Common Errors In Style

I work as a copy editor/proofreader, and as such I read a lot of prose. The good news is that most of what I see is actually pretty good—not great literature, but competently written, workman-like prose; it gets the job done. The bad news is that I see the same “errors” again and again. I tend to edit the work of small and slowly changing group of writers, so my experience may not be what others see, but I am certain that these nuggets of style correction will be useful to many.

I place the word error in scare quotes because, with two exceptions, the common mistakes I see are all ones of style. The writer is not conforming to the Chicago Manual of Style (the guide that governs most of what I edit). Some of these examples would be mistakes under almost any style regime, others not (e.g., the rules for use of quotation marks differ markedly between American and British styles). But these are all cases where the writer is not conforming to the required style.

Why is this important for the writer to be concerned about this? Isn’t it the copyeditor’s job to correct such style errors? The writer should be concerned about conforming to the publisher’s style because it has a direct impact on whether or not the work will be published. A submission that doesn’t conform to the house style is more likely to be thrown into the reject bin. And yes, a copyeditor/proofreader does have some responsibility for catching and correcting style errors, but that’s not all she does. Time spent correcting style errors is time that she’s not going to spend suggesting subtle improvements in the quality and clarity of the prose.

This advice is in accordance with the Chicago Manual of Style. If you use another style guide, your practice may need to be slightly different. The parenthetical numbers refer to the applicable section in the Chicago Manual.

Don’t misplace or dangle modifying phrases.

In three different places, the author says Vinnie broke John’s leg.

The author says Vinnie broke John’s leg in three different places.

Both are perfectly grammatical sentences, but they mean very different things depending on where you place the phrase “in three different places.” These first two examples are the exceptions to “these are all questions of style.”

Don’t confuse e.g. and i.e. The abbreviation e.g. means “for example.” Use e.g. when providing one or more illustrative examples. Adding etc. to the end of a list that starts with e.g. is redundant.

Vinnie provided many financial services to the neighborhood, e.g., loans, bookmaking, and freelance collections work.

The abbreviation i.e. means “meaning...” or “more specifically...” Use i.e. when you are defining something more specifically.

Vinnie doubled the vig, i.e., the interest rate.

Separate sentences by only one space (6.11). Typing teachers tend to instruct their students to add an extra space between sentences. Back in the days of typewriters with a single, fixed-width font, this practice made sense for typewritten documents, but it was never a standard practice among professional typesetters, who have a myriad of more sophisticated methods to make the text look good and increase legibility on the page. And today, most of these techniques are available to everyone through word processing and desktop publishing software. The addition of the extra space interferes with the eventual layout of the document and the first thing a copy editor will usually do is a search and replace to delete these extra spaces. The proper spacing will be taken care of by the typesetter or the word processing software. And if you’re self-publishing, save yourself some hassle and put off all such layout decisions until the end; the copy editing stage, when you should be focusing on the writing, is not the time to layout and format the document.

Spell out numbers less than 101 (9.3). You should write eight or twenty-one, not 8 or 21. Also, spell out large round numbers, e.g., one thousand, six million. And if beginning a sentence with a number of any size, spell it out. (This is the Chicago rule. Many house styles vary this by only spelling out single-digit numbers.) Regardless of what the general rule is, be consistent when multiple numbers appear in the same sentence, e.g., Vinnie had two outstanding loans, one for $9 and one for $3,324.)

The style for use of arabic numerals can be confusing and filled with exceptions. The point is that inserting an arabic numeral into a paragraph disrupts the reader’s flow and makes the passage more difficult to read. But there comes a point where parsing a long, spelled-out number becomes more disruptive. For most cases, the call is easy; let the copy editor handle the exceptional ones.

Use the serial comma (6.19). Separate all items in a series with a comma, including the final one. Some styles may allow omission of the final comma, but this can introduce ambiguity. If the elements in the series have their own internal punctuation, use semicolons to separate the elements.

Vinnie’s job skills included physical intimidation, ease at bone-breaking, and accounting.

Vinnie’s job skills included physical intimidation; ease at bone-breaking, which he used only as a last resort; and accounting.

Don’t confuse dashes and hyphens (6.80–6.89). Hyphens are used in compound words, to divide words at the ends of lines, and to separate non-inclusive numbers (e.g., telephone numbers, Social Security numbers).

Vinnie’s new telephone number was 212-555-LOAN.

En dashes are most commonly used to connect numbers that represent a range.

Vinnie would loan any amount, from $5–50,000.

An em dash, or simply a dash, is used to separate phrases and clauses from the main part of the sentence. Do not use spaces before or after dashes.

Vinnie thought he provided a valuable service to the community—the neighborhood “bank.”

