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A quiz for readers

In an attempt to spur the flagging interest of Loyola College’s journalism majors in the course on copy editing that I teach, I put together a poster inviting them to spot the errors in a set of sentences. "Learn how to avoid embarrassing yourself and others in print," I suggested. Here are the sentences. Test your own abilities against those of professional copy editors. Answers are at the bottom of this entry. Don’t cheat. The sentences:

1. Since their birth Nov. 19, doctors and nurses have noticed distinct differences in the babies.

2. [A direct quote in an article] "I feel like the little guy with the finger in the dyke."

3. What residents want to protect is the peaceful, almost gentile Riderwood of manicured lawns, rolling hills and eclectic housing.

4. Mrs. Payne, whose descendants arrived on the Mayflower, was born Eloise Chipman in Harrington, Del.

5. The sight of the pontiff praying with rabbis, llamas and imams sends these Vatican conservatives around the bend.

6. Although boys do get lice, they tend to prefer females.

The answers

You didn’t look, did you?

All these sentences, by the way, were written by professional journalists, and all were moved to the copy desk by assigning editors. That’s how I know about them.

1. Misplaced modifier. Move "since their birth Nov. 19" to follow "babies." English syntax tends to be positional; word order matters.

2. Although dyke has historically been merely an alternative spelling of dike, in our time, it is an opprobrious term for a lesbian. And further, you might keep in mind, the bulk of today’s undergraduates appear to be ignorant of the story of the heroic little Dutch boy.

3. Presumably the writer was reaching for genteel instead of gentile, though it is difficult to divine exactly what the intent was.

4. We’re confident that it was Mrs. Payne’s ancestors who landed at Plymouth Rock.

5. Tibetan Buddhist monks are lamas. Llamas are South American ruminants. Admittedly the original version of the sentence offers a more arresting image than the corrected one, but copy editors are always draining the life and interest out of stories.

6. While the nearest noun to they is lice, the parallelism of the sentence suggests that boys is the antecedent. To avoid ambiguity, change lice to the vermin. And for symmetry’s sake, make it boys and girls or males and females. (Please see comments below.)

How did you do?

If you got all six right, you, too, could have a future in the glamorous world of copy editing. Enjoying the quiet superiority of identifying other people’s flaws.

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:41 AM | | Comments (6)


In the correction for number 6, it would make more sense to replace "they" with "the vermin" rather than replacing "lice".

Mr. Laurent -- along with my daughter, who caught the same slip -- is correct. "Lice" should stet, and "they" should be replaced with "the vermin."

All corrections gratefully accepted.

Nice entry, John. I was going to make a comment about your use of the word "opprobrious," but I didn't want to seem disrespectful.

A reader has sent an e-mail asking whether "send" should be "sends" in the original of the fifth sentence, on the grounds that the subject of the sentence is "sight" rather than "rabbis, llamas and imams." He's quite right. It was my error in transcription, and I've corrected the text.

It's always nice to see my choice of profession reaffirmed as right for me. :)

Regarding llamas and lamas:

This is an opportune place to remember "The Lama," a poem by Ogden Nash:

The one-l lama,
He's a priest.
The two-l llama,
He's a beast.
And I will bet
A silk pajama
There isn't any
Three-l lllama.*

*The author's attention has been called to a type of conflagration known as a three-alarmer. Pooh.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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