Category Archives: comma use

Needed: “Require” Inquiry

On editing discussion boards, the personal peeves of various editors inevitably bubble to the surface. A recurring peeve is the use of require for need. This is one particular bugaboo that I’ve never sweated (note to pedants: sweat would be fine here, too. That’s right: both sweat and sweated are acceptable as past tense and past participle of sweat), but it sure raises the ire of some. This week, the issue was raised again on LinkedIn, so I had to haul out the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. (Who am I kidding — the COD is always at hand.)

Here are the definitions:

  • need: require
  • require: need

That’s right, folks. I declare this debate officially over.

Okay, maybe there’s a bit more to discuss. Sure, require is the better choice in some instances:

To clear security, a passport is required (in other words, nothing but a passport will do the trick).

And need is the better choice in others:

This thesis needs a good editor (not a requirement, but a damn good suggestion).

But if the Canadian Oxford isn’t dying on this hill, neither am I.

Now, can we all get back to more important things — like duking it out over the Oxford comma!


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The Oxford Comma

Ah, the Oxford comma: some love it, some hate it. I use it, but I have no problem dropping it when required by a style guide. However, there are some instances when the Oxford comma is indeed needed for clarity:

Who can argue with this?

Who can argue with this?

(From Gifts for Grammar Geeks.)

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Copy Editing Commandment #4: Thou Shalt Be Consistent

Maintaining consistency throughout a text is a basic editing skill. The list of items to keep consistent is long and varied:

  • capitalized words (Moon or moon, for example)
  • numbers (when to use figures, when to use words, how to treat dates, times, etc.)
  • abbreviations (when to use them, how to punctuate them, what articles to use with them)
  • distinctive type (italics, roman, quotation marks, etc.)
  • format (headings, lists, captions, tables, bibliographies, etc.)
  • punctuation (open or closed style, use of serial comma)
  • spelling (British vs. American vs. Canadian)
  • hyphen use for compound nouns (policy making or policy-making)
  • internal facts (what’s written on page 202 shouldn’t contradict what’s written on page 2)

Many writers don’t know how to treat different elements of content — or they’re too busy creating great content to care. The copy editor polishes text so that it’s ready for its close-up (i.e., publication!). The result can be transformative. It’s like the difference between you at home in your jammies and you ready for a hot date.

Hair, makeup, nails, and wardrobe for text: it’s what copy editors do.

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The Copy Editing Killed Me

The best thing about goodreads? The reviews! For every book I love or hate, a visit to goodreads is mandatory to confirm both my biases and the folly of those who have an opposing opinion.

Recently I was checking out the reviews for Copernicus Avenue, and one reviewer lamented that the book was poorly copy edited, a fact that ruined her reading enjoyment and raised her ire on behalf of the author. An “unforgivable” error was made on page 3, she wrote. Here’s the error:

They were loaded onto freight cars and shipped across their broken country to a station bearing the, name Kleinsaltz.

Yup, a misplaced comma — indeed a comma placement that cannot possibly be debated; it’s wrong, plain and simple.

I recently came across a similarly misplaced comma in another novel — not to mention a plethora of commas throughout that would have made Jane Austen proud (you have to admit that the woman needed a good copy editor).

Are these errors enough to make me stop reading an otherwise well-written novel? No way, but they annoy and distract. Are they enough to make me stop reading a report, blog, or online article? Yeah, they very well could be. Whenever writing itself is noticed and not the ideas being conveyed, readers lose heart — and interest.

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Rob Ford Sweats the Big Stuff; Copy Editors Sweat the Small Stuff

I wasn’t going to do it, but as a Torontonian it’s about time I blogged (however tangentially!) about our fearless — or should I say feckless — mayor. Yeah, that’s a pretty tame way of describing him. He has a lot to deal with, and I wish him luck.

In today’s National Post, The Blatch bemoaned the fact that the Star paid $5000 for the video of Ford — a video that has no context and brings nothing new to the ongoing civic saga — that is currently being shown everywhere. She wrote the following:

“The petulant shouted question to Mayor Ford Thursday (‘Why won’t you just go away?’) and the slavering mob of reporters turning up at his house and on duty outside the glass doors to his office — little of that is in the public interest.”

The integrity of today’s journalism is worthy of debate, but as a copy editor I’m bemoaning the confusion that a poorly edited paper can cause for its readership.

In the above sentence, Mayor Ford Thursday is strung together, giving the appearance that “Ford Thursday” is the mayor’s name. Newspapers place a premium on space and omit all unnecessary words and punctuation, and it could be argued that no one is going to misinterpret the mayor’s name — especially in a paragraph well into the article. Fair enough, but I always err on the side of making things as clear as possible for the reader, so I would add the preposition “on” before Thursday.

Also, when I first read the sentence I assumed that petulant was being used as an adverb and was misspelled: “petulantly shouted” would have been correct in this instance. That is, the slavering mob of reporters sounded like whiny children when they asked the mayor why he won’t go away. But I’m betting that the mob gathered around the mayor said these words emphatically — defiantly, even. It’s not that the question was said petulantly, it’s that the question per se was petulant. A comma between petulant and shouted would make this distinction. (Also recall that coordinate adjectives should be separated by commas.)

You can argue that I’m being pedantic, but don’t underestimate the confusion that can be created for readers when writing is not well structured.

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Filed under comma use, coordinate and noncoordinate adjectives, editing and writing, punctuation, the royal order of adjectives, Uncategorized

Overused and Underappreciated: The Working Life of the Comma

Commas here, commas there, commas everywhere — except when they’re nowhere to be found, leaving a wake of confusion by their absence. Many writers liberally use commas to insert pauses that are pleasing to the ear into their texts — no less a writer than Margaret Atwood has admitted to using commas this way. But comma use is more structured than that: it is based on grouping clauses and phrases together in a way that provides clarity for the reader. In this morning’s National Post (I know, I know — you’d think I never read anything else!), I spied a radio station ad that lacked clarity because a comma was missing:

Really Conservatives? A Justin attack ad with a clip from the last century?

There’s a comma missing, which leads the reader to think, after reading the first question, that what is being asked is whether or not the group being addressed is in fact made up of Conservatives rather than, say, Liberals or some other political group. The addition of a comma makes a difference:

Really, Conservatives?

This question is clear: the Conservatives are being asked, really?

Another interesting use of the comma is when the title of a work includes alternative titles:

The Subversive Copy Editor: Advice from Chicago (or, How to Negotiate Good Relationships with Your Writers, Your Colleagues, and Yourself)

The above is the title of a well-known book in the editing trade, and its punctuation is correct, of course. The comma after or makes clear that what follows is an alternative title. Without the comma, or could be mistaken for part of the title. Likewise, I think the following classic film title would have been better with a comma:

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

The colon after or isn’t impeding clarity but it isn’t contributing to clarity, either. And the use here of the colon is not exactly “by the book,” although I for one am not a pedant about these things. But if I were editing the title, for the sake of correctness, I would omit the colon and use a comma.

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