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The small stuff and why it makes you sweat | COMMENTARY

When I posted that I no longer bother with the comprise/compose distinction because usage has moved beyond it and it is invisible to nearly all readers, someone asked, “Don’t sweat the small stuff?” I answered, “There’s plenty of legitimate small stuff to sweat.” And another reader remarked, “I would be very interested in the small stuff you sweat these days.”

Let me assure you that, even after discarding outworn usages and bogus distinctions, there is still plenty of editing to do.

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Subject-verb agreement: When prepositional or participial phrases intervene between the subject and verb, writers tend to get confused. In Maryland, a voluntary reporting system among 25 doctors’ offices in the state show there were 2,200 visits for influenza-like illnesses. System is the subject, offices is the object of among, and shows should be the verb. Look to the verb in a sentence and figure out what noun, pronoun, or gerund is interacting with it.

Who and whom, lie and lay: The distinctions, though attenuated, remain in formal writing, and I enforce them. I counsel people that in their own writing it’s safer just to use who, since people tend to get whom wrong as often as they get it right—most often when the pronoun is the subject of a verb but is part of a noun clause that is the object of a verb, preposition, or infinitive. An example from a recent online discussion in which several people appeared confused: To whomever has been enjoying my coffee creamer all week. … Whoever has been enjoying is a clause, and whoever must be its subject, but the whole clause is the object of the preposition to.

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Misplaced modifiers: An introductory participial phrase, which has an adjectival sense, is supposed to refer to the subject of the following clause. Despite being loaded with fat and calories, studies show that snacking on nuts can cause you to eat less at meals. Studies, of course, is the subject. Putting despite being loaded … after nuts would get things where they belong. And prepositional phrases tend to modify whatever they are close to. Joseph Fewsmith, an expert on the Chinese leadership at Boston University, said, only half jokingly, “It seems that Jiang is stronger today than he was yesterday.” Rather than suggest that the Red Chinese have taken over BU, write that Professor Fewsmith is an expert at Boston University on the Chinese leadership.

Faulty parallelism: Most people do not read laboriously, word by word, and experienced readers readily recognize patterns of usage. Parallel structure facilitates that recognition and makes reading smoother. You will still get the raw information from faulty parallelism, but it is noise and distraction best avoided. Copy editors are traditionally expected to check basic facts, correct grammar and usage, and headline writing is better rendered as Copy editors are traditionally expected to check basic facts, correct grammar and usage, and write headlines.

Homonyms: Mantel/mantle, premier/premiere, lead/led … There are scores of them, and spell-check will not save you from the wrong one.

Slack writing: I keep encountering a tendency to link thing after thing with and as if the writer had never heard of subordination. I am forever recasting sentences like McIntyre is a longtime copy editor and is the author of a book of maxims on writing and editing into the more concise McIntyre, a longtime copy editor, is the author of a book of maxims on writing and editing.

Cliches: There are still people who think that x is not alone is a snappy transition sentence. Who think that using the adjective prestigious endows a noun with prestige to impress the reader. Who write about the war chest in campaign stories …

There’s more to editing than it’s/its, your/you’re, and there/their/they’re. But there’s that, too.

I have known them, known them all.

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