You Don't Say John E. McIntyre writes about language, usage, journalism & arbitrarily chosen subjects.

The usual suspects

The Baltimore Sun

During four decades of editing in big-time journalism, I’ve encountered few exotic specimens. You sit at the bench for hours, and it’s always the same damned mistakes that everyone makes all the time. You spend your shift rounding up the usual suspects:

It’s for its. It’s just a spelling mistake, and a trivial one that everyone makes, but it looks bad and gives readers, who always go for the lowest-hanging usage fruit, to think ill of you.

Subject verb agreement. When a plural noun intervenes between the subject and the verb, particularly when the subject is an inconspicuous gerund, the writer will feel a pull toward a plural verb. Seeing reporters cope with multiple tasks and looming deadlines make understanding errors easy. Verb should be makes.

Whom when the pronoun is the subject of a verb. After weeks of investigation, the police identified whom they said were the gunmen. Should be who, the subject of were. “Police said they were the gunmen.” Who were the gunmen is a noun clause, the object of identified.

Muddled homonyms. Vocal chords for vocal cords, free reign for free rein, lead for led, and more. Go online to Alan Cooper’s Homonyms and find out many treacherous slips are out there waiting for you to make them.

Plurals, possessives, and plural possessives. Yes, I have seen childrens’ make it as far as the copy desk. More than once. Names get particularly funky: Smith, Smith’s, the Smiths not the Smith’s, and the possessive Smiths’. But note: Jones, Jones’s or Jones’ (depending on your style guide; both are acceptable), the Joneses, and the possessive Joneses’. You may not like pronouncing “JONES-iz-iz,” but the language is what it is.

Book ’em, Danno.

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