Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Sentence Edit of the Day: Dangling from the Rear

Most writers and editors have trained themselves to watch out for danglers and other misplaced phrases (prepositional phrases, especially) at the beginning of a sentence.

So, because I usually work with copy written by well-trained writers and editors, I often find misplaced phrases at the end of a sentence. Here's one:

Just remember to return the favor when others contact you by responding promptly to their requests.

This sentence is confusing (or at least slightly unpleasant to read) because the phrase "by responding promptly to their requests" is attached to the nearest verb—"contact"—instead of the verb it's truly modifying: "return." Here's one fix:

Just remember to return the favor by responding promptly to others' requests.

If you work in an environment where aggressive changes to text are grumbled about, a "rear dangler" (or a squinting modifier) can often be fixed by adding a comma (which can seem to separate the phrase from any dangerous attachments):

Just remember to return the favor when others contact you, by responding promptly to their requests.

A mentor used to call these commas "clarity commas," and they should be used sparingly.

Relative clauses, too, often get mixed up in sentences. Here's a sentence that a friend asked me to help sort out:

Three trends accelerated in 2010 that may redefine the way we shop for good.

Here are the sentence's two main problems: The clause "that may redefine ..." is clumsily situated. And "for good" is trying to be a prepositional phrase that attaches to "shop" (it is intended to adverbially modify "redefine").

Here's my fix:

Three trends that may forever redefine the way we shop accelerated in 2010.

If you feel that "accelerated in 2010" needs more prominence in the sentence, you might try:

Three trends that accelerated in 2010 may forever redefine the way we shop.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Christmas Music

I've spent a lot of time in airports this week—in fact, I'm sitting in one now, waiting for a flight from Boston to Washington, D.C. It's December 17, so sitting in a U.S. airport means listening to Christmas music.

Not to get all bah-humbuggy, but I strongly dislike Christmas music—especially modern Christmas music (with a couple of exceptions). The older stuff—that is, the religious stuff—I often find appealing for its genuineness of feeling (even if I may not share the feeling), and some of it is just beautiful music. I've always liked the melody of "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear," for instance.

But the children's songs annoy. Sorry, Rudolf and Frosty—your songs should just not be sung by adults, especially adults who find a way to sing the songs with "emotion." It makes me cringe. (Jack Johnson, I'm talking to you.)

Further, I think it's time for artists to stop writing and recording new holiday songs unless they can truly bring something new and interesting to the genre. I mean, I just heard Gloria Estefan singing some nonsense about putting her love on layaway for Christmas ... or something. (I can't bring myself to look it up, the asininity of the lyrics bothered me so.) Songs like these annoy me because they so often sound like, instead of songs that truly celebrate a feeling about the season, crass attempts to hit a Christmas-song jackpot, a la Maria Carey.

I recently heard Carey interviewed, and the reporter said that the singer's "All I Want for Christmas Is You" is the number-one song in the universe and has earned Carey $100 billion ... or something. (I don't feel like looking that up either, but the song is huge.) So, of course, Carey has recorded some more Christmas music (new album out now!), hoping to repeat her success—her and everyone else.

The worst, for me, are Christmas songs that try to "rock." The progenitor of this subgenre, "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree," is perhaps the very worst—an insult both to Christmas and to rockin'. Cyndi Lauper's calypso version of the song casts a pall over the artist's entire body of work. (And I adore Lauper!)

They're awful. These songs are true enemies of Christmas—cheapening it with bogus sentiment and asinine rhymes. Just sing the standards, singers! We like the standards. (Except you, Chris Cornell. If you go near "Ave Maria" ever again, there will be consequences.)

To end this post on a positive note, I will discuss a few exceptions to my proposed ban on Christmas music from the modern era:

Many original songs written during or near World War II are moving (to me) for their genuine longing for home—in fact, "I'll Be Home for Christmas" is probably my favorite Christmas song. "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" isn't bad, either (when Judy Garland sings it—but in any recording after 1970, I can swear I hear the singer struggle with the line "Make the Yule-tide gay.")

Vince Guaraldi's music is great—then again, when it comes to Christmas music, it's usually the lyrics that are the primary problem.

I like "Santa Baby" (Eartha Kitt's version) and "Hard Candy Christmas" (Dolly Parton's recorded version) for their sterling kitsch qualities.

And I have one indefensible modern song to add to this list of Christmas songs I like: Wham's "Last Christmas."

I know. I know! I already said it was indefensible.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Sentence Edit of the Day: Unnecessary Words

A friend and I once had a conversation about the phrase "I'm the type of person who ..."—and what an annoying thing it was to hear. We decided that someone who explains himself or herself by saying, "I'm the type of person who ..." is likely a simple, not-very-self-aware person. My friend added that a person who precedes that phrase with the phrase "One thing you'll learn about me is that ..." is even more eye-rollingly annoying (for instance, "One thing you'll learn about me is that I'm the type of person who tells it like it is").

Another friend then noted, witheringly, "You're the type of people who look down their noses at the type of person who says he's a type of person."

It's true.

I was reminded of this conversation again today, when I made an edit I make a lot: removing the phrase "someone who":

Are you someone who struggles with procrastination?

Why couldn't it be, simply:

Do you struggle with procrastination?

I'm the type of person who thinks it could and should.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

New Etiquette Rules for Air Travel

Well, not all of them are new—but all of them bear repeating.

Rule 1.
If a typical human being could not carry it for even a short distance, it is not a "carry-on." What isn't clear about this? Bringing your extra-large suitcases into the cabin causes problems for other passengers and delays flights. A baggage carousel adds 15 minutes to your trip, max. If you can't afford the baggage fee, take a train.

Rule 2. Do not cluster at the gate until your row or seating area is called. You're getting in people's way, and you look ridiculous milling around there like cattle. Sit down. If you're in a rush to get on first because you're afraid that you're not going to get any overhead-bin space for your steamer trunk, see Rule 1.

Rule 3. If you're in economy class, let the person in the middle seat have both his armrests. If you're on the aisle or in a window seat, you have plenty of room with just one, and he's suffering enough, the poor, pitiable thing. Don't be selfish.

