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Because I say so

Yes or no. One or zero. Right or wrong. Copy editors tend to be strongly binary. Everything in usage should be reducible to a rule. But experience is messy, and language mirrors experience. In reaching for precision, it is easy to overreach.

Previous postings here have dealt with distinctions so gossamer as to be not worth making — since and because, attorney and lawyer. Each editor tends to have a set of idiosyncratic preferences that do not stand up well to examination.

I have a distaste for contracting has, out of a concern that, because it is the same as the contraction for is, ambiguity might result. But if pressed, I would have to admit that She’s been doing that for years is highly unlikely to be misread as She is been doing that for years.

I also dislike the use of swarm as a transitive verb. The bees are swarming over the clover is fine with me — more honey for the biscuits — but The lawyers swarmed the accident victim makes me flinch. Unfortunately, I gave in to an impulse to look up swarm in the Oxford English Dictionary, which records uses of swarm as a transitive as far back at the 16th century.

Purely personal peeves are difficult enough to cope with, but they can become intractable when linked to some real or fancied authority.

I once worked with a copy editor who was a dictionary fundamentalist. He wrote a headline once about an Army officer who was killed, calling him a GI. Another copy editor remonstrated, but the first copy editor referred to an entry in Webster’s New World, "of or for veterans of the U.S. armed forces," that he claimed justified the usage. No amount of explanation—that GI, as in GI Bill, can have that sense, but that the word as a noun is limited by common usage to enlisted personnel of the Army – persuaded him. In the end, he was simply overruled. (Not for the first time.)

If any of you out there want to subject your own peeves to scrutiny, send them in. There is no guarantee that your objections will be sustained.

Posted by John McIntyre at 12:32 PM | | Comments (3)


Here are some peeves past and present from various folks on my copy desk:
impact (should be effect or affect)
over (should be more than)
accident (should be wreck, crash, collision)
wreck (should be crash, collision)
over (should be during, as in "during the weekend")
My personal peeve is "over" to mean "more than." It's probably a losing battle, but I keep fighting.

Ah. a place to vent. My pet peeves:

Both (If the two people or items are listed, you don't need it)
Redundant phrases (ATM machine, hearken back, join with...)

I'm sure there's more.

I kept fighting to allow "over" for "more than." I also stood for "hark back."

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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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