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Don't waste your time

A flood of comments has come in from readers, and all three asked me to produce a post on things not worth bothering about in editing. Without any pretension of being comprehensive, I offer a start.

Things not worth bothering about

About/some. Some editors heartily dislike some in the sense of approximately. Not worth staying up nights fretting over.

Attorney/lawyer. Functionally interchangeable.

Like/such as. The strictest view is that like must compare one thing or person to another and that such as must introduce an example or set of examples. If you want to maintain a gossamer distinction, as Bill Walsh prefers, be my guest; but I’m not going to wear out my wrists switching one for the other.

None with plural. Don't labor to switch none to a singular verb. None can mean not one or not any. Use singular verbs or plural verbs as context dictates: None of the candlesticks is broken; none of the candlesticks have been polished.

Over/more than. If you’re not a journalist, you’re probably surprised to learn that over is limited to spatial relationships and must not be used to indicate a greater quantity. And since you’re not a journalist, you can continue to use the word without regard to false distinctions.

Split infinitive. A hoary shibboleth. If your English teacher warned you off this, she was wrong. If your first editor forbade this, he was wrong. If you own a book that prohibits this, get rid of it.

Things worth bothering about

Auxiliary/adverb/verb. It’s mainly journalists who insist on marring the idiomatic pattern of the language. Write has always been so, not always has been so. If the writer insists on the latter, change it anyhow.

Comprise/compose. A set of encyclopedias comprises its volumes. An alphabet is composed of letters. Is comprised of is always wrong.

Imply/infer. They mean opposite things. Hold fast to the distinction.

Things I’m on the fence about

Beg the question. It’s a formal term in logic, for making a circular argument, not an equivalent of prompts the question. But it very seldom appears in its sense as a term of logic, and I fear that it is going to prevail in the latter sense.

Careen/career. I’m still insisting on career for moving recklessly at high speed and careen for tipping onto the side, but I can feel my resolve weakening.

Everyone/their. The Brits are probably right to shrug at using the plural pronoun in this epicene sense, but there is such hard-core resistance among American editors that I shrink from allowing it.

But wait — there’s more

I’ll add to this as new items bob to the surface, or as you, dear readers, suggest them.



Posted by John McIntyre at 8:15 AM | | Comments (13)


Because vs. since? Interchangeable?

After reading your column for nearly two years and countless other explanations over at least that time, I still don't understand the difference between "none is" and "none are." In your example, "None of the candlesticks is broken; none of the candlesticks have been polished," it's clear that "not one is broken" and "not any have been polished." But how would it be different to say "not any are broken" or "not one has been polished"? Is it merely a difference in emphasis? Thanks for any additional light (candle or otherwise) you can shed.

I was so shocked, and thrilled, to hear Fred Vultee use "question-begging" correctly in his blog that I had to blink a few times to make sure I read it right.

Of course, I expect him to know from logic terms. But it was still nice.

You might also enjoy this comic from Dinosaur Comics titled DOWN WITH DESCRIPTIVISTS IN THIS ONE PARTICULAR INSTANCE, if I haven't shared it with you already. (I think I post it on a bulletin board around here like once a year. . .) That's always been a big peeve of mine.

Re singular 'they,' 'their,' etc.

Have a look at this site:

I would argue there are some cases for the lawyer/attorney distinction, though it's probably just a matter of commonsense context.
For instance, we've had stories locally about a county judge vacancy, where assistant district attorneys and village/town attorneys are jockeying for the nominations, etc., along with some lawyers. To call them all attorneys (or worse, to describe the lawyers as "hometown" attorney) is confusing.
In most cases, however, I agree.

I'm surprised to see you use sexist language: English teacher - she; first editor - he.

Anyhow, great post, though I am not so sure if I agree with you on everything.

"A flood of...and all three"

This made me laugh this morning. Thanks!

(oh, and thanks for the list)

Auxiliary/adverb/verb. It’s mainly journalists who insist on marring the idiomatic pattern of the language. Write has always been so, not always has been so. If the writer insists on the latter, change it anyhow.

I just chant at them, "The adverb follows the first auxiliary."

Blind them with science. if you can rattle of the names of the parts of speech, it usually shuts them right up.

Oh, and I also say, "This is NOT an infinitive," bcs every time I ask them why they put the "only" or the "also" in the wrong place, they say, "You're not supposed to split an infinitive."

(and of course I add, "splitting the infinitive isn't wrong anyway")

"Begs the question" is my personal pet peeve. One of them at least.

Although we may be losing the real sense of the phrase due to ignorant folks trying to sound smart, can't we all agree that "raises the question" is always better English?

I can't.

I am rubbing my hands with glee, looking forward to the day I'll get a chance to use "over" for "more than" in big, bold type.

Is this worth bothering about: I was taught that you never say for example, teachers "hope" to get raises or teachers "feel" overworked because journalists are not psychics and don't know what people think or feel. I see that used a lot in major newspapers, so I am not sure that is worth bothering about anymore?

Nice list, Mr. McIntrye.

You leave off a few of my favorites.

"You can't hold a meeting." (Or a funeral or a picnic or court or anything else that you can't grasp with your grubby little mitts.)

Demolished by Bernstein many decades ago, this demented ukase is still followed -- and fanatically, at that -- by some newspaper editors..

"Object can only collide if both of them are moving."

Another "rule" that is unknown outside the nation's newsroom and deranged stylebooks.

"Priests don't say Mass. Mass is always celebrated or sung."

Who made this up? Priests talked about saying Mass all the time when I was in parochial school. They never said, "I'm going to celebrate the 6:30 Mass" or "I'm going to sing a High Mass on Sunday."

If His Eminence, Seán Patrick Cardinal O’Malley, O.F.M. Cap., the archbishop of Boston, can write that "It’s the ideal that priests say Mass every day," I suspect that the usage is correct.

Auxiliary/adverb/verb: Indeed. Journalists (except for the New York Times) are the main offenders, but lawyers are right behind. I've never understood why, but I doubt the split-infinitive explanation, as these people don't seem to mind splitting infinitives.

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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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