Rule 4. No egg-salad sandwiches should be eaten on commuter planes or other small closed-air-circulation environments.

Rule 5. Let's just all agree that we're not going to recline our seats in economy. That three inches intrudes into the space of the person behind you far more than it enhances your comfort.

Air travel is stressful
—but losing your temper when a flight is delayed by weather or when you must undergo the (humiliating, yes) security procedures we all have to endure only makes it more so. Keep in mind that you are rarely going to achieve perfect comfort on an airplane, and your efforts to make yourself more comfortable should not intrude on the comfort of others, for Pete's sake.

(Written in a fit of pique after a six-hour flight from Boston to San Francisco—in a middle seat.)

Want to discuss tips for frequent travelers? Check out my post "Tips for Business Travelers" on the Blog.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Important Work

I was out with two friends, R and S. R is another longtime copy editor and editor, and he and I were talking about how we'd punctuate and capitalize a sentence like this:

  • She didn't want to have the whole "are we exclusive" conversation.
  • She didn't want to have the whole "Are we exclusive?" conversation.
or even something like:
  • She didn't want to have the whole are-we-exclusive? conversation.
The conversation went back and forth for a while (there are variables not present in the examples: for instance, the writer is prickly about being edited), and eventually S broke in with a comment that sounded something like "I can't believe people debate this kind of thing! Who cares? It just doesn't seem very important."

The conversation then turned into a sort of self-conscious defense of what editors do for a living.

I should explain first that S's tone was curious and friendly, and that S is an emergency-room nurse, so he clearly bests us in the "Whose work is important?" contest. I acknowledge that, when the revolution comes and the people who survive the cataclysm return to an agrarian, "survival of the fittest" society, I might best serve the future of humanity as food for other survivors.

Is editing still important? My own career seems to say, well, "Not so much." Over the years, my editorial positions have morphed into marketing-copywriting positions, which have morphed into marketing-strategy positions. My current job title is "senior editor," but I spend very little time editing (maybe 30 percent of the time). I schedule tweets, plan PR campaigns, write marketing copy, and act as a media spokesperson. I'm officially in a marketing department, and I report to a director of marketing.

And this is all fine with me—I enjoy my job (and I'm grateful to have a job). Plus, I think this is the future of work: More of us are going to have to be generalists (which, as you may know, all good copy editors are). "Editors" will be executing social-media strategies. "Marketing managers" will be writing ad copy. And "nurses" will—well, nurses will still be saving lives and caring for sick and enfeebled people. Bless them.

As for me, I'm enrolling in an Internet-marketing certification course (I figure I might add some certification to my on-hand-learning experience)—not that this will add to my societal worth when the zombie apocalypse comes (oh, yes, I've started watching "The Walking Dead" on AMC). But in the here and now, I am having a harder time finding someone who'll pay me for my punctuation obsession.

Is editing important? Well, I have some pat answers to that: A well-trained editor corrects falsehoods and brings logic to illogical constructions, thereby improving the public discourse. He or she corrects errors of grammar and eliminates unnecessary text, helping writers express themselves more clearly (and helping readers read more easily—even if they don't and shouldn't notice our efforts). And an editor makes sure that text meets standards of not only usage but also journalism, giving publications credibility and protecting them from people who might disparage them.

That's my pat answer, but the truth is (to answer my friend S), I don't know whether people really care about this stuff anymore.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Getting Rid of Books

It's time for true confessions: I have books, proudly displayed on my groaningly overloaded living-room bookcase, that I've never read. I've moved them with me (for years) from apartment to apartment to apartment—across international borders, even.

But I've given their pages, at best, a flickering glance.

Some of them I think of as decorative—for instance, three volumes of a philosophy encyclopedia, The World's Greatest Thinkers, published in 1947. I like their spines; I probably picked them up at a garage sale somewhere. Their bookplates announce that they are from the library of Ethel M. Ziegler. I don't know Ethel, but (just between you and me) I don't think she read these books either. Their pages look untouched.

Some of them I've intended to read for years but probably won't. A compendium of Irish literature, say—I like that book's spine, too, and I bet I've read (or tried to read) a lot of what it contains, but I've never opened it.

Don't misunderstand me, though. I have read most of the books I own. Many are books I've read and loved so much that I couldn't bear to part with them. Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go; a biography of Mary, Queen of Scots; and Bury Me Standing, a history of Europe's gypsies. And on and on the list goes.

I have a whole different bookcase with reference books (many of which I use—but a lot of these are "only for show," too: a 1965 thesaurus with a gorgeous mod cover, for instance). I suppose that I think I might need them again. One never knows when I'll need to refer to a QuarkXPress user's guide from 2001 or my second copy of Words Into Type, right? Or a 1999 Lonely Planet guide to Bangkok?

I know, I know. I will never need these books again.

I keep books and display them (or keep them in boxes in case I want to display them in the future), in part, because I like what they say about me: they say that I'm smart, that I'm a reader, that I'm a person who likes books. A library is a vain thing. The books say, "This is a history of my thoughts." I even chose the aforementioned titles with this notion in my head, asking myself, "Should I mention the biography of poor, doomed Queen Mary or poor, doomed Marie Antoinette?" And keeping books just became a habit.

Not too long ago, I divested myself of a "professional collection": most of my collection of etiquette books (and this blog post from 2009 is about the history of that collection). Now, as I prepare to move again (into a substantially smaller space), it's time to ... unburden myself of these books that I don't need anymore. I'll keep a few favorites, necessary reference books, and a few decorative books. I need to make room in my apartment for new books and new thoughts.

It's not going to be easy, but I bet it's going to be good for me.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

It Gets Better

I don't know that my voice—added to the voices of so many who've already spoken so eloquently on the matter—will make a difference, but I'm taking a moment this morning to not only reflect on how grateful I am that I stuck it out, but also tell frightened teenagers that it gets better.

Being a teenager was, frequently, almost impossible for me. I just wasn't very good at it. I don't want to deny the positives: I had some great friends (thank you, ladies). But I was tormented for being gay, pretty much all through school. The adults in my life didn't give me the kind of support I needed. I was, at times, scared for my life. And I didn't value myself—my life—very much. I went pretty far in my efforts to harm myself, directly and indirectly.

