Monday, August 1, 2011

An A to Z of Editorial Peeves: S (cont.)

Last week, I wrote about the semicolon and how it really is a useful bit of punctuation and not a torture device invented by sadistic English teachers. The semicolon deserved its own blog post, but there are a few more editorial peeves on my "S-list," if you know what I mean.


A caption here would only get me in trouble, don't you think?
It's counter-intuitive, yes, but religious is not part of the word sacrilegious, even though it refers to irreverence toward the sacred and religious. If it helps, consider this:
"The Pope's scrotum is a 'sac religious'." That statement might be sacrilegious.
If you can just remember not to put the Pope's scrote into your writing, you'll never misspell sacrilegious again!

Split infinitives

Split infinitives? Not a peeve. If your text looks and sounds better with a split infinitive, split away! There's absolutely nothing wrong with it.

No, what gets me is people who still insist that split infinitives are ungrammatical. Fortunately, they're a small and dwindling group.

Stationary vs. stationery

The difference between the adjective stationary and the noun stationery is something people just need to learn. It might help (and that's a definite might) to think of them like this: Being stationARy means that you stay where you ARe; stationERy is a type of papER.

It's a bad mnemonic, I know. Other suggestions welcomed. You should learn the difference regardless.

Subject-verb agreement

One of the copy editor's special skills is the ability to look at a sentence and take it apart to find its essence. We can strip away the adjectives, adverbs, prepositional phrases, and appositives, isolate the dependent and independent clauses, and look into the foundation of the sentence: the subject and predicate. If these don't agree, the sentence won't stand.

I gave a whole blog post over to the semicolon; to cover the rules, exceptions, and idiosyncrasies of subject-verb agreement, you'd need an entire book. And that's a book I don't want to write.

But I do want to help people become better and more comfortable writers, so I can offer a little advice here. The best thing you can do to keep your subjects and verbs in alignment is just this: Re-read what you write before you click Send or Post or whatever. Simply re-reading what you wrote (doing it aloud can really help, too) will reveal all sorts of little things that you didn't notice when you were first typing.

Do this for papers and blog posts. Do it for e-mails. Even do it for tweets.

I'm going to go do it right now, before I click Publish Post.