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The Serial Comma: Endangered Species?

Posted on Wednesday, July 27, 2011 at 10:50 PM

Weighing in on the recent Oxford comma controversy.

By Meredith L. Dias

Recently, the University of Oxford came under fire for doing away with the serial comma. From Twitter to Facebook, users voiced their anger over this alleged grammatical catastrophe. Oxford later debunked the rumors (though they did drop the serial comma from staff communications and press releases), but the debate rages on.

One particularly buzz-generating response came from Heather Anne Halpert (@blurryyellow) on Twitter: "Are you people insane? The Oxford comma is what separates us from the animals." Popular indie rock band Vampire Weekend's 2008 song "Oxford Comma" enjoyed renewed popularity.

Scores of writers and editors have responded to the basic sentiment behind @blurryyellow's tweet, some lauding the Oxford comma as an exercise in clarity and others dismissing it as a vestige of a more prescriptive grammatical past.

So what are some arguments for the use of serial commas? According to supporters, the comma ensures clarity in lists of three or more items, and it punctuates a place where a speaker would naturally pause.

Those who don't use the serial comma cite instances when the comma actually obfuscates meaning or occupies valuable space in tight text spaces.

In all likelihood, a lot of your publications adhere to AP style or some variation thereof. AP has dropped the serial comma from its stylebook, but Chicago, the American Psychological Association (APA), MLA, and others continue to use it. So we'll turn the conversation over to you, editors: Does your publication use the Oxford/serial comma?

Meredith Dias is senior editor of Editors Only.

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Common Spelling and Grammar Issues

Posted on Tuesday, March 29, 2011 at 2:07 PM

Are these culprits killing your writing?

Occasionally, a spelling, typographical, or grammatical error creeps into a published article. It happens despite our best editorial efforts. But when we are unaware of certain rules of grammatical engagement, our writing becomes habitually sloppy -- and we are unequipped to track down the offenders and fix them. Let's discuss a few common issues.

The "Plural Apostrophe"

All too often, writers use apostrophes to make certain words plural. With some rare exceptions (e.g., the Chicago and AP style guides recommend, to varying degrees, inserting an apostrophe to make single letters plural to avoid confusion -- like "straight A's"), this should not happen.

How often have you seen something like this in print: "The family had three TV's in the house" or "There were eight RN's working in the emergency room last night"? Apostrophes don't make names, acronyms, or other words plural, so the correct plural acronyms are "TVs" and "RNs."


-The last two CEOs were Wharton School graduates.


-The Kline's vacation with us every summer.

Id est vs. exempli gratia

Sometimes, even the most seasoned writers confuse these two expressions, which are abbreviated as "i.e." and "e.g." Their English definitions reveal their purposes in a sentence: "i.e." (id est) means "that is," and "e.g." (exempli gratia) means "for example."


-The smallest U.S. state (i.e., Rhode Island) is approximately 1/425th the size of the largest (i.e., Alaska).
-Many words break the "i before e, except after c" rule -- e.g., weird, feign, science, etc.


-The happiest place on earth, e.g., Disneyworld, is located in Florida.
-Many stores sell men's ties -- i.e., Macy's, Target, J.C. Penney, and others.

Make sure to follow both abbreviations with a comma.

Dangling Participles

In our November 2010 issue, we discussed the common misuse of participial phrases by both seasoned and amateur writers. This construction leaves the door wide open for dangling participles, so it is important to avoid infesting our writing with these syntactic pests.


-After studying for three hours, he felt confident that he would ace the test.
-Jaded by past betrayals, she was skeptical of most people.


-While waiting for the bus, the car swerved to miss her.
-Hoping to start a new life overseas, his flight to London left in two weeks.

As you can see in the incorrect examples, the participial verbs don't link up with the subjects of the main clauses. The car is not waiting for the bus, and his flight is not hoping to start a new life overseas.

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The Fog Index

Posted on Tuesday, December 28, 2010 at 1:30 PM

Assessing the readability of a Time.com excerpt.

This month, Editors Only calculates the Fog score of a December 17, 2010, excerpt from Time.com ("Drug Companies Await FDA Guidelines for Online Marketing," by Steven Gray):

"Surprisingly, it's the pharmaceutical industry that's been at the forefront of moving the FDA to issue social-media rules. The companies realize their traditional websites and advertising strategies are no longer sufficient tools to promote products in a competitive marketplace in which doctors, pharmacists and consumers aggressively trade information about medicine on blogs. The companies are also aware that "if they can't fully participate in the social-media conversation, they get marginalized," says John Mack, publisher of Pharma Marketing Blog, which attracts about 25,000 industry readers a month. One impetus is to protect companies' credibility in the face of rogue online outlets selling dubious goods. Part of the push is to resolve practical challenges, like how to sufficiently explain a drug's risks within the bounds of a 140-character tweet. Or a sponsored Google ad's roughly two lines of text?"

--Word count: 137
--Average sentence length: 23 words (18, 34, 34, 17, 24, 10)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 24 percent (33/137 words)
--Fog Index: (23+24)*.4 = 18 (no rounding)

This passage could use some trimming. Both the average sentence length and percentage of longer words are quite high. Let's see what we can do to bring down this Fog score:

"Surprisingly, the drug companies want FDA social media rules. Their websites and ads are no longer enough. With so many doctors, pharmacists, and clients discussing medicine on blogs, they know that 'if they can't fully participate in the social-media conversation, they get marginalized,' says John Mack. Mack publishes the Pharma Marketing Blog, which attracts 25,000 readers each month. Companies want to gain trust despite the rogue online outlets selling shoddy goods. They want to convey drug risks in a 140-character tweet or sponsored Google ad's two lines of text. This is no easy task."

