away. He made a half-gesture, as though he were going to clutch it to himself, but then thought better of it and left it by his side. The nurse said, "Now, then, Mister . . ."

"Sendril. Ravi Sendril."

"Thank you. Mr. Sendril, I can't do you much good unless I can get a look at it. Are you in a lot of pain? On a scale of one to ten, with one being 'not bad' and ten being 'the worst thing I've ever felt', how would you rate what you're feeling?"

"I guess . . . a seven. No, a six. I . . . I took some aspirin before coming over here. I . . . I thought it would help. I don't know if it did or not. I'm not sure." He took a deep breath. "A seven. It's a seven."

The nurse again reached for his hand, and he again pulled away. She said, "Mr. Sendril, once we get these wrappings off, I can see about giving you something to dull the pain, a local anaesthetic or even something more general." Her voice was warm and caring, her motherly smile lending it a compassionate timbre. "You'd be amazed how much better it'll feel once we inject some novocaine in there. However, we can't do anything until we know what we're dealing with."

"It's my finger. My middle finger. The tip." He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. "I said that already, didn't I? I'm afraid I'm feeling a little disoriented." He laughed, a weak and pathetic sound. "I guess it's good I'm lying down already."

"Why don't you tell me what happened while I unwrap this, and then we—"

"It was my table saw," he said, keeping his hand down. "I got it last Christmas, but haven't really had a chance to use it. So I decided to build a bookcase this weekend. I got some wood and . . . and . . . it just got away from me. I watched the safety video, I swear. I watched it twice. But the blade was just . . . I didn't realize that it would . . ." He trailed off, a glassy look of sick memory clouding his face.

"Was it just the one fingertip?"

"What? Yes, of course just the one. Just the middle finger. I mean, I think so." He looked down and winced, having obviously tried to wiggle the fingers of his right hand within the mass of wrapped cloth. "Oh my God. Oh my God."

"Sir, you really need to let me look at it, and I can't do that until you let me unwrap it." She reached again for the injury hand, and lifted the corner of the towel.


She stopped. "Does it hurt when I do that?" she asked.

"N-no. I mean, yes, but not . . . what I mean is . . . I need to tell you something."

The room was quiet for a time as the nurse sat, waiting with an expression that combined encouragement with expectancy.

"I . . ." He swallowed and began again, "I . . . don't want . . ." His voice dropped to a whisper, cracked and raw. "I'm afraid. I'm afraid of what is in there. Of what I've done to myself. To my hand." He began to weep, sobs that were all the more painful for his desperate effort to hold them in. "I don't want to see. I don't want to know how bad it is. I'm afraid."

"I understand, Mr. Sendril. From what you've described, this," she indicated his swathed hand, "could be pretty bad, or it might not be as bad as you think. We've got some very good doctors here who really know what they're doing with a needle and thread." She smiled as a barked laugh mixed with his sobbing, resulting in a wet snort that made him laugh again at the absurdity of it. She continued, "However, the sooner they get to work, the better off you'll be. At this stage, every minute counts. I can promise you that no matter what the situation is, I'll be right here to help you deal with it, OK?"

On the bed, he drew a deep breath, a ragged, shuddering breath and exhaled it all. He awkwardly used his left hand to wipe the tears from his face and looked up at the nurse. He nodded.

"Good. You're going to be all right, Mr. Sendril. Now, do you want to look away as I unwrap this?" He nodded. "All right, then, here we go," she said, "and I'll just start with this cloth."

"Nurse? Nurse . . ."

"Sandy. You can call me Sandy."

"Thank you, Sandy. I'm . . . I'm sorry I was weak."

She paused in her unwrapping and patted him on the arm. "You're not weak, dear. You've just had a hard day." With a touch light and gentle, she lifted away the first of the blood-soaked towels.
!drawkcab . . . hsalFyadirF s'tI
That was called "Looking Down" by Tony Noland.

April Fools! The story you just read appears here on my blog as part of the Great April Fool's Day FridayFlash Blog Swap, organized by Tony Noland. After some unexpected shuffling, I ended up swapping stories with the man himself. My story, Ugly Painting, Expensive Frame, is posted over on his blog.