But this isn't another sob story. (See my October 2009 blog post "Bullies" for that.)

I want to tell you now that, although being a teenager was rough, being a grownup has turned out to be pretty awesome. I think a lot of people get either a good few years in high school or a good several decades of adulthood. And if you're a bully target in high school, it means you're the second type of person. Trust me. Many of the fantastic, amazing, creative, brilliant, gorgeous people I know were terribly picked on (or just trying to be invisible) in high school.

Wait and see—you'll meet a bunch of similarly wonderful people someday, when you make it out of whatever craptastic teenage situation you're stuck in now.

When I was in my early 20s (20 years ago), self-identifying as gay meant (I thought) a life on the fringes of society, beyond what people considered "normal life." And that was fine with me, as I had fairly punk-rock sensibilities. Back then, being gay was something that "polite society" talked about "tolerating," like an offensive smell or bad weather.

Being gay isn't like that anymore. Gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgendered people have moved out of the fringes and into the mainstream in a way the younger me could never have imagined. If you want to live a counterculture life, you still can. But if you want the whole white-picket-fence thing, that's a real option now, too. You can have any kind of life you want.

In some ways, I think this new acceptance of gays and lesbians actually makes things harder for some teens, because it has frightened a fast-shrinking minority of bigots into louder and more virulent anti-LGBT activity. They sound scary, and they motivate violence against us. But from my perspective of 40 years on the planet, I promise you: what we're hearing are this minority's last gasps. Their viewpoints are quickly becoming unacceptable to Americans. If you're a teenager now, these bigots will have all but disappeared from the national conversation by the time you're in your 40s. They'll be just one of those shameful blots on our country's history, as ridiculous and as despised as the KKK.

It gets better. It's getting better every day.

On a personal level, life has been wonderful. I'm so glad I made it. You know, I'm not rich or famous. I don't even have a partner to make an "It Gets Better" video with. And I love my life. I have amazing friends. Things got better with my family. I have work I enjoy. I've been all over the world, I've been in love, I've danced all night, I've laughed so hard I couldn't breathe, I've created art, I've been applauded, I've been upgraded to first class, and I've seen beautiful things (and terrible things that made me stronger). So much interesting stuff has happened to me—and I'm really quite average.

Years later, people I knew in high school have thanked me for being who I was—for setting an example of bravery (which I didn't realize at the time I was setting, and which you are setting, too). And a bully (or two) has even found me on Facebook and apologized to me (and, no surprise, come out to me as gay himself)—giving me the delicious experience of forgiving him.

I don't want any L, G, B, or T teenagers to miss all this good stuff that's ahead. Please hang on! We need you. So many people are on your side. I'm on your side. You can have an amazing life. If being a teenager is hard, if you're scared, if things seem impossible, find someone to talk to, and know that it gets better.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010


Once you see how illogical "false ranges" (as I call them) are, I hope you'll avoid them in your writing.

False ranges are ranges that don't truly represent a range or gamut. Here's one I just came across:

"New federal requirements have created a growing need for anyone with experience in health care* information technology, from IT specialists to medical-billing managers."

So, we have a range of workers from IT specialists to medical-billing managers—but who or what is included in this range? What about, say, medical transcriptionists? Are they within it?

I come across false ranges all the time: "from apples to ice cream," "from Hollywood to Capitol Hill," and so on. They bug.

This problem is another one of my "Who cares? We understand what it means!" problems, I know. But false ranges bug me because they're lazy—they let a writer seem to be providing more information than he or she is. (In the examples, the writer is providing two examples, not an abundance of them, as the "from ... to" construction suggests.) Or they're just unnecessary—in a sentence such as "The entire dinner was delicious, from the first course to the last," everything after the comma is redundant.

I like true ranges, and I like ironic ranges—for instance, Dorothy Parker's famous comment on Katharine Hepburn's acting in The Lake: "She ran the whole gamut of emotions from A to B."

* The term "health care" is never hyphenated, per our style guide.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Is It Only Me?

In my work as an editor, I move a lot of words around. And I'd say the word I move most often is the word only.

It ends up in the wrong place more than any other, and I think most writers don't notice (or care). For that matter, I bet most readers don't notice, since they've become so accustomed to seeing it in the wrong place and mentally—subconsciously—putting it in the right place.


Frédéric only speaks French.

No reader would be confused about this sentence. We get it—Frédéric doesn't speak English or Korean or Portuguese. But what this sentence says is that Frédéric only speaks (French). He doesn't eat or dance or work.

The sentence should say:

Frédéric speaks
only French.

The word only belongs next to the word it modifies; otherwise, confusion may result. (Many grammarians disagree, arguing that this kind of precision isn't necessary.)

Friday, September 17, 2010

Sentence Edit of the Day

I hate sentences with modifier pileups. Here's one:

Here are the top five stories from the world of work you might have missed this week.

The problem here is that "[that] you might have missed this week" is misplaced. It seems to modify the word work, because of its position. It should modify the word stories.

These sentences make for confusion but are easy to fix. Here's one way:

You might have missed this week's top five stories from the world of work. Here they are:

I prefer a more direct, less accusatory sentence in this case. This was my suggested edit:

Make sure you didn't miss this week's top five stories from the world of work:

10/12 Update: The New York Times grammar blog "After Deadline" has more examples of modifier pileups.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Making Contacts

When you edit and write advice for job seekers, you quickly come to learn the importance of networking—all the experts say that it's a crucial aspect of not only a modern job search but also career development.

Network or perish, they say. Even I say it in a recent HotJobs article, "How to Turn a Stranger into a Network Contact."

I have to be honest—this is a case of "do as I say, not as I do": I'm not a great networker. Shyness is my primary problem. And shyness is a killer (in my case, it often gets read as stuck-up-ed-ness, I hear).

Personal improvement becomes easier when you set small realistic goals for yourself, so I'm going to do that for myself. I'm setting three networking "challenges":

1. I will attend the next professional networking event I can, and I will introduce myself to at least three new people. I'm a member of several professional groups that have social events I don't attend (there's that shyness again).

