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20 nagging errors made by the experienced and inexperienced alike

April 25, 2015 By Katie Antonsson Resources

The Washington Post‘s Bill Walsh schooled copy editors this morning on all the classic mistakes they make, citing 20 frequent and nagging errors made by the experienced and inexperienced alike.

They are wide-ranging grievances, from frequent punctuation faux pas to newfangled phrases that are undeniably growing popular. Read on for Walsh’s full list.

1) “One of those.”

When it comes to the frequent “one of those” phrase, the particular grammar can get a little tricky. The arguments on both sides make sense, but the grammar just doesn’t line up. Walsh’s example used Bob is one of those people who hates cats versus Bob is one of those people who hate cats. Bob, in this instance, is a member of the group of people who hate cats, so the second example is correct. “You know those people who hate cats?” Walsh explained, “Bob is one of them.”

2) “A lot of us is wrong.”

When looking at sentences like A host of problems is blamed on the decline of Rust Belt industrial cities, what is being blamed? The “host” or the “problems?” Correctly, a host of problems are blamed.

3) “The dangling conversation.”

The dangerous conversation of dangling modifiers. Easy to miss at first, but once they make themselves clear, dangling modifier can lead to quite the mix up. Completed in 1877, riders on the Duquesne incline get a spectacular view of Pittsburgh. Though we understand what it means, the modifier is in the wrong place, saying that the riders were completed in 1877 rather than the incline.

4) “Which, now?”

“Some ways of writing are hopelessly ambiguous,” Walsh said, “and you have to keep an eye out for these little ambiguities.” In the case of An Illinois senator introduced a tax-cut bill last January, to what year is the phrase referring? Depending on the time of year, the consensus on “last January” could change — meaning either this past January or the January of the previous year. Unfortunately, this needs clarification.

5) “A great, white shark.”

On comma usage, Walsh paused and said, “Step back and use common sense.” In talking about “broad nouns,” commas between adjectives make the phrase clunky – The company was founded by a Moscow-born, college dropout. The sentence isn’t talking about a dropout who is both Moscow-born and college, it is about a college dropout who is Moscow-born. When adjectives are of equal weight, however, as in A big, fat lie, the comma can and should be there.

6) “Quote, unquote.”

We were taught from a young age to use commas before and after quotations, such as The teacher said, “Introduce quotations with commas.” However, writers often get tripped up by quotation marks and automatically put commas before and after, even when it doesn’t make sense. Carlin performed that week in Pittsburgh, a place that he called, “gray and depressing.” The comma before the quote is unnecessary, Walsh saying that when the quote is dependent on the rest of the sentence, no comma is needed and there should be no capitalization at the beginning of the quote.

7) “Otherworld-ly.”

Any word ending in -ly does not necessarily get a hyphen in a compound modifier. Not every word ending in -ly is an adverb, so early-morning rain is hyphenated as “early is not an adverb,” Walsh said. “It does not mean ‘in an ear manner.’” Other phrases, where an adverb is used, avoid the hyphen, an easily remembered rule.

8) “The ‘the.’”

“The” doesn’t always have to be there. Even though “the” may be part of the title of something, sometimes it makes a sentence clunky to keep it there for the sake of the given title. Welcome to The Washington Post newsroom doesn’t need the capitalization, since it’s the newsroom and not the Post that’s being identified. Likewise The Tonight Show and The Simpsons often lose the “the” in other contexts – The search for the next Tonight Show host continues.

9) “That ‘that.’”

Though “that” is being driven out of editing by journalism schools and more experienced editors alike, sometimes it has to be there for clarification. Walsh said it helps avoid the “millisecond of confusion” that might occur in its absence — Racketeering investigators said they believed Bazzano was lying vs. Racketeering investigators said that they believed Bazzano was lying.

10) “There are no suspects.”

When it comes to police beat reporters, the language of suspects often gets confused with the language of subjects. Phrases such as The suspect was described as … are often soon followed by Police have no suspects in this case. The writer more than likely means the subject was described as…

11) “I Shot the Sheriff.”

President Obama is the president. Lower case. Pope Francis is the pope. Lower case. And yet The Allegheny County Sheriff’s office referred the case to the U.S. Attorney’s office after the U.S. Marshals seized the stolen property.

12) “Anti-child abuse programs.”

“Hyphens are a contentious subject,” Walsh said, “and I am more likely to use them than most people, but it’s perfectly reasonable to omit a hyphen.” A town hall meeting, a high school friend are perfectly sufficient without a hyphen. ”Once you bring a hyphen to the party, you want to bring every hyphen to the party,” Walsh quipped.

13) “A hyphen too-far.”

Even if a phrase begs for a hyphen, sometimes it takes a little common sense to see that it doesn’t, after all. Low-Earth orbit makes it seem as if the earth is low when in fact it’s the orbit.

14) “1-2-3, liftoff!”

With numbers and scores, the bigger number should always come first: The measure failed, 52-48.

15) “Might makes right?”

May has traditionally been linked to permission — “Can I go to the bathroom?” “I don’t know, can you?” “May I go to the bathroom?” — so the difference between may and might often gets confused, though the two mean essentially the same thing. Marriott may move headquarters versus Marriott might move headquarters. It’s only in the case of may have and might have that they two are not interchangeable, as might indicates a previous possibility which is no longer possible (Think of what she might have done if she hadn’t left) and may indicates a current possibility (Think of what she may have done).

16) “That’s the official name.”

Stylized names and titles go a step too far when replicated in publications, such as Pharrell Williams’ album G I R L, stylized as such. Much simpler to simply stylize it GIRL or Girl. Walsh fielded countless questions on this score but determined again and again that it’s a style decision of the publication.

17) “(President Barack) Obama.”

“Style and consistency are great things,” Walsh said, “but at some points trying to impose it risks treating the reader like an idiot.” Stylistically, (President Barack) Obama is correct, but it puts the reader in a position where it’s assumed they don’t know to which Obama the writer refers.

18) “You don’t say.”

Avoid stating the obvious. A car bomb happened on Tuesday. John Kerry has this to say on Tuesday. It’s obvious that if the event happened on Tuesday, Kerry would have spoken that same day. These kinds of clarifications are obvious and don’t require repetition.

19) “Serial killing.”

The serial comma is done. Though the argument does still rage, AP style dictates that the serial comma is no more.

20) “Get Off My Lawn.”

Modern trends in writing are annoying but there’s little that can be done to stop them – It sounds like it’s going to be a chilly week, She graduated college last year, The Post reached out to the House speaker but received no reply. All of these are not the former grammatical standard, but with their prevalence in writing and in speaking, they are going to be adopted, so might as well stop fighting.

Katie Antonsson is a student at the University of Pennsylvania.

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