You can also read the dozens of stories being swapped around as a part of the GAFDFFBS at Tony's blog Landless. For hundreds of thousands of words of fantastic flash fiction stories, check out the #FridayFlash hashtag on Twitter. It happens every Friday!

My thanks to Tony not only for coming up with the idea (the easy part) but for seeing it through to the end. Not so many thanks for writing a story that made me squirm; I can't stand the sight of blood, so I definitely felt the tension and squeamishness in this story.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

My National Grammar Day Post.
It's Only Two Weeks Late.

National Grammar Day was March 4. Unfortunately, it was also National Procrastination Day.

Not really. I was just buried under work and couldn't manage to pull a decent blog post together in time. But that doesn't mean National Grammar Day wasn't in my heart.I tweeted plenty about grammar and editing that day. What's more, I participated in the National Grammar Day haiku contest.I submitted on Twitter . . . which I guess means I subtwitted . . . the following haiku:

If you've much to say,
A well-placed semicolon
Can save your big but.

In all, the judges (grammatical authorities all) received 176 grammar-related haiku that day. They combed through them, discussed them, argued over their favorites, launched a Fox program that let people eliminate haiku by voting for their favorites, and consulted a cross-eyed possum, and you know what? I came in second!

It was quite an honor. This is likely the only recognition that I will ever get for any form of poetry. Unless, of course, they run the same contest next year. (I'm hoping for grammar-day limericks!)

The winning haiku was submitted by Gord Roberts (@GordinaryWords):

Spell-checkers won't catch
You're mistaken homophones
Scattered hear and their.

Well-played, Gord. Well-played.

Find out more about the contest and the winners at Editor Mark's Blog. He went so far as to post all 176 entries.

Coming up: Another pseudo-holiday is fast approaching: April Fool's Day. On that day, I'll be participating in what Tony Noland is calling The Great April Fool's Day Friday Flash Blog Swap. (On Twitter, use the hashtag #GAFDFFBS; you can't fit the whole name in a single tweet.) I don't know how great it will be, but the rest of the title is pretty sound. All it really involves is writing a piece of flash fiction based on a prompt that Tony provided, and then "trading blogs" for a day -- I'll post someone else's flash fiction here, and that person will post mine on his or her blog.

So watch this space Friday for a fun bit of flash fiction that wasn't written by me!

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.

Monday, March 21, 2011

An A to Z of Editorial Peeves, Interrupted by the Technology Gods and June Casagrande

The gods are not being kind to me.

It is unfortunate that I am forced to put my alphabetical list of editorial pet peeves on hold, but it's not my fault. I swear! I was sitting at my computer on a Thursday night, reading tweets and watching porn playing games when, without warning, the blasted thing just shut down and wouldn't be revived.

A Friday-afternoon trip to the computer nerd store* revealed that my computer was suffering from a known issue. Luckily, a fixable known issue. But, unluckily, an issue that is fixable for about $300. I won't say I'm destitute — I do have two pennies to rub together, but, alas, no genie appears when I do so. But I dare not spend those two pennies; I've a feeling the IRS is going to come looking for them soon. At any rate, I'm about $300 short of having enough money to fix the laptop right now.

So my nice, comfortable laptop is out of commission. I spent the weekend rearranging my living room so I could get my old XP desktop computer — which for the last two years has been used only for the occasional round of Civilization III — close enough to my router to plug in so I can access the Internet.

Now, 85 Windows updates later (I'm not kidding), here I am.

Unfortunately, the next 24 installments of this series are trapped on my nonworking laptop. It'll take me a little time to reconstruct my list of peeves and get to writing and rewriting, but I hope to get back to it soon.

Since I can't grace you with some of my peeves, let me point you toward someone else's, specifically, a great little book I picked up from the library Saturday morning: June Casagrande's Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies. I'm only six chapters into this book, but it already tops my list as one of the best-written, most entertaining, and most accessible books about grammar bugaboos I've ever read. And I've read a few. If you at all enjoy the drivel I write on this blog, you'll enjoy this book as well.

June Casagrande writes a weekly column called "A Word, Please" that is published in some of the bigger, cooler states (not mine). She also posts all sorts of wonderful things at her Conjugate Visits blog and at I offer this both to illustrate her writing chops and to encourage you to read her stuff online.

In Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies, Ms. Casagrande goes after those high-horse-riding, holier-than-thou nitpickers who insist on strict grammatical correctness (based on their rules about what constitutes "correct") and pounce upon anyone who would deign to misspeak. The people she goes after are in contrast to genial word nerds and grammar geeks, among which I hope I number. She makes the distinction better than I do:

For someone who's been victimized by a grammar snob, it's easy to lump all word aficionados into the same category. But we should be careful here. We must be fair. Grammar snobs are a distinct breed from their gentle cousins: word nerds and grammar geeks. The difference is bloodlust. (p. xvii)

The book is a collection of short** articles with wonderful titles like "Semicolonoscopy," "Your Boss Is Not Jesus," and "Hyphens: Life-Sucking, Mom-and-Apple-Pie-Hating, Mime-Loving, Nerd-Fight-Inciting Daggers of the Damned." Each one tackles a different grammar or usage principle, focusing especially on those non-rules that grammar snobs like to pounce on in order to feel superior by humiliating the target of their linguistic wrath. You know the ones: split infinitives, who vs. whom, lie vs. lay, and their ilk.

If you know a high school senior who plans to start an English major in the fall, this book is a great graduation gift. And because it comprises a series of relatively short essays, it’s also a great bathroom book for word nerds. When I finally get around to writing about the best bathroom books for logophiles (I've started the list . . . I hope it isn't on my laptop), this one will be at the top.

So go check it out. Better yet, buy it.

* I mean this in the kindest way. I never shop at any store that can't be accurately described as some kind of "nerd store."
** Blog-length, actually. And I don't think that's an accident.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Today's Word: bibulous

bibulous: a) highly absorbent; b) overly fond of alcohol.

Bibulous (etymologically related to imbibe) can refer, then, both to the sponge and to the person who drinks like a sponge.

From James Joyce's Ulysses:
"The hoi polloi of jarvies or stevedores or whatever they were after a cursory examination turned their eyes apparently dissatisfied, away though one redbearded bibulous individual portion of whose hair was greyish, a sailor probably, still stared for some appreciable time before transferring his rapt attention to the floor."

And no, you shouldn't infer anything from my posting this word, with a quotation from an Irish author, on St. Patrick's Day. It's just a happy coincidence, certainly.

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.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Friday Flash: Xavier's Escape

I'm not thrilled with the title "Xavier's Escape" and would appreciate your suggestions in the comments! At 923 words, this pushes the envelope of "flash fiction," but that was the goal when I started writing.


Xavier crouches behind a bulkhead and tries to slow his breathing. He listens for the sound of heavy, inhuman footsteps coming in his direction, but his heart is beating too loudly in his ears for him to be certain he wasn’t followed.

The brushed steel walls of the SS August Marok are spattered with blood, both red and green. Behind Xavier lay the remains of Captain Marshall, his blue uniform ripped to shreds, his left hand resting in the flayed-open cavity that once held his internal organs.

Nausea hits Xavier hard; he clamps a hand over his mouth and looks away. If he’s he’s going to avoid the captain’s fate, he knows he must make it to an escape module, if there are any still left. So many of his crewmates were slaughtered during the first assault by the lifeforms hiding in the asteroid that Dr. Asanka insisted they investigate more closely. But surely some of them had managed to survive? Even to escape?

He pushes thoughts of the rest of the crew out of his mind, focussing instead on the hope that he can escape the ship. That hope is all he has now.

Ten strides up the hallway is the intersection that would put him at the end of the central corridor. Half the ship's escape modules line the leeward side of that corridor. If he can just make it to one of those escape hatchways and away from this ship, his horror will be over.

He takes one last glance behind him; nothing there but the empty shell that once was his captain. He takes a deep breath and sprints for the intersection as quietly as he can.

He flattens himself against the wall next to the central corridor and surreptitiously peeks around the corner. He has a clear line to the nearest escape hatch. But in front of the second hatchway, Xavier sees the shiny, black articulated plates of one of the aliens’ backs. From the sounds reaching his ears, Xavier guesses that the thing is gorging itself on the warm entrails of one of his crewmates.