2. I will update my blog at least once a week, and I will link to it from my online social profiles.

3. Right now, I will do something helpful for a LinkedIn contact I rarely speak to.

Do you have trouble networking? What realistic challenges can you set for yourself?

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Unconditional Conditions

If you're looking for workplace fashion tips, Robbins is an expert on professional style.

This sentence contains an error of logic I read (and revise) a lot: I call it a "false conditional."

The conditional clause is the the dependent clause that starts with the word if—a conditional sentence follows this formula: "If A is true, then B is true."

In the example sentence, the independent clause's truth doesn't really depend on the conditional clause's truth—Robbins is an expert whether you're looking for fashion tips or not. So the sentence is illogical. And it bugs me.

Here's a better (and shorter, even) sentence:

If you're looking for workplace fashion tips, Robbins has expert advice for you.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

What I Wear to Work

One hears mixed things about American Apparel. On one hand, the company employs American apparel-factory workers at good wages and is 100 percent "sweatshop-free." On the other hand, one can't help hearing all sorts of unsavory things about CEO Dov Charney and the general culture of sexual harassment that he allegedly promotes in stores and in corporate offices.

I try to block all that out. But recent news of the company's looming bankruptcy has definitely caught my attention—because American Apparel is what I wear to work.

Specifically, I'm talking about this shirt (worn here by a model): A long-sleeved jersey shirt with a collar and a three-button placket. It comes in a dozen colors (I have two in black, two in navy, two in olive, one in pink, and two in gray).

Figuring out what to wear is frequently difficult for me, and this shirt has been a go-to for several years now. It's cut for a slim person (many dress shirts hang like caftans on my narrow shoulders). It's suitable for almost any situation, including work (in the casual environments I work in, at least)—and you can dress it up if need be with a not-too-structured jacket or a sweater. It's good in all sorts of weather and it doesn't need to be ironed. I think of these shirts as my "uniform."

In short, it's the perfect shirt to wear to work. Last week, I went to the online store to stock up—it seems the company is in truly dire straits. They're running low on many colors. Navy is no longer an option. (And I can't wear "mint," not with my coloring!) It seems I may soon have to find something new to wear to work.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Sentence Edit of the Day

Here's a minor redundancy I correct several times a week:

"including ... and more": Growing sectors include technology, sales, human resources, and more.

The redundancy here is that "including" (or "such as" and similar terms) indicates that the list is not complete—so saying "and more" isn't necessary. You can say:

Growing sectors include technology, sales, and human resources.

It means the same thing.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Sentence Edit of the Day

I think that many people imagine an editor's job or a copy editor's job as primarily, I don't know, placing commas in the right places and removing apostrophes from plural nouns.

And there's a lot of that, true. But I find that most of the line-to-line editing I do is about making sure that things make sense—that a writer is truly saying what he or she means to say. Even if a sentence's context makes its meaning very clear, errors of sense or logic can harm the impression a piece makes (even if the reader doesn't know why).

Here's today's sentence as it came to me:

An undergraduate degree is expected to succeed in HR consulting.

And here's the rewrite:

An undergraduate degree is generally required for success in HR consulting.

This problem sentence points out a lesson I've included in the first day of any copyediting or grammar class I've taught: Make sure you know what your sentence's subject is, what the subject is doing, and what it's doing that thing to.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

The Perks of Business Travel and What I've Read Recently

I returned yesterday from a business trip to Boston; the business part of it went very well, though I didn't get to see much of Boston—aside from some office space (albeit lovely office space) and what I could see from a moving car (it looks like a gorgeous city, and I hope to visit again soon).

On my flight from San Francisco to Boston, I got upgraded to the first-class cabin—I love first-class flying. It's so civilized. And when I'm in the first-class cabin, I don't have that self-conscious feeling that the people in the first-class cabin are looking down at me: "Look at that poor slob, sitting in economy. Why do they let people like that even fly?"

I never think that way when I'm in first-class--but I do sit up just a little bit straighter.

The passenger next to me on this flight was a charming older woman with a heavy Boston accent and a lot of coral jewelry. She drank four G&Ts and ate a great number of M&Ms ("I only eat candy in airplanes," she said) in the first couple of hours of the flight. We chatted sporadically about her daughter's marriage (failed for complicated reasons), San Francisco real estate (expensive, but living in the City is probably worth it), and our mutual enjoyment of the TV show True Blood. Then she watched the in-flight film, Iron Man 2, which she deemed "garbage but OK for a plane."

I felt we were kindred spirits—not that I usually chit-chat on planes. In fact, I avoid talking to strangers. (Most strangers are, I'm sorry to say, not people I want to meet.)

But I do feel that being on a plane is an excuse to relax my life rules.

I love to travel, and I used to love flying. Being at an airport was exciting. But airport security has gotten so degrading and stupid, and air travel in general has gotten so crowded and humiliating, that airports now put me in a terrible mood. So I have two airplane rewards:

Reward 1: No matter what time it is, if I'm on an airplane, it's cocktail hour.

Now, of course, if I have work to do, I'll just sip a glass of wine. Or if it's morning, I'll see about a mimosa (curse United, which now serves champagne only on international flights). But if I'm on a plane, I get a grownup beverage. That's that.

Reward 2: I get to read books and magazines that will not make me a better person in any way.

Trashy pulp novels. Tabloid magazines. Celebrity biographies. I have so little time to read these days, that I feel guilty if what I'm reading isn't serious literature, somehow educational, or somehow good for my professional development. On planes, I read to escape (unless there's a good movie to escape with).

So here's what I read on my last three flights:

"Lips Unsealed," the new memoir by Belinda Carlisle: The Go-Go's lead singer had a serious drug problem, which this book documents in shocking detail; however, the book is also full of fun celebrity gossip (especially from the 1980s music scene) and lots of interesting stuff about the development of a major pop star. I recommend it as an excellent example of the genre.

"The Night Watch," a novel by Sarah Waters: OK, this might actually qualify as serious literature. But I love Waters so much that she must be bad for me. This was an amazing novel set in London during the Second World War, told backwards chronologically. It took my breath away.