--Word count: 94
--Average sentence length: 13 words (9, 8, 29, 12, 13, 18, 5)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 12 percent (11/94 words)
--Fog Index: (13+12)*.4 = 10 (no rounding)

We were able to eliminate 43 words from the original excerpt. Average sentence length fell by 10 words, and we cut the percentage of longer words in half. The biggest challenge here was reducing the percentage of longer words without losing meaning or context.

(Note: There is one minor change to our Fog policy. We no longer consider words made 3 syllables by an "-ing" suffix in our longer word totals -- e.g., "discussing." In the past, we have only exempted words made 3 syllables by "-es" or "-ed" endings.)

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Participial Phrase Abuse

Posted on Monday, November 29, 2010 at 5:20 PM

Don't cheapen your copy with needless or incorrect participial phrases.

Participial phrases, defined by About.com as "a word group consisting of a present or past participle and any modifiers, objects, and complements," can be troublesome for writers and editors alike. They lend themselves to a host of grammatical ills, including dangling participles and chronological impossibilities.

Dangling Participles

The most common problem associated with participial phrases is the dangling participle. Here's an example:

Swimming in the ocean, the cool water refreshed him.

This sentence, as written, tells us that the water is swimming in the ocean. Let's fix it:

Swimming in the cool ocean, he felt refreshed.

Or, more simply:

Swimming in the cool ocean refreshed him.

Chronological Impossibility

Consider the following sentence:

Walking down the hallway, he stopped to tie his shoe.

"Walking down the hallway" functions as a participial phrase. However, keep in mind that a participial phrase happens simultaneously with the main verb. Someone cannot walk down the hallway and stop to tie his shoe simultaneously, so this sentence needs revision.

A possible fix:

While walking down the hallway, he noticed his shoe was untied and stopped to tie it.

Another option:

Walking down the hallway, he noticed his shoe was untied. He stopped to tie it.

Another example:

Turning off her alarm clock, she fell back asleep.

Unless the subject has a highly irregular sleep cycle, she cannot simultaneously turn off her alarm and fall back asleep. She must first turn off her alarm and then fall back asleep.

A simple revision:

She turned off her alarm clock and fell back asleep.

Recasting the participial phrase as an independent clause allows us to make this sequence of events chronologically possible.

Summing It All Up

Use participial phrases with care, and use them sparingly. Participial phrase abuse is a common bad habit for newbie writers, so it falls upon us, the editors, to break them of this habit. When you come across one of these tricky phrases, ask yourself two key questions: (1) Does the action expressed in the participle link up with the main clause correctly? and (2) Can these two things occur simultaneously?

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The Fog Index

Posted on Wednesday, September 29, 2010 at 1:27 PM

Assessing the readability of a book excerpt published on NPR.com.

This month, we examine a passage from NPR.com (an excerpt from Tom Bissell's book, Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter):

"For a while I hoped that my inability to concentrate on writing and reading was the result of a charred and overworked thalamus. I knew the pace I was on was not sustainable and figured my discipline was treating itself to a Rumspringa. I waited patiently for it to stroll back onto the farm, apologetic but invigorated. When this did not happen, I wondered if my intensified attraction to games, and my desensitized attraction to literature, was a reasonable response to how formally compelling games had quite suddenly become. Three years into my predicament, my discipline remains AWOL. Games, meanwhile, are even more formally compelling."

--Word count: 105
--Average sentence length: 18 words (23, 20, 14, 32, 9, 7)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 22 percent (23/105 words)
--Fog Index: (18+22) x .4 = 16 (no rounding)

In this case, the average sentence length is within reasonable range. The 32-word sentence skews the average -- without it, average sentence length is 15 words. However, it is the high percentage of long words that makes this Fog score so high.

Let's try revising the sample to improve our score:

"For a while, I hoped that my trouble concentrating on reading and writing was the result of a charred brain. I knew my pace was unsustainable and figured my discipline had treated itself to a Rumspringa. I waited patiently for its return to the farm, contrite but refreshed. When this didn't happen, I wondered if my intense attraction to games and waning attraction to books was a response to how formally compelling games had become. Three years into my problem, my discipline remains AWOL. Games, meanwhile, are even more formally compelling."

--Word count: 92
--Average sentence length: 15 words (20, 16, 13, 27, 9, 7)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 13 percent (12/92 words)
--Fog Index: (15+13) x .4 = 11 (no rounding)

Overall, we were able to trim word count by 13. The language in the original sample was quite dense, so reducing our Fog score was largely a matter of eliminating longer words and trimming excess language.

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That Is So Cliche

Posted on Monday, August 30, 2010 at 1:11 PM

Clichés can make writing "as dull as dishwater."

As an editor, you probably see clichés often. Even the best writers use them, and in some instances, they can be effective. Sometimes, when an article needs some personality, writers turn to similes, metaphors, and idioms for emphasis. Not a bad idea. It is when writing becomes loaded with superfluous imagery and needless abstraction that it loses all effectiveness.

Here are a few clichés from SuspenseNet's extensive list:

--beyond the pale
--cut the mustard (some consider this to be an incorrect rendering of "cut the muster")
--stranger than fiction
--reign supreme
--last-ditch effort
--experts agree
--garbage in, garbage out
--goes without saying
--law of the land
--know the ropes

It is probably best to review this list, and others, to familiarize yourself with the most commonly used clich├ęs. Let them stick out to you like the sore thumbs they often are. In most cases, they can be revised out of a sentence without mangling the meaning.

Consider the following passage:

Because Jessica knows the ropes better than anyone in the office, it goes without saying that she will get the promotion tomorrow. Leslie has made a last-ditch effort to prove that she cuts the mustard, but it is too little, too late.