The first hatchway is only fifteen feet away, across the hall. So close, yet it seems like treacherous miles to Xavier. He knows it will take only moments to open the hatchway, but doing so will make enough noise to alert the alien.

He collects his thoughts, weighing the benefits of speed over stealth — should he sprint to the door or tip-toe to it? — when something grabs his arm.

He jumps, barely holding back a squeal.

Melanie hunches behind him.

You’re alive! Xavier mouths in surprise.

Barely, says Melanie silently. She slumps against the wall, clutching her side. Blood seeps between her fingers and down her already saturated uniform. Her wound is bad, but Xavier might be able to keep her alive with the medical kit in the escape module. If they can only get to it.

Xavier hopes that Doran managed to send the distress signal. If he did, crews from Earth could be here in five or six days, and there are enough emergency rations in the escape module to keep the two of them alive for almost three weeks.

If Doran had been caught before sending out the signal, well, Xavier and Melanie would have to deal with that when the time came.

Xavier shifts to let Melanie peek around the corner. He points to the nearest escape hatchway and Melanie nods. She is too injured to run, Xavier knows; they will have to move slowly and quietly.

Xavier takes Melanie’s free hand in his own and they step into the central corridor.

Step by silent step, they creep toward the hatchway. Xavier’s heart, once pounding in fear, now begins to beat in excitement. He can almost touch the hatchway door when the monster abruptly stops eating. Melanie and Xavier stop, too, as it sniffs the air.

Slowly, it turns its five eyes to them, its giant fangs dripping with red blood and torn flesh.

Xavier tightens his grip on Melanie’s hand, dashes to the hatchway, and presses the release button.

The monster stands and rushes toward them.

The door slides up into the wall as the alien lurches forward, swinging a great talon.

Xavier ducks under the monster’s arm and tugs Melanie’s hand, forcing her to the floor of the escape module.

Xavier is in right after her, striking the flashing red Launch button with his fist.

The doors snap shut before the monster can attack again. Through the porthole, Xavier watches it bang against the door, roaring in anger. He feels a small bump, and the alien’s snarl recedes, enveloped by the hull of the SS August Marok, which fills the window and then recedes as well.

“We made it Melanie! We made it!” Xavier turns and nearly trips over his crewmate who lay prostrate on the floor. He retrieves the medical kit from over the hatchway, crouches, and helps Melanie onto her back.

“Turn over and let me see your—”

Melanie flops onto her back, and Xavier sees in horror that the wound on her side has become meaningless. Xavier might have ducked the monster’s attack, but Melanie hadn’t. Her blood now flows unabated from the space where her head had been.

Xavier looks away, only to find himself staring into Melanie’s face, framed by the vast dark infinity of space in the main front window, her eyes and mouth still wide with fear in a final, silent, eternal scream.


Constructive criticism welcomed, hoped for, even!

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Three Word Wednesday: Billy Finally Gets His Girl

It's three word Wednesday time! This week's words are dainty, haunting, and tantalize.

Many of us know the pain of silently loving someone from afar. I know I certainly do. Here's a poem about a man who finally found his way into the heart of the woman he loved from a distance for so long.

Billy Finally Gets His Girl

Those haunting eyes that tantalized me so
For ten long years of painful, deep desire,
Whose bluest depths I'd always longed to know
At last reflect the heat of my desire.

Her lips, which long denied me loving grins —
More often showing grief, disgust, or fear —
Are mine to kiss (and use for other sins)
And now form words for none but me to hear.

Her dainty figure — supple, warm, and sweet —
That long remained beyond my hungry hand,
Is now all mine, from fragrant hair to feet,
To hold, to mold, to love, and to command.

No longer do I linger in her shadow in effacement
Now that I've locked her safely in the pit down in my basement.

Monday, March 7, 2011

An A to Z of Editorial Peeves: A

The continuing saga of a copy editor’s attempts to preempt his own rage. It starts here.Check back every Monday for a new letter's worth of ranting.

Want to keep your editor (or at least me) happy? Avoid these problems:


When is it all right to write alright. Never! Even if you’re on Twitter and trying to save some characters, instead of using alright, show your followers that you know that what you’re doing is wrong by going whole-hog with alrite.