"Eating the Dinosaur," a collection of essays by Chuck Klosterman: This qualifies as a guilty pleasure because I know what I'm going to get from Klosterman (he's preaching to the choir, with me)—these very funny essays raise mind-boggling questions about the nature of self, the nature of reality, and how technology and the media warp both (and perceptions of both). Did I mention they were funny?

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Those People

I don't know why so many writers pick this tic up, but it's woefully widespread: using those in place of people.

In most cases, it sounds at least a little stilted (and it can be rather confusing).

Here are some examples taken from the Web:

"U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham said those who turned over more than 90,000 classified war documents to the WikiLeaks website 'have blood on their hands' and must be found and prosecuted." Why not "people who"?

"Touched by childhood tragedy, Betty Chinn brings hope to those who have fallen on hard times." "People"?

"There are those who launch businesses, and then there are those who do it again and again." Why not "There are people" or "There are entrepreneurs," to be more specific?

I'm OK with the determiner those referring back to an antecedent noun if it has already been mentioned. It's when the noun hasn't been mentioned yet that things run the risk of getting confusing.

I understand that using those this way echoes an archaic way of speaking common in lofty quotations: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it," for instance (thanks, George Santayana).

To my ears, this sounds too mannered for modern writing.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

What to End a Sentence With

HotJobs recently made it to the Yahoo! homepage with the story "7 Jobs to Skip College For." And we got many concerned letters about the title. This is an example:

The title of this article is "7 Jobs to Skip College For" and contains two grammatical errors. Never start a sentence with a number. Spell it out, like "Seven Jobs." Also, the title ends with a preposition, which is another mistake. It makes more sense to write the title this way: "Seven Jobs that Don't Need College Degrees." If you are going to skip college, at least take an English class!Melissa

I don't normally answer comments, but the uninformed nature of this one makes it irresistible.

1. This is not a "sentence." It is a headline. Headlines often begin with numbers. I don't know how Melissa has made it through a grocery-store checkout line without noticing that numerals in headlines are rather the norm.

2. You can, in fact, end a sentence with a preposition (I'll note again, though, that we are not discussing a sentence). Anyone who says you can't has never, I assure you, opened a grammar or usage book (or any reputable book on writing or editing) and is, instead, relying on a "rule" passed down by an ill-informed sixth-grade teacher. The ban on sentence-ending prepositions is a centuries-old myth that has been thoroughly debunked.

(Further, I suspect that a person who believes this myth doesn't closely read much of anything. How could a person possibly read the printed page's countless sentence-ending prepositions—which appear daily in the finest periodicals and are used by the world's most highly esteemed writers and editors—and not begin to doubt it?)

3. Melissa's suggested title makes far less sense, in fact. Jobs don't "need college degrees." People need college degrees to get jobs. Also, in a title-case headline, the word that should be capitalized. I would love to ask Melissa if she knows why.

If you're going to correct someone's grammar, please make sure you know what you're talking about.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th Edition

The 16th edition of The Chicago Manual of Style is coming out in August—I'm going to have to upgrade from my trusty, well-loved copy of the 14th edition (which I've installed on many desks since I bought it in 1998, when I began working on Macworld magazine's copy desk).

I didn't bother with the 15th because there wasn't a whole lot new in it, really (at least, not much that was applicable to the work I did). When it was released, I was Macworld's managing editor, and after reading the 15th I decided that we, as a magazine, would skip it.

(I did make a few necessary notes in my 14th edition.)

I refer to Chicago less often than I once did. In part that's because I've memorized even the sections that I once referred to at least weekly (the hyphenation table and the "Titles of Works" section, for instance), if only for gentle reassurance.

Also, Yahoo! has its own style guide and prefers AP rules, aside from favoring serial commas (which I favor, too).

It looks as though the 16th edition has some substantial changes in store for us, though! I know this because I've been following University of Chicago Press senior manuscript editor Carol Saller's excellent blog, The Subversive Copy Editor.

She has been posting "sneak peeks" from the 16th edition, and I've just employed one of them: titles of blogs will now be set in italics, like titles of books and magazines; titles of blog entries will be set in quotation marks (like magazine articles).

This makes good sense.

Also, in titles, the second term in a hyphenated compound no longer needs to be lowercased; it's capped (For instance, "Medium-Size" and "Twenty-First").

Hoorah! I think this looks a lot nicer.

Other sneakily peeked-at changes make less sense to me:

Possessives of classical proper names ending in an eez sound add apostrophe-s (Xerxes’s armies). The rule used to be that these names took only an apostrophe, like the names Jesus and Moses. This rule made sense to me because it aligns with how we pronounce terms like "Euripides' plays" or "Ramses' tomb." The new rule seems out of step with language trends: more and more publications (even those that are "sort of" Chicago publications) don't add the apostrophe-s to any words that end in the letter s (so they'd write "Charles' sisters" instead of [the Chicago-approved] "Charles's sisters"). I prefer the apostrophe-s in those cases (again, in part for reasons of pronunciation), but I think it's going to become rarer and rarer.

Also, how can you defend "Moses' children" when you suggest "Ramses's wives"?


Then there's this:

When a title ends in a question mark, a comma should also appear if the grammar calls for one: Three stories she never mentioned were “Are you a Doctor?,” “The Library of Babel,” and “Diamond as Big as the Ritz.”

This was something Chicago didn't really address before (I believe). But the idea sort of comes up in the section on bibliographies (15.221): "A question mark or exclamation point coming at the end of a title or subtitle of a journal article supersedes the usual punctuation."

And that makes more sense to me. It's not clear now how we're going to treat titles that end with periods, or whether a period should also "appear if the grammar calls for one" (or whether a question mark should appear if the grammar calls for one—for instance, "Have you seen the film Who's Afraid of Virgina Woolf??"). If not, why not? And how do we explain the rules?

Much remains to be seen.

I'm looking forward to reviewing the new Chicago next week. But when it comes to these punctuation pileups, I will continue to follow the advice of Words into Type: ". . . try to avoid such situations by rewording."