Here, we have a whopping five clichés (set in italicds). The passage is loaded with idiomatic abstraction. How can we make it not only less cliché, but clearer? Let's try some revision:

Because Jessica works more efficiently than her coworkers, she will likely get the promotion tomorrow. Leslie has taken on some extra projects this week to prove herself, but her efforts are too little, too late.

Notice that we have let the last cliché stand. It works here. "Too little, too late" tells us that Leslie's efforts are not only insufficient to win her the promotion, but also not in time to sway her boss' decision. We have made this concept clear with just four words.

Even if you don't have a list of common clichés memorized, you can likely pick out these culprits in a lineup. Look for overused similes ("like two peas in a pod," "as stubborn as a mule," etc.) and idioms that complicate things needlessly.

You don't need to strike all clichés from existence -- as seen above, they can be useful. Earlier this year, Randy Michaels of Tribune Company banned 119 clichés from his newsroom and encouraged employees to keep tabs on one another with bingo cards. No need to be that vigilant. Just make sure to present copy that is low on fog and high on clarity. Don't let an otherwise informative article become "cheesy" thanks to excessive use of clichés.

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Classic and Contemporary

Posted on Wednesday, July 28, 2010 at 2:51 PM

Two books that equal a complete guide to better copy.

By Peter P. Jacobi

Let this serve as a re-introduction to a classic and an invitation to become familiar with a flamboyant, worthy-of-your-attention contemporaneous response.

The classic: The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White (4th edition, Longman).

The response: Spunk & Bite, A Writer's Guide to Bold, Contemporary Style, by Arthur Plotnik (Random House).

A Complete Guide

Separately, each provides a multitude of useful hints to make you stronger, as writers and editors. Together, they're as complete a guide to better copy as you're likely to find. And, in totality, they're really not contradictory, despite Plotnik's stance that Elements is "geriatric." He may argue with one or another of the rules that dominate Strunk and White's short and informative handbook, but he also validates them by using his predecessors' wisdoms as a springboard for his own musings. He simply begs for the addition of "ambience" in the use of language, as supplement to "correctness," which he judges is the principal lesson imparted in Elements.


Plotnik also points out that Strunk, White's English teacher at Cornell, determined that "the best writers sometimes disregard the rules of rhetoric. When they do so, however," he continued, "the readers will usually find in the sentence some compensating merit, attained at the cost of the violation." And White would later admit, this years after he added his thoughts to the Strunk original (a compressive text that he used to hand out to his students): "I felt uneasy at posing as an expert on rhetoric, when the truth is I write by ear, always with difficulty and seldom with any exact notion of what is taking place under the hood."

Read the Classic Again

You would do yourself good as writer or editor by reading or re-reading The Elements of Style. You will remind yourself to "omit needless words;" to aim for "definite, specific, concrete language;" to "avoid a succession of loose sentences;" to "choose a suitable design and hold to it;" to "write in a way that comes naturally;" to "write with nouns and verbs;" to not "explain too much;" to "make sure the reader knows who is speaking;" to "be clear," and to "not take shortcuts at the cost of clarity."

By sifting through the pages, you will come upon this passage, as part of White's summation: "Style takes its final shape more from attitudes of mind than from principles of composition, for, as an elderly practitioner once remarked, 'Writing is an act of faith, not a trick of grammar.'

This moral observation would have no place in a rule book were it not that style is the writer, and therefore what you are, rather than what you know, will at last determine your style. If you write, you must believe -- in the truth and worth of the scrawl, in the ability of the reader to receive and decode the message. No one can write decently who is distrustful of the reader's intelligence, or whose attitude is patronizing."

Locution, Freshness, Diction

Plotnik's emphasis is on "locution" ("a particular mode of speech -- the use of a word, the turning of a phrase in some stylistic manner"). It is on "freshness" ("Readers love surprise. They love it when a sentence heads one way and jerks another. They love the boing of a jack-in-the-box word. They adore images that trot by like a unicorn in pajamas."). He addresses diction (for writers "always purposeful, always a costume donned for one effect or another"). He spends a chapter on the thesaurus, how to find a good one, how to use it (and not use it).

Attribution gets a chapter, too, focused sharply on attribution and the verb "said." Plotnik counsels flexibility: yes, "said" is probably the most useful way to attach a quote or piece of dialogue to its speaker, but he is accepting of other verbs, depending on situation and appropriateness.

Leads and Closings

He gets around to leads ("'I promise that something will stimulate you if you continue reading.' Do your opening sentences make that promise? Do they wow to scratch the reader's eternal itch for sensation?"). And to closings, too, he gets (he urges a "three-point landing").

Punctuation and Grammar

Like Strunk and White, Plotnik deals with matters of punctuation and grammar: hyphens, semicolons, sentence fragments, and the shape of sentences ("Like the protagonist of a moral tale, a sentence sets out in earnest pursuit of truth and beauty. But soon it finds itself set upon by corruptive elements, which must be vanquished before the glorious end punctuation is attained.").

Two Books That Complement Each Other

Plotnik strays occasionally into the hyperbolic, but Spunk & Bite in execution matches the book's title. It complements The Elements of Style, even when in contradiction. I'd therefore recommend the combination for acquaintance and re-acquaintance.

Peter P. Jacobi is a Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. He is a writing and editing consultant for numerous associations and magazines, speech coach, and workshop leader for various institutions and corporations. He can be reached at 812-334-0063.

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Fog Index

Posted on Wednesday, July 28, 2010 at 2:50 PM

Assessing the readability of a PC World excerpt.

