The word editor has been in my job title for over 20 years. People seem to think I am always editing, even in my spare time. But when the clock is off, I remove my editor’s hat. It looks like this:
(Not really, but I might order it.) Aside from authors who pay me, the only people whose grammar I might summon the energy to correct are TV newscasters.
It’s another story, however, when I have that proverbial red pen in my hand. It looks like this:
Indeed, when I am asked to make a manuscript as morphologically and syntactically sound as possible, I take no prisoners. Here are some of the errors I eradicate most frequently:
- Two spaces between sentences. The number of spaces used between sentences has a fascinating history (if you’re into typography—who isn’t?), but single spacing has been the accepted printing convention since the mid-twentieth century. For instance, the following spacing is incorrect: “I like cupcakes. They are yummy.” Fortunately, this gaffe is easily fixed with a little “find and replace” action.
- Missing serial comma. It says in the bible (The Chicago Manual of Style), “When a conjunction joins the last two elements in a series of three or more, a comma—known as the serial or series comma or the Oxford comma—should appear before the conjunction.” Here is an example of the profound confusion caused by a missing serial comma: “I am making the following flavors of cupcakes: strawberry, orange and chocolate and banana.” So, in addition to strawberry cupcakes, am I making cupcakes that are (1) orange and (2) chocolate and banana? Or (1) orange and chocolate and (2) banana? Either way, it looks like I’m making cupcakes.
- Random capitalization. I wish I could get inside the head of the writer who, without warning, capitalizes words that should be lowercase. If I were editing a book on baked goods (please send me manuscripts on baked goods—or just baked goods), I might find a sentence like this: “A Cupcake is a small cake designed to serve one person, which may be baked in a paper or Aluminum Cup.”
- Dangling modifiers. A dangling modifier is a word or phrase that describes a word not clearly stated in the sentence—often to humorous effect. For example, “Standing at the dessert counter, my eyes took in the rows of colorful cupcakes.” In other words, my eyes were standing at the dessert counter—which is absurd, because eyes don’t even have feet! Here is a possible reworking: “Standing at the dessert counter, I ogled the rows of colorful cupcakes.”
- Pronouns with unclear antecedents. I often encounter pronouns that could refer to more than one noun in a sentence. For example, “After putting sprinkles on the cupcakes, I sealed them in a container.” We don’t know if “them” refers to “sprinkles” or “cupcakes.” We only know it refers to something good.
The law of irony dictates that if you write about editorial pet peeves, you will make a stupid mistake and have it pointed out to you—which is where a comforting cupcake comes in.