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

A New HotJobs Article

I try to write one myself every couple of weeks or so (if I see a niche to fill). Here's the latest--it's got two things that will (I hope) make it appealing to the home-page team (and the public): it's got a scary hook, and it's interactive (that is, it's sort of a quiz).

Read "Is Your Career in Danger? Take the Test."

The Difference between 'Thus' and 'Therefore'

It's just me. Most writers and editors seem to accept the words as having one overlapping meaning: "consequently" or "for this reason" (with many seeming to prefer thus in most cases, likely because it's shorter). But I enforce a distinction, which I adopted from a very talented copy chief I once worked under:

Thus means "in this way"; therefore means "for this reason."

Thus was I educated when I was a young copy editor; therefore, I am sometimes accused of being persnickety.

Most dictionaries support these as primary definitions but acknowledge the overlap. I like keeping thus out of therefore's territory; distinctions like this allow writing to be more precise (in my opinion).

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Sentence Edit of the Day

This sentence contains one of the most common errors I see: a nonparallel series.

Earning a degree, certificate, or even just taking a few classes to acquire new skills can get you back in the game.

When you have a series like the compound subject of this sentence, each item in the series needs to be the same and follow logically from the same point in the sentence. In this sentence, the items are wildly different:
  • a degree (article, noun—follows from Earning)
  • certificate (noun—follows from a)
  • even just taking a few classes ... (noun phrase built around a gerund—follows from the beginning of the sentence)
This failure of parallelism makes the sentence difficult to read.

There are several ways you could fix the sentence. For instance, you could make the series parallel:

Earning a degree, earning a certificate, or even just taking a few classes to acquire new skills can get you back in the game.

Or you could do what I did—turn the third item (which is so different) into a complementary element (and thereby avoid a lot of repetition):

Earning a degree or a certificate, or even just taking a few classes to acquire new skills, can get you back in the game.

An interesting note on this parallelism rule: Some sticklers feel that it should apply to articles. For instance, they would not allow "A dog and aardvark danced awkwardly on the lawn"—because aardvark can't follow from A. It needs the article an, so those sticklers (and I am one of them) prefer "A dog and an aardvark danced awkwardly on the lawn."

I prefer to repeat the article in every case.

Read "4 Signs You're Ready for a Career Change."

Friday, July 9, 2010

Sentence Edit of the Day

This post's subtitle is "Unsaid and Understood."

Here's the sentence as it arrived in the manuscript:

It’s no secret we should try to impress the people at the reception desk, who are often asked by the hiring manager for opinions about the people who come into the office.

This article came in quite a bit over its word limit. So I was looking for things to cut. Phrases like "it's no secret," "everyone knows," and "it's widely known" are likely candidates, as are adverbs like obviously and clearly.

These terms should cause alarm bells to go off in an editor's head: Why are we stating the obvious? Worse, why are we telling readers that we're stating the obvious? In many cases, a sentence that begins with the phrase, "It's widely known that" can be cut altogether.

Needless phrases like these get in the way of clear writing.

(Then there's the passive relative clause: again, we're using too many words.)

In this case, I don't think everyone knows that it's important to make a good impression on the receptionist at a job interview. I think letting them know is worth a sentence. And here it is:

Hiring managers often ask receptionists for their take on people who come to the office for interviews.

Read "Body Language Can Make or Break a Job Interview."

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Who Will Replace Michael Scott?

I like "The Office." And I should say that I still like it--I think it's stayed consistently funny in the years it has been on, and I think it's relevant to anyone who works in an office. I've been mostly lucky in where I've ended up working in my career, but I still do feel cringing pangs of recognition when watching the show.

Steve Carrel has been amazing, but I think the show can still succeed when he steps down at the end of the next season. There has been a lot of speculation about who might replace him, but one name I haven't seen was the name that came almost immediately to my mind:

Lisa Kudrow!

I think she's an amazing comic actor--and she's great at making a sort of un-self-aware nincompoop of a character nonetheless sort of lovable (see Valerie Cherish in "The Comeback"--a seriously underrated series, in my opinion). She also does "ignorant but pompous" very, very well.... And some fresh blood might be what the series needs.

I hope they're considering her. Do I need to start a Facebook page?

I Wear My Sunglasses at Work

We've published numerous articles about how to dress at work--and although sunglasses haven't specifically been mentioned, I'm pretty sure they are usually deemed inappropriate ... even at a company like Yahoo! HotJobs, which has a fairly casual standard of dress (I wear jeans to work unless I know I have a meeting with someone from another company--or unless I have something dressy to do after work).

But what if, like me, you have a broken blood vessel in your eye (harmless--just something that happens occasionally due to overexertion--but nonetheless disgusting to look at in a "28 Days Later" sort of way)? Should I cover up with sunglasses, or should I risk turning stomachs with my bright-red eye?

This reminds me of one of my favorite quotations from one of my favorite etiquette books, Eleanor Roosevelt's "Commonsense Etiquette" (emphasis mine): "If ever following a rule of etiquette would be unkind, forget the rule and just be kind instead. That's good manners."

So I'm leaving the sunglasses on. It seems the kinder thing to do.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Sentence Edit of the Day

Why did this sentence seem incorrect to me?

In some traditional offices, even shoes without socks are a major no-no.

I don't object to the advice--but I found the plural verb slightly strange. I think because we aren't really talking about multiple, countable shoes. What we're rally talking about is the act of wearing shoes without socks.

I guess I was hearing an echo of the rule that tells us to use a singular verb with periods of time (or amounts of money)--for instance, "Five years is a long time to wait." In cases like that, we aren't really talking about distinct countable items; we're talking about a singular block.

When I read something that makes me stop and think, "Wait--is this wrong?" I like to smooth it out, even if it isn't really wrong. I hope I bring down the number of times readers stop and wonder the same thing.

Here's the new sentence:

In some traditional offices, even wearing shoes without socks is a major no-no.

Read "Summer Attire: What Not to Wear to Work."

Monday, July 5, 2010

Sentence Edit of the Day

Editorial work is making sure the writer says what she or he means to say.