This month, we assess the readability of an article from PC World, posted on July 14, 2010 ("Consumer Reports Blasts Apple Over iPhone 4 -- Again," by Ian Paul):

"It's unclear whether Apple will need to do more to ally [sic] concerns and stop the blowback against the company over the antenna issue. The company hasn't issued any public statements since announcing the impending iPhone 4 software fix to change the signal reception display, and there is some debate about whether the fix will truly solve the problem. 'It remains to be seen if fixing metering inaccuracies will address the problem of dropped calls,' Consumer Reports said in its recent blog post."

--Word count: 83
--Average sentence length: 28 words (24, 35, 24)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 10 percent (8/83 words)
--Fog Index: (28+10) x .4 = 15 (no rounding)

Notice the spelling error in the first sentence -- likely a simple typo, but worth a mention. We published an article in March that, in part, explores online editing standards. Nearly half of the publications surveyed for a Columbia Journalism Review study were laxer about copyediting online. Perhaps this error supports the CJR data.

In the PC World passage, the clear culprit is sentence length. This is a tough passage to fix, as the last sentence contains quoted material and attribution. So how can we work around this and improve the Fog score?

"Will Apple need to do more to allay concerns and stop the backlash over the antenna issue? It's unclear. The company hasn't issued any public statements since announcing the iPhone 4 software fix to change the signal reception display. There is some debate about whether the fix will truly solve the problem. 'It remains to be seen if fixing metering inaccuracies will address the problem of dropped calls,' Consumer Reports said in its recent blog post."

--Word count: 76
--Average sentence length: 15 (17, 2, 20, 14, 24)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 8 percent (6/76 words)
--Fog Index: (15+8) x .4 = 9 (no rounding)

Reducing our Fog score by six points was, in this case, a simple matter of splitting up longer sentences. We also did some minor trimming to bring down the word count.

It can be a challenge to replace longer words in a tech article like this, especially when quoted matter is involved. Sometimes, there is no substitute for a longer word, especially when using industry lingo. When that happens, check your sentence length and word count. Make cuts where you can. Divide sentences when possible. Your readers will thank you for it.

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Out-of-Style Style

Posted on Monday, June 28, 2010 at 1:58 PM

Style conventions that lag popular usage can give your publication an outdated feel.

By William Dunkerley

Is it "Web site" or "website?" We decided to survey readers. During the period from late March to late May, we heard from 383 editors. Here's the usage they reported:

--Web site: 157
--website: 212
--web site: 9
--Website: 5

You might think that this settles the debate. In the case of "Web site" v. "website" it would appear that website has simply won. Well, it did win, but it isn't that simple.

At the start of our survey, "Web site" was actually in the lead. Take a look at these results from before mid-April:

--Web site: 83
--website: 60
--web site: 3
--Website: 3

Then, for the latter period of our survey, the results were:

--Web site: 74
--website: 152
--web site: 6
--Website: 2

What happened here? Why did "website" pull into the lead, and "Web site" fall into disfavor?

Associated Press Steps In

The turnabout coincided with an announcement from the Associated Press on April 16, 2010. Its online stylebook had abandoned "Web site" in favor of "website." Clearly, the AP decision carried a lot of weight. What's puzzling, however, is what took them so long!

Actually, the style conventions adopted by any publication should take into account the vernacular of its audience. For a group of readers unfamiliar with the Internet, the old "Web site" rendition may indeed be helpful. For a more Web-savvy crowd, it might sound anachronistic. It is important to take these factors into consideration when establishing and updating style guides, so that house style never becomes outdated.

Here's a historical example for comparison. On July 21, 1933, The Pittsburgh Press published a piece by a science writer about a mythical race between a "space ship" (two words) and a comet. But, by April 12, 1961, when cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin actually traveled into space, The Huntsville Times reported that he did it in a "spaceship" (one word). More recently, there's been the transition from day care to daycare, and health care to healthcare.

One Publication's Rationale

At Editors Only, we adopted "website" back in 1998. We did so because we saw that when editors spoke of a website, it was actually being spoken as one word. "Web" was not modifying the word "site." A Web site and a grave site were not really just two different kinds of sites. Editors knew what a website was, and they had a name for it -- even if the style of all their publications didn't treat it as one word. We also decided to continue to capitalize Web when referring to the Internet. We did that for two reasons. First was to distinguish it from the "web" of web offset printing, and second was because the word is part of the proper noun World Wide Web. It's sort of like calling the United States "the States."

AP isn't the only organization that has been clinging to "Web site." Webster appears to still use it. But, writing in Editors Only for September 1989, Merriam-Webster editor-in-chief Frederick Mish explained, "Most modern lexicographers see the dictionary as, above all, a record of the vocabulary of our language, and especially the vocabulary current [emphasis supplied] when the dictionary is published."

It would seem good to apply that principle to style issues, as well!

William Dunkerley is editor of Editors Only.

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"I've been using 'website' for years whenever I was in a position to set style for a publication. It just made sense, for the reasons William Dunkerley provided in his article; it's a generic. I was delighted when AP made the switch." --Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, WriterRuth.com. 06-30-2010.

"Web site" vs. "website"

Posted on Monday, June 28, 2010 at 1:57 PM

Choose your style and apply it consistently.

By Denise Gable

Norman Goldstein, AP StyleBook editor, said in May 2003, "Style, in the sense we're talking about, really means a preference (in spelling or punctuation or capitalization or usage) when there is a choice to be made. AP made the choice of 'Web site' for what we thought were very good, language-based, reasons. Others are free to use their preference -- as long as it is clear to a reader and consistent. More creative writers than I have said that 'usage will push new meanings into currency no matter how many authorities hurl themselves into the path of change.'"

