Tag Archive - editing tips

Serial Commas Are Serious Stuff

Serial commas are commas that separate items in a series and in particular pertain to the use of a comma with the last item listed. Many people ignore this rule, and I’m pretty sure it’s standard policy (to ignore) this rule in AP (article writing) style. which doesn’t make sense to me. It’s very important to always use a serial comma.

The example often used to show the need for the serial comma is this line: “I’d like to thank my parents, God and Mother Teresa, for inspiring me.” Well, by not using the serial comma between God and Mother Teresa,  you can see how the meaning of this sentence gets really wacky. I mean–who in their right mind would claim their parents are God and Mother Teresa? The way to punctuate this correctly so as to avoid such a weird interpretation is “I’d like to thank my parents, God, and Mother Teresa for inspiring me.”

Entire books have been written on this topic (see Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation for a great book that stresses the need to be careful with those tiny bits of punctuation).

So, whenever you have a list, be sure you use a comma after each item in that list. You don’t necessarily need one after the very last item—that depends upon the phrase to follow, but we won’t get into that in this post.

Whom Shall I Say?

If you’re like me, you get who and whom  mixed up. I often have to stop and reword the sentence in my head to check which one I need. We’ve been told that who is the subject of a clause and whom takes an objective position. In other words, we use whom when he or she is the object of a sentence, as in for whom, to whom, with whom.

I like how Amy Einsohn explains this in her great book The Copy Editor’s Handbook, which I’m happy to plug here. These are the (correct) examples she gives:

  • Joseph is the candidate whom we hope to elect. [We hope to elect him—object, not subject, of the sentence]
  • Smith is the candidate who we think will win. [We think he will win—he being in the nominal, not objective, form]
  • This book offers advice to whoever will accept it. [Who will accept it? He will, not him will—so you use the nominal form]

Amy’s book is really terrific at explaining everything you need to know about writing correctly, and you can get her book here:

The Copyeditor’s Handbook: A Guide for Book Publishing and Corporate Communications, Second Edition

Hyphenation–Not-So-Easy-to-Understand Rules

I think the most errors I see when editing manuscripts have to do with hyphenation. In an earlier post, I gave a link to the latest CMOS Hyphenation Chart, and you can download it again here. I refer to it a lot since there are so many diverse rules! Many of the rules deal with modifying a noun (putting an adjective or compound adjective before the noun), as shown in some examples below.

Here are some basic and common usages of hyphenated style:

  • My sixteen-year-old is taking ballet classes from a seventy-year-old woman.
  • He’s wearing a dark-green coat and a blue-gray sweater. [But you would say, “His coat is dark green.”]
  • It’s a black-and-white photo. [But you would say, “The truth is black and white.”]
  • I’m taking a fiction-writing workshop.
  • This is cutting-edge technology. [But you would say, “This tech is cutting edge.”]
  • I’m working a twelve-hour-a-day schedule. [But you would say, “I’m working a twelve-hour day.”]
  • This book is a nineteenth-century romance with twenty-first-century dialog.

A lot of words we tend to hyphenate should be one closed-up word, so check both the handy hyphenation chart and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Edition (which is the secondary authority below CMOS).

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