Here's a story lede that struck me as possibly incorrect when I read it:

Since the recession began in December 2007, more than half of Americans have become unemployed, taken a pay cut, suffered a reduction in hours or had to take a temporary job because they couldn't find a full-time position, according to the Pew Research Center's Social and Demographic Trends Project.

I did some quick research, and came up with the correct sentence:

Since the recession began in December 2007, more than half of all American workers have become unemployed, taken a pay cut, suffered a reduction in hours, or had to take a temporary job because they couldn't find a full-time position, according to the Pew Research Center's Social and Demographic Trends Project.

What a difference a word makes.

Read "Is Your Employer Taking Advantage of You?"

Friday, July 2, 2010

Sentence Edit of the Day

Here's a "before" sentence:

A week or so ago, news stories began to crop up, showcasing new recruiting practices that allow employed job candidates through the gates to a job interview, while leaving the non-working job-seekers standing outside the walls.

Here's the "after" sentence:

A week or so ago, we saw some news stories describing a new recruiting practice: employers inviting only employed job candidates to job interviews, while closing the door to non-working job seekers.

The original was muddled, I thought:

The participle "showcasing new recruiting practices" was poorly placedunnecessarily far form the the noun it modified. Also, showcasing seemed like the wrong word for a practice the writer goes on to disparage.

Saying that "practices ... allow" something seemed incorrect. The employers establish practices, so it's really employers who do the allowing.

I thought the "castle gate" metaphor was a stretch when talking about job interviews, and it didn't appear anywhere else in the column.

And I thought that stressing that word employed made the sentence easier to understand.

I think the "after" sentence is better than the original, but it's not perfect. I'm not happy with making we the subject, but this was a quick fixand I like that better than having news stories as the subject.

The writer of this piece is a precise, clear writer who rarely needs a lot of editing; I hope I made the sentence easier to read.

Read "Sorry We Can't Interview You, You're Unemployed."

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Comma-Usage Tip of the Day

When a direct quotation is used as a syntactic part of a sentence, it isn't introduced by a comma.

Today I encountered this sentence:

Edwards says that you should, "Put your cell phone on vibrate or leave it in your own office so it's not a distraction."

In this writer's case, I think the error was just an absentminded slip. But many people have learned that all quotations are introduced by a comma. In fact, only quotations that function as quotations (and are introduced by a word such as say or ask) are. So this sentence should be styled thus:

Edwards says that you should "put your cell phone on vibrate, or leave it in your office, so it's not a distraction."


Edwards advises, "Put your cell phone on vibrate, or leave it in your office, so it's not a distraction."

I also cut the word own (often an unnecessary filler word) from the original and repunctuated the quotation. The original wasn't strictly incorrect (just a more open style of punctuation), but the three short clauses felt messily piled up. I styled "or leave it in your office" as a complementary element—I think it reads better that way.

Read "5 Ways You Bug Your Boss."

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Sentence Edit of the Day

We started with this sentence:

Before going on your informational interview, it is crucial to be prepared for it.

I see a couple of problems in this sentence. First, it's redundant: preparation always happens before something, so you needn't tell a reader to prepare before an interviewyou can just tell her to prepare.

Second, I dislike the repeated pronoun it, because it stands in for two things: "interview" and "to be prepared for it." Sentences like this can often be shortened. "It is nice to eat cake" can be "Eating cake is nice"which is shorter and seems more vivid (because the subject is at the beginning of the sentence).

These two problems conspire to make the sentence needlessly long. A few quick keystrokes returned this edited sentence:

Properly preparing for your interview is crucial.

I cut informational because the title of the article is "The Art of Informational Interviewing"so the reader already knows what we're talking about. I added properly because I liked the sound of it (and it is possible to prepare poorly for something).

I think this sentence says what the writer wants to say, without a lot of unnecessary guff.

Among other small edits, I changed the recommended interview question "Who do you work with?" to "Who works with you?" (to avoid the whom morass altogether).

Read "The Art of Informational Interviewing."


I just returned from the Society for Human Resource Management conference in San Diego--my first big conference of this type--here's the welcome video I created and sent out on Twitter.

The conference was a lot of fun--and interesting. It's great to see how hard HR folks and recruiters are working to get the right people into jobs. I think that's a key takeaway for job seekers: Employers are looking for you. Make yourself easy to find. These days, you've got to be active in social networks and so on. I'm going to try to take my own advice, and update this blog more frequently!

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Em Dashes

I recently participated in a fiction-writing class in which students were encouraged to write comments on one another’s work. Most of the comments were helpful (or at least food for thought)one story I submitted to the class was told from the point of view of a teenage girl, and getting feedback from people who had been teenage girls was necessary. (I may post that story in this space one day.)

But there was one comment from a fellow student that made me roll my eyes and discard all of his comments. That comment was “You use too many em dashes.” This statement does three things I hate:

  1. It questions my authority in the area of using punctuation (one of the few areas in which I feel confident of my expertise).
  2. It authoritatively states a “rule” of grammar and usage while displaying an incomplete understanding of the complexities of grammar and usage.
  3. It maligns the poetic, versatile, and lovely em dasha glorious and noble punctuation mark. Too many? Pish.

I admit that too many (that is, more than two) in one sentence can confuse a reader—because it can be hard to discern which em dashes are related. But beyond that commonsensical rule, I say (and I’ll acknowledge that some people whom I admire disagree with me) that there should be no limit on the number of em dashes a writer uses, as long as he or she uses them properly.

They come in so handyfor interpolation, asides, showing a close relationship between two clauses, abrupt changes of thought, and more.

OK, OK, OK—I'll allow that they are frowned on in formal writing (for reasons that make little sense) and should perhaps be avoided for that reason. But I think many people should use more of them. I often see writers using an ellipsis (dot, dot, dot) where an em dash would be more appropriatein many cases, the writer is trying to indicate an abrupt change of thought, but the ellipsis gives the preceding phrase a "trailing off into silence" sort of feeling. ...

If you're trying to convey the conversation of two teenagers (as I was in my story), you're going to need a lot of em dashes.

Friday, May 14, 2010

The "View from the Bay"

I recently appeared on ABC 7's "View from the Bay," a local magazine show that appears here in the Bay Area (right before Oprah's show--my next target).