It's not unusual for a new word to take some time before fitting into a standardized style. 'World Wide Web site' has changed to 'Web site' and, now, 'website' in keeping with our rapidly advancing, technology-savvy world. While the style guides and experts differed on Web site versus website, what were editors and writers using?

Best Friends, Best Friends Animal Society
Frequency: Bimonthly
Description: Best Friends magazine has the largest readership of any general-interest animal publication in the U.S. The Best Friends Animal Society is guided by a simple philosophy: kindness to animals.

Mary Girouard, senior copy editor, "We use website. I decided to go that route after querying a copyediting listserv and finding that most of the copyeditors had switched from Web site to website. I was always uncomfortable with 'Web site' because web is not a proper word and therefore shouldn't be capped. Technically, it should be 'World Wide Web site' but that's too cumbersome."

Cineaste, Cineaste Publishers, Inc.
Frequency: Quarterly
Description: Cineaste is a quarterly magazine (founded in 1967) which offers a social, political, and esthetic perspective on the cinema.

Gary Crowdus, editor-in-chief, "This term, as with many of the new technology terms, can be really problematic for editors, as it has been for us, in terms of settling on a spelling with which we try to be consistent. We had some heated arguments, believe it or not, as to whether or not it should be spelled 'web site' or 'website,' among other variations. We capitalize Internet and World Wide Web, so we finally came to an agreement on our editorial board that in future we will spell it Website. But, you will find it half a dozen other ways in other publications."

Waste & Recycling News, Crain Communications Inc.
Frequency: Biweekly
Circulation: 51,000
Description: Waste News is the only bi-weekly tabloid news publication in North America written specifically for decision-makers in the rapidly changing solid-waste and recycling service and distribution system.

Pete Fehrenbach, managing editor, "We're still stuck with the stodgy AP-recommended variant, 'Web site.' I would prefer that we lowercase it and close it up: website. It seems to me the publishing world is headed in that direction." [Note: This response was submitted several weeks before the AP announced the change to "website."]

Charleston, GulfStream Communications
Frequency: Monthly
Description: A monthly magazine for Charleston, South Carolina.

Lauren Brooks Johnson, managing editor, "We use website (lowercase, all one word). Even though Webster.com has it listed as Web site (two words, Web capped), our editorial team felt that the word Web has become so widespread among readers that it no longer necessitates the proper noun privilege of capitalization. And though it has not made it to Webster as one word yet, is surely is on its way."

Rubber & Plastics News, Crain Communications Inc.
Frequency: Biweekly
Description: International newspaper for the rubber industry.
Ed Noga, editor, "We just switched to website from Web site. We use AP style, with some of our own variances, and our chief copy editor noticed a couple of weeks ago that 'Web' was now verboten. That was fine with us -- we never liked it capitalized. As I always say (and I'm not the first editor to state this), style is never wrong or right, it just 'is,' as long as you are consistent."

Chicagoland Gardening, State by State Gardening Magazines
Frequency: Bimonthly
Description: A magazine for gardeners in the Chicago area.

Carolyn Ulrich, editor, "I do one word for website and no capitalization. I also do not capitalize internet. I regard both website and internet as common nouns, so I would no more capitalize them than I would school or church. So that's the rationale, but I probably made my initial decisions based on gut feelings and what 'looked right' to me. The rationale came later."

Mediabistro.com, WebMediaBrands Inc.
Frequency: n/a
Description: A website dedicated to anyone who creates or works with content or who is a non-creative professional working in a content/creative industry.

Chris Ariens, editorial director, "We recently switched from Web site to website. We followed the AP Stylebook lead on this when they switched earlier this year."

Experience Life, Life Time Fitness
Frequency: 10 issues/year
Description: A magazine created to empower readers to become their best, most authentic selves and to support their enjoyment of a healthy, balanced, deeply satisfying way of life.

Steve Waryan, copy chief, "Our publication style follows the American Heritage Dictionary and Chicago Manual of Style in how we treat that term. We capitalize Web and spell it as two words -- Web site. We've followed this style since we started the magazine about 10 years ago. I'm aware that the AP recently changed its treatment of the two words into one -- website. We haven't yet discussed whether we'll follow this trend or not, but I anticipate future discussions about it."

AWCI's Construction Dimensions, AWCI
Frequency: Monthly
Description: A magazine delivering the latest in technical, promotional, business, and management ideas and issues for the wall and ceiling industry.

Laura Porinchak, editor, "We follow the AP Stylebook, so we used Web site up until the other day when the AP declared it to be one lowercase word: website. Most editors I know disagree with the change simply because 'World Wide Web' is a proper noun, thus Web site is correct. But most of those same editors are darn glad they don't have to explain anymore to their coworkers why it has to be two words with Web capitalized. It seems that those of us who follow the AP were in the minority when it came to Web site."

Denise Gable is managing editor of Editors Only.

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The Fog Index

Posted on Monday, May 24, 2010 at 1:51 PM

Assessing the readability of a Signature magazine article.

This month, we assess the readability of an article in the May/June 2010 issue of Signature magazine ("Does Your Media Kit Earn Rave Reviews?" by Carrie Hartin):

"An engaging sales kit is an extension of the sales presentation, helping your sales team show that story, by illustrating the crucial characteristics of your members -- not just regurgitating statistics churned out of your member survey. Tell the prospect, for example, what the readership's engagement with advertisers has been in the past and what their purchasing budgets generally look like. Follow that up with explanation of how members use your communication vehicles, and you've created a powerful selling story that you can illustrate with thumbnail examples of content-driven pages or screenshots."

--Word count: 92
--Average sentence length: 31 (37, 24, 31)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 21 percent (18/92 words)
--Fog Index: (31+21) x .4 = 20 (no rounding)

The Fog score of this sample is quite high. In this case, both the average sentence length and percentage of words with 3+ syllables are rather high. This is a tough sample to edit, as it contains longer terms specific to the subject at hand.