You can use two hyphens to represent an em dash. MS Word and other word processing software will often change double hyphens to em dashes automatically.

Vinnie thought he provided a valuable service to the community--the neighborhood “bank.”

Hyphenate phrasal adjectives preceding the noun (5.92–5.93). When two or more adjectives form a single phrase before the noun they are modifying, they should be separated by hyphens. Do not hyphenate in other cases.

Vinnie charged a double-digit vig.

Vinnie’s vig was double digit.

John had a large, long-standing loan from Vinnie.

Note that in the last example, large and long-standing are two separate adjectival phrases, both modifying loan. Combining them into large-long-standing would be incorrect as they are not a single phrase.

Periods and commas go inside quotation marks (6.8–6.9). (This advice follows the standard American practice; British practice is somewhat different.) This is the practice regardless of whether or not the punctuation is part of the quotation. Colons and semicolons always go outside the quotation marks. Question marks and exclamation points go inside the quotation marks if part of the quotation, outside if not.

Vinnie said, “Your payment is overdue.”

Vinnie said, “Which do you prefer I work on, your right or your left leg?”

Did Vinnie actually use the term “concrete overshoes”?

Use double quotation marks (11.33). Only use single quotation marks for quotes-within-quotes. (Note: British practice reverses this, with single quotation marks being the standard and doubles used for quotes-within-quotes.)

In his bestselling exposé of the loan-sharking business, the author writes, “Many loan-sharks justify their livelihood with the belief that they are providing a much-needed service. In the words of noted New York moneylender Vinnie Calamari, ‘I help people who can’t get help from a bank.’”

Don’t use quotation marks for emphasis (7.49, 7.58). If you need to emphasize a word or phrase, use an italic or bold font. Save quotation marks for quotations and for ironic uses of words, i.e., scare quotes.

Form the possessive singular with ‘s, even if the word ends in an s (7.17). Only use the apostrophe without the s if the word is plural.

Vinnie was delighted when John Jones’s loan came due, because it gave him the chance to try out his new blackjack.

Vinnie torched the Joneses’ house so John could use the insurance money to pay back the loan.

(Chicago lists many exceptions, but the basic rule applies in almost all the cases you are likely to encounter.)

Capitalizing the initial letter of quotation (11.16). Whether or not the first letter of a quoted independent clause is capitalized depends on its function in the quoted text. If it is an integral part of the sentence in which it appears, the quote should begin with lower case. If it is remotely related (e.g., set off by a comma), retain the capitalization.

Vinnie told us to “break his legs in a thousand places.”

Vinnie said, “Break his legs in a thousand places.”

(In general, you can change the initial capitalization and ending punctuation to match the requirements of the sentence in which the quotation appears; this does not violate the integrity of the quoted material. (11.8))

Don’t capitalize for emphasis (7.50). Use italic or bold fonts instead. Only capitalize the first words of sentences and proper nouns and proper adjectives. Do not capitalize words because you think they are important or because they are specific examples of something.

Only capitalize titles when followed by the name of the individual (8.21).

The district attorney was out to get Vinnie.

District Attorney Jones was out to get Vinnie.

Capitalize the monotheistic God; lower case polytheistic gods (8.98). It is the Christian, Jewish, or Muslim God and the gods of Greek mythology. Whether monotheistic or polytheistic, the names of specific gods are always capitalized, e.g., Allah, Aphrodite, Zeus.

But use the lower case for pronouns when referring to a monotheistic God (8.102).

Vinnie believed in God, but wasn’t going to let him run his life.

Bible is capitalized; biblical is lower case (8.111). While we capitalize (but not italicize) the Bible, the adjectival form of the word is lower case.

Even though as an altar boy he had read the Bible, Vinnie ignored the biblical injunction against usury.

If you are using bible in a figurative sense, and not referring to the religious scriptures, the word should be in lower case.

Vinnie considered Puzo’s The Godfather to be his bible.

Use lower case and arabic numerals when referring to chapters or parts of a book, regardless of how they are printed in the original (8.190). Thus, even if the book has a Part IV, Chapter 8, or Figure XXX, you should refer to it as part 4, chapter 8, or figure 30.

Use the present tense when writing about fiction (5.116). The standard practice is that fictional characters do things in the present tense, not in the past. When referring to events that happened earlier in the narrative, use the present perfect tense.

In chapter 1 of Vinnie’s semi-autobiographical novel, the protagonist takes a trip to Philadelphia to collect on a loan.

In the climactic chapter of Vinnie’s semi-autobiographical novel, the protagonist, having forgiven the family man’s loan, tells no one about his generosity.

When writing about nonfiction, refer to historical events in the past tense, but to the author in the present.

In The Loan Shark, author Richard Smith writes that Vinnie broke a lot of legs over the course of his career.

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