Watch the clip.

It was a great experience--I've been watching Spencer Christian (the host) on TV for so long that he feels sort of like an uncle. (He's famous around town for being a super-nice guy.) And I think we gave people some good advice.

I also need to find out what the makeup artist used on my forehead to make it not shiny. Shininess is a big problem for me in these TV appearances.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

After the Recruiter Says No

I like this story--something I wrote for HotJobs a couple of weeks ago--about what to do when you think you're about to be offered a job but then you get a "Thanks but no thanks" telephone call. I know it has happened to me a couple of times, and I've wondered whether I could ask for feedback.

Experts say that I can.

Read "After the Recruiter Says No."

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Sink Cake

If you’ve ever worked in a large office, you’ve enjoyed--or at least been tempted by--a certain sort of treat that some former coworkers of mine used to call “sink cake.”

Sink cake is leftover celebratory cake--say, birthday cake--from an office conference-room party that you did not attend. The generous organizers then put the half-eaten cake on the break-room kitchen counter for the rest of the office to share. And that’s where you encounter it: a crumbly fraction of a sheet cake, its icing flowers wilting beneath the fluorescent light--a sad remnant of a 30-minute party that guests were invited to via Microsoft Outlook.

There are also “sink cookies,” “sink bagels” (after other people’s breakfast meetings) “sink Indian food” (after other people’s lunchtime seminars), and so on. Sink pizza is always popular. At many jobs I've had, late summer also brought sink tomatoes and sink zucchini, when gardening coworkers brought in the fruits of their overproducing backyard gardens.

Sink cake is paradoxically both tempting and revolting. It often shows up late in the afternoon, when boredom, fatigue, and hunger make a person highly susceptible to sugary treats. Then again, that sugary treat has been sitting there, for who knows how long, right next the rancid sink sponge and someone’s two-day-old unwashed Tupperware.

This unsavory environment can make sink cake hard to enjoy. So you cut your piece, put it on a paper plate, cover that plate with a paper towel, and scurry back to your cubicle with it--for me, at least, there's always something surreptitious about sink cake. I feel slightly guilty for taking a piece--after all, I haven’t been officially invited, and there's not enough for everyone in the office to share. If you sit near your office’s kitchen, you have surely noticed people attempting stealth when removing sink cake or sink pizza back to their cubes.

And then there’s the sad disappointment of walking into your office kitchen and finding that the sink cake is all gone.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Barbie's Resume

We posted an article about Barbie's career history at HotJobs today. Wow! She's a busy gal--that's for sure. In addition to pursuing what must be a very demanding modeling career, she has found time to be an astronaut, a surgeon, a NASCAR race driver, and a waitress. Plus, she's run for president three times! She had nine jobs in 2009 alone, when many people I know struggled to find just one.

She's changing careers again--this year (after Mattel invited the public to vote on which careers they wanted to see her in), Barbie becomes a computer engineer (a smart choice, as this HotJobs article about fast-growing industries shows).

Tech Geek Barbie. I like it. Here's a photo.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Odd Jobs

Over at Yahoo! HotJobs, I recently posted a LiveCareer story about odd jobs--it lists some of the jobs featured in these books of photography by Nancy Rica Schiff. It got me thinking about a few odd jobs I'd had in the past and what I'd learned from them.

1. Horoscope Writer
I should say that I don't really believe in astrology. This was an ongoing freelance job for what you might call a horoscope factory; the company hired astrologers to read the stars and assign "keywords" to each day for each sign, and then we writers wrote horoscopes based on those keywords. There were "career-scopes" and "love-scopes" and "gay-scopes" and many other different kinds of horoscopes to write, of varying lengths. It was a fun gig. Now, I'm a Leo, so of course I never wrote a truly bad day for Leos. I stuck to my keywords but kept things ... hopeful. Just in case. Lesson: You really sort of can create your own destiny.

2. Cheese Spokesperson
I have a former life as an etiquette writer; I published an etiquette book in 2004. That's not the odd job (though maybe it should be). My etiquette writing brought me to the attention of a marketing company that handled part of the Real California Cheese campaign--specifically California's artisan and boutique cheesemakers. They hired me to do some writing about "proper cheese etiquette"--and then sent me on a few small press outings. For instance, I appeared on a Fresno morning news program, demonstrating how to create a holiday cheese platter. I had a lot of fun with this job and learned a lot about cheese. Lesson: They're making some pretty spectacular cheese in California.

3. Cover Model for a Turkish Magazine
For many years, I was an editor at Macworld magazine. For one issue, we were preparing a feature story about mobile computing, and, to save money, we used a few staff members (instead of models) to pose in illustrative photos. One shot was supposed to represent Mac users at an airport: we sat in a row, using our Mac laptops and so on, with luggage artfully propped about us. In the magazine, that photo appeared in the opening spread, but with our heads cropped out--the focus was on the computers. Macworld publishes several international editions (the international editors translate and repurpose stories and provide locally appropriate content). When we received the Turkish edition of that issue, we were delighted to see that they had used that photo for their cover--and they'd used the full shot. So my face has graced newsstands in Istanbul. Lesson: Always be prepared for international fame.

4. Circus Midway Attendant
I spent some of my youth in Reno, Nevada. A popular job there for local teenagers is working the midway games at Circus Circus Casino. This was one of my first jobs. Lesson: Luck is fickle.

5. American-History Teacher
This isn't really an odd job, but it was odd for me, as it was outside my area of expertise. I got a job teaching English at a Hungarian university. I signed up thinking I'd be teaching composition and advanced grammar to English majors. When I showed up, the English department's head said, "We're so glad to have an American this year! You will teach the American history course." (English majors were required to complete a semester of British history and a semester of American history.) That first semester was a little bit terrifying--this was a college-level history class, but I'm embarrassed to say that I had to learn a fair portion of the course material as I went. I surely spent more time studying than my students did before each class. Lesson: If you're teaching a class and are stumped by a bright student's question, try saying this: "That's a very interesting question. Class, does anyone have any thoughts? Anyone?" It sometimes works.