Let's see what we can do to improve the Fog score:

"A winning sales kit is an extension of the sales presentation. It helps your sales team by showing key member characteristics -- not just pulling numbers from member surveys. Tell the prospect, for instance, the readership's past engagement with advertisers. Show what their normal purchasing budgets look like. Then explain how members use your communication vehicles. Now, you've created a strong selling story that you can illustrate with thumbnails of content-driven pages or screenshots."

Here are the statistics for the revised sample:

--Word count: 74
--Average sentence length: 12 (11, 18, 11, 8, 8, 18)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 14 percent (10/74 words)
--Fog Index: (12+14) x .4 =10 (no rounding)

First, we needed to split up some of the longer sentences to reduce the average sentence length of 31 words. Three sentences became six and, with some tightening up of the syntax and trimming of words, we were able to reduce this average by more than half to 12 words.

Perhaps most challenging, we needed to reduce the number of longer words, a factor that contributed heavily to the original Fog score of 20. This can be difficult in business-to-business copy, but the effort paid off -- we were able to reduce the percentage of 3+-syllable words from 21 to 14 (a reduction of one-third).

Overall, these edits cut the Fog score in half (from 20 to 10).

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"With a little bit of editing, the paragraph can be further improved:

'A winning sales kit is a key part of the sales presentation. It shows vital member characteristics, rather than simply pulling numbers from surveys. Show the prospect, for instance, the readership's past engagement with advertisers. Present their purchasing budgets. Then explain how members use your communication vehicles. Now, you've created a strong selling story that you can illustrate with thumbnails of content-driven pages or screenshots.'

Here's the Fog analysis:

Number of characters (without spaces): 372.00
Number of words: 66.00
Number of sentences: 6.00
Average number of characters per word: 5.64
Average number of syllables per word: 1.80
Average number of words per sentence: 11.00
Gunning Fog index: 8.64


--Don Tepper, Editor, PT in Motion (American Physical Therapy Association). 05-26-2010.

The Fog Index

Posted on Monday, December 21, 2009 at 2:38 PM

Assessing the readability of a NewYorkTimes.com excerpt.

This month, we assess the readability of an excerpt from the December 14, 2009, online edition of the New York Times ("Citigroup Reaches Deal to Repay Bailout Billions," by Eric Dash and Jeff Zeleny):

"To help replenish its coffers, Citigroup expects to raise about $17 billion by selling stock as early as this week and issue up to $7.2 billion in other capital by the first quarter of next year. The moves will leave the bank with one of the largest capital cushions of the major banks, assuaging regulators' concerns about its ability to weather another severe downturn without returning to the government for help. The plan also should help Citigroup shed the stigma that came with accepting bailout money and remove the harsh compensation restrictions imposed on banks that received multiple bailouts."

The sample in question contains 99 words. The average sentence length is 33 words. The percentage of words three syllables or greater is 12 (after omitting the exceptions: capitalized words, combinations of short words like "wrongdoing" and "buttermilk," and verbs that have three syllables because of an "-es" or "-ed" ending). Adding 33 and 12 gives us 45. Multiply 45 by 0.4 to arrive at a Fog Index of 18 (no rounding).

If you remember our past Fog Index calculations, you'll know that the ideal excerpt has a Fog Index of less than 12. So why did this excerpt yield such a high number? In this case, the average sentence length, 33 words, is quite high. Trimming these sentences, or perhaps even splitting up some of them, would yield a lower average sentence length and, therefore, a lower Fog score.

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Editing Foreign Authors

Posted on Friday, October 30, 2009 at 3:24 PM

Tips for applying your editorial skills to foreign writers.

By Linda Johnson

A Frenchman who says "It's Hebrew to me," or a German who says "It's Spanish to me," has no way of knowing that his use of the idiom is Greek to us. That's because his own sentence contains no actual grammatical error.

The different ways an idiom may be expressed in various foreign languages may have been of little concern to you in the past. However, now that most publications have online presences or digital editions, they are gaining more and more international readers. Cross-cultural and cross-language nuances are now gaining in pertinence for any editor. All this online activity will result not only in increased foreign readership, but also increased submissions from foreign authors.

When editing a foreign author, you may run into problems like this, which generally do not occur at all when a native English speaker writes. It takes a special kind of sensitivity to edit a non-native English writer correctly. Consider that, for your colleague to be attempting to write in English at all, he or she must be very well educated. Your colleague needs to be edited in a manner that reflects his sincerity, candor, and intelligence.

Editing Foreign Material

How do you edit material written by a foreign author? Should you preserve his or her "ambiance" -- even if that means the article will appear in less-than-polished English? We're not talking about grammar or punctuation errors here. I'm referring to writing that, while grammatically correct, still sounds foreign.

Some editors argue for leaving in the foreign flavor. It's quaint, or it's charming, they contend. But does such a practice really serve your reader? Is it presenting the information with the utmost clarity? Then there's the argument about the author. You know -- that he or she will be offended if you edit too heavily. Think about it. If you wrote an article in a foreign language, would you want to sound "cute" or "charming"? Indeed, most foreign writers would be grateful for the application of all your editorial skills to their work!

I've investigated some typical writing errors made in English by native speakers of other languages, and I'd like to share some tips on handling them.


Prepositions by their nature are so abstract that they just about never translate on a one-to-one basis. Just try to explain (let alone translate!) the preposition "up" in the following examples:

The runner-up is...
A follow-up on the article...
I wouldn't put up with that...
We put him up for the night...
The beggar hit me up for some money...
The mugger beat up his victim...