Because no one would think you’re that clueless.

Altogether vs. all together

Altogether means “wholly or completely.” (And I just discovered that, as a noun, it has been used to mean “nude,” as in “posed in the altogether.”) All together means “everyone at the same time” or “everyone in the same place.”

The Beatles sang “All together now!” not “Altogether now!”

In “The Gettysburg Address,” Lincoln said, “We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.”


Blogs have popped up around the idea of misplaced apostrophes in public signs. There's an entire group on Flickr called, ironically, The Atrocious Apostrophe's that collects inappropriate apostrophication, and they have almost 3,000 photos like this one:
Bed's from £45
If you’re thinking of adding an apostrophe-s to make a word plural, think twice. Pluralizing a word with apostrophe-s is correct in only a very, very, very very veryveryvery few instances. In fact, I can think of only one instance off the top of my head: do’s and don’ts.

To make an acronym or initialism plural, just add a lowercase -s or -es to the word based on how you would pronounce it: EKGs, PACs, ROUSes.

Check out this example: Farmer Brown’s six rabbits were on several of the IRS’s repo lists until Farmer Brown’s 1040s were discovered under several barrels of Brussel’s sprouts.

Friday, March 4, 2011

An A to Z of Editorial Pet Peeves

Today is National Grammar Day, the perfect time to launch a multi-part blog series about copy editing!

Copy editing is as much an art as it is a science. Copy editors do more than just correct spelling, grammar, and punctuation; they help create and maintain the style of the written piece. In-depth research analysis in a medical journal, official business announcements for shareholders, and conversational how-to information each require a different style of writing, different usage expectations, and different levels of grammatical rigidity.

A good copy editor knows this and can switch smoothly from one style to another.

Of course, there are certain things — call them expectations, or at least hopes — that the copy editor brings to every piece of writing. Some of them are grammatical rules, some are style choices, and some are the copy editor’s personal preferences. They are grounded in conventions established in the literary classics, in current current popular guidelines, and on the editor’s whims.

The process of copy editing, then, isn’t a matter of black and white. There are infinite shades of gray based on the editor’s experience, preferences, and artistic choices. Every copy editor is different. And every copy editor reacts differently to writers’ choices — especially the mistakes. Copy editors expect to find mistakes, from a missing comma to a paragraph that needs a complete rewrite, but some mistakes are more egregious or more annoyingly common than others.

These are the editor’s pet peeves. Every editor has them. I have mine.

Starting here, and once a week for the next 26 weeks, I’m going to highlight my editorial pet peeves — the mistakes and style choices that I see that make me cringe. Some of them are a matter of good grammar, some of correct usage, and some are just the choices I prefer and that I wish everyone else would just agree with.

And I’m going to do it in alphabetical order. Which brings me to my first peeve:


There are two alphabetization schemes: letter-by-letter and word-by-word. Here, briefly, is the difference:
  • With word-by-word alphabetization, alphabetization stops at the end of the first word, and only when two items begin with the same word do you go on to alphabetize the following words. With this scheme, Old Testament comes before Oldman, Gary, and Top models comes before topless trolls.
  • With letter-by-letter alphabetization, spaces are ignored, and phrases are alphabetized as if they were a single word. So if you’re alphabetizing letter-by-letter, Stargate comes before Star Trek, which comes before star-whacker.
Dictionaries are alphabetized letter-by-letter, phone books are alphabetized word-by-word, and I’ve seen both schemes in indexes.

It doesn’t matter to me that most people don’t know that there are two ways to alphabetize. What bothers me, though, is when people somehow fail to grasp the basic idea of how to put things in alphabetical order.

Please, if you’re putting a list in alphabetical order, go through it twice to make sure you didn’t miss anything.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Does God Keep Pictures of Jesus in His Wallet?

Three-Word Wednesday! Today's words: affinity, fidget, and mention

I imagine St. Peter has a sign like this warning Heaven's newest residents to avoid a certain topic when they stand before God:

When you stand before God's great divinity,
Know that telling tales is His affinity.
If you mention His boy,
His long stories will cloy,
And leave you fidgeting for an infinity.