Idiomatic Expressions

Idioms, of course, are laws unto themselves. Though no actual error occurs, the speaker has somehow miscommunicated (like in our beginning example). Unfortunately, he has no empirical way of knowing this. If our French or German speaker looked in a dictionary for a translation of hebraique or Spanisch, he would find in the English section "Hebrew" or "Spanish," correspondingly. Nowhere would it read "Greek."

And before you argue that our writer should invest in a good dictionary of idioms, let me point out that the writer is probably already relying too much on a dictionary to do his work -- and trying more or less unsuccessfully to apply it to what little bit of classroom English he remembers! English is, for your writer, a foreign language. Merely decoding vocabulary is the very least of his problems!


Cognates pose a problem similar to that of idioms. Speakers of any language may incorrectly assume that a word in their language has a cognate in English. For example, Maria Von Trapp related in her autobiography an anecdote from an American supermarket. She overheard a German-born woman, amazed at the price of produce, exclaim, "...for sixty cents less, I can become cauliflower around the corner!" In German, the verb bekommen means "to get."

Other Pitfalls

Of course, all kinds of grammatical problems that we take for granted will occur in the writing of a non-native speaker. A rule may exist in English for which there exists no corollary in the foreign language. For example, English nouns need to be treated as "countable" or "uncountable" to explain why we say "a chair," but not "a furniture." The distinction between "few" and "a few" is difficult (do you have "few" acquaintances in New York or "a few" acquaintances?). And confusion abounds in the present tenses (English has three): I speak English?, or Do I speak English?, or Am I speaking English? Finally, even as an editor, are you consciously aware that we do not use apostrophe "s" for the possessive form of an inanimate object (the cat's meow, but the picture frame)?

Likewise, the reverse situation may occur: the foreign writer may assume that rules in his language are consistent with those of English. He will want to use double negatives if they are permitted (or required) in his language. And a French speaker who says "it's me (c'est moi)" will not consider saying "it's I."

Generally, you can categorize types of writing errors by language family. The less the writer's native language has in common with English, obviously, the more remarkable the errors will be. Creative, sensitive editing will be required.

Romance Languages

Romance language writers tend to write in a style too complex or formal for English. This is because Latin, the basis of a Romance language, is the basis of formal English.

Examine this sentence:

"I find it often difficult to comprehend the people with whom I am speaking."

We need to correct an error of word order (position of "often"), a too-formal (but not incorrect) prepositional phrase, and non-idiomatic use of the present progressive tense (although there is no actual grammatical error). We choose more colloquial synonyms for "difficult," "comprehend," and "speaking." Native English speakers would prefer:

"It's often hard to understand the people I'm talking to."

Teutonic Languages

For native speakers of Teutonic languages (Germans, Dutch, and Scandinavians), questions of word order will arise. You will also find total confusion regarding prepositions, particularly if they are used in conjunction with the action of a verb ("get up," "give away," "come from," etc.). Here is an example:

"I am learning English the whole time since I am ten years old."

In this example, correct the tense sequence and the word order:

"I have been studying English constantly since I was ten years old."

Notice that here we found a more sophisticated synonym for "the whole time," and changed "learning" -- which connotes outside assistance (teacher, school) -- to "studying," which can be done alone.

Slavic Languages

Predictably, speakers of Slavic languages have even more difficulties with written English. Their language is not as closely related to ours as the Teutonic languages (of which English is one) or the Romance languages (because English has incorporated so many Latin words into its formal register). Slavic language speakers tend to omit the indefinite and definite articles.

Here's an example from a Soviet author commenting on a visit by Gorbachev to New York back in 1989:

"...watching TV, reading newspapers, it was hardly possible to find out: what is essence of Soviet leader's speech to UN? He didn't asked economic credits. Still speech was almost only purpose to take a 8-hours flight."

Make corrections and see if you get something like this:

"Whether watching TV or reading the newspapers, it was nearly impossible to determine the essence of the Soviet leader's speech to the UN. He didn't ask for any economic credits. All in all, the sole purpose for his taking an 8-hour flight was the speech."


While the languages discussed above are all members of the Indo-European language group, Japanese is not. The structure of the Japanese language is totally different from that of English. English written by a native Japanese speaker is frequently characterized by convoluted superficial sentence structure. Consider this example:

"I was interest in foreign country when I was student. I was not good at English well. It was not benefited with me. Because I understood that learning English conversation is in need of positive and express myself."

A sensitive editor could try this:

"I have been very interested in foreign countries since my student days. But I was never very good at English. No amount of instruction seemed to help. But I realize that it is advantageous to know English, and I want to be able to speak English."

And So...

My advice to editors is this: go ahead and edit the foreign author's text. Keep it in the style of an educated native-English-speaking journalist. Don't correct just the spelling and the grammar. Determine what the author's message is, and restate it in good English. Correct the grammar and syntax and deliver the substance of the message unchanged.

Editors should use their skill with words to facilitate communication, to encourage dialogue and the exchange of ideas. Then they will be able to give exposure to both existing and emerging concepts, inventions, and ideas from cultures and countries we have ignored for too long.

Linda Johnson is a foreign language specialist based in Connecticut.

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"Thanks for an outstanding article on sensitive editing of non-English authors, something I see regularly. Our authors are volunteers with impressive medical and research experience, and we want to help them distribute their information (and reap the benefits of publishing) without changing their meaning. Thanks for the great examples!"
--Bridget Struble, Program Director of Publications, American Society for Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition


"Good job, but I'd like to add a few words. I had an experience editing English speaking writers who wrote in Russian. There are always two traps on that trek. First, to edit correctly you have to clearly understand what on Earth the author means. If you don't--and it is too often you don't--you are going to make a mistake of speaking instead of him, of putting your thoughts and ideas into his text. Not always you guess correctly. Watch that! Second, sometimes it is important to preserve and convey the stylistics of the original manuscript, the aura of a slight deviance, an accent. It is much more easier to re-write the whole text to make it grammatically sterile than to keep it slightly imperfect to stress it personality." --Sergey Panasenko, Moscow, RF

Sentence Adverbs -- The "Hopefully" Debate

Posted on Friday, October 23, 2009 at 3:28 PM

Ideally, this article will shed some light on the subject.

By Meredith L. Dias

You have likely encountered the "hopefully" debate in your editorial travels. In one camp are the traditional grammarians, who advise against using "hopefully" as a sentence adverb; in the other camp are the modern grammarians, who assert that "hopefully" can function in such a capacity. So is one side correct and the other wrong? And what are sentence adverbs, anyway?

A sentence adverb, according to About.com grammar and composition guide Richard Nordquist, is "a word that modifies a sentence as a whole or a clause within a sentence." For example, consider this sentence: "Fortunately, the shampoo had a coconut scent." Without the sentence adverb, this would be a simple description of the shampoo's scent. However, the use of "fortunately" suggests that the speaker likes coconut scents. What you have just witnessed is a sentence adverb infusing an otherwise straightforward sentence with new subtext.

Many adjectives morph into sentence adverbs without controversy. We see adverbs like "obviously," "technically," and "actually" function quite often in this capacity. Few adverbs have faced as much scrutiny as "hopefully." Traditionally, the word means "in a hopeful manner"; however, it is used often in informal writing to denote the speaker's hopefulness about a given matter. Many are reluctant to accept "hopefully" in this context.

So why the controversy? Some grammarians fear that "hopefully" as a sentence adverb can obfuscate the meaning of a sentence. For example: "Hopefully, James will arrive on time." Does this mean that a hopeful James will arrive on time, or that the speaker is hopeful that he will arrive on time? Mignon Fogarty, known online as "Grammar Girl," weighed in on this issue in a 2007 podcast: "In most cases, the meaning is clear, especially when the sentence isn't about a person." She advises against using "hopefully" as a sentence adverb in sentences that involve a person (like the example above) to avoid confusion. Still, other grammarians shun "hopefully" as a sentence adverb altogether, citing the word's original meaning.

Thus, the debate continues. Do we adhere to tradition or change with the times? Though the original meaning of "hopefully" is clear, why can't it function as a sentence adverb? This is certainly not the first instance of grammatical microevolution that has faced staunch opposition from traditionalists. I suspect that for most editors -- myself included -- the instinct will be toward carrying the torch of tradition. However, Grammar Girl and some of her more modern contemporaries certainly make a compelling argument.

Meredith L. Dias is the research editor of Editors Only.

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Overly Redundant

Posted on Friday, July 31, 2009 at 2:52 PM

Trimming the superfluous from your articles.

By Meredith L. Dias

It can be difficult for even the most astute writer to avoid redundancy in an article. Sometimes, we forget that certain words are linked definitionally and, when paired, become redundant.

Here are some common redundancies to avoid in your writing:

Revert back -- As a general rule, avoid using the word "back" after words with the "re-" prefix. (See also: "reflect back", "return back", etc.)
ATM machine -- Be careful when appending acronyms; often times, the extra words are actual components of the acronym. (See also: "HIV virus", "CIA Agency", etc.)
End result -- When framing your sentences, think carefully about the definitions of the words you choose. In cases like this, the two words share a definitional link. (See also: "past history", "crisis situation", etc.)
Completely destroyed -- When introducing adjectives and verbs with an adverb, keep in mind whether or not the adverb is implied in the subsequent word. The word "destroyed" denotes complete ruin; therefore, "completely" is superfluous. (See also: "originally created", etc.)

Look online for some comprehensive lists of redundancies. Odds are, you will find one or two that you have either used in your own writing or allowed to pass into print. Fear not -- you are certainly not the first editor to fall into this trap. By paying closer attention to word meanings and connotations, you will sharpen your eye for these mistakes and avoid them in future issues.

Meredith L. Dias is the research editor of Editors Only.

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Posted on Wednesday, May 20, 2009 at 3:49 PM

Reference books for editors and writers.

It is important for any publishing professional to have access to the right style, grammar, and writing guides. We have compiled a list of some of the most useful, comprehensive books out there for publishing professionals. Visit our Books page to see the complete list.

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How Do You Spell That?

Posted on Wednesday, May 20, 2009 at 1:59 PM

Ten words you may be spelling incorrectly.

Because the English language is so highly irregular, even the most astute grammarian can misspell the occasional word. Lucky for us editors, YourDictionary.com has compiled a list of the 250 most commonly misspelled words, as well as a guide to the 100 most mispronounced words. We have drawn from their list to present to you ten words you may not know you have been misspelling.

1. Bellwether (not "bellweather")
2. Affidavit (not "affidavid")
3. Tenterhooks (not "tenderhooks")
4. Flotation (not "floatation")
5. Plenitude (not "plentitude")
6. Memento (not "momento")
7. Diphtheria (not "diptheria")
8. Liquefy (not "liquify")
9. Sacrilegious (not "sacreligious")
10. Cantaloupe (not "cantelope")

The website offers some catchy mnemonic devices and witty words of wisdom to help you remember the correct spellings. We have included some of the more obscure entries; however, the website also contains dozens of common words that may elude even the most astute red pen. The site also has a list of the 100 most mispronounced words in the English language.

As experencied as we are, it never hurts to brush up on these basics. Even the most attentive editor is likely to have forgotten a word or two on this list.

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