Tag Archives: copy editing

Keeping them Straight – A few common misused word pairs

Pair of pearsOften when writing, there are certain words that our fingers insist on typing or writing, even when our brains are well aware of their proper usage. Therefore, as we line edit and proofread, we must be vigilant in seeking them out and fixing them.

Here are a few:

It’s vs. Its

It’s is the contraction for it is or it has. To test to see if it’s is correct, read your sentence substituting it is or it has for it’s. If it sounds right, it is. Keep it’s.

Its, however, is a pronoun and signifies possession; it owns something. If it is or it has doesn’t make sense, chances are you want to use its. To confirm this, think about whether your sentence is talking about something belonging to it or owned by it. If it does, its is correct.

For more information, see Dictionary.com‘s definition of its and its discussion of how it’s confused with it’s.

Your vs. You’re

Your and you’re are cousins to the its and it’s. To decide which is appropriate in your sentence, follow the same advice. Read your sentence substituting you are for you’re; if it sounds right, you’re is the correct word. You’re is the contraction for you are.

According to Dictionary.com, your shows a possession owned or possessed by you, one, or, informally, all members of a group as in your clothes, your best best, or take your average Joe, for example.

If you are doesn’t make sense in your sentence, your is your best bet.

Now you’re a former you’re misuser from yore.

And just in case you’re tempted, yur is just a text-message abbreviation and is never appropriate in prose.

Except vs. Accept

One time, I got a chuckle out of a sign they kept showing on our local nightly news that said “Donations Excepted.”

According to Dictionary.com, “Excepted” means excluded or left out…

What I think the club probably meant to say was “Donations Accepted.”

According to Dictionary.com, “Accepted” means “generally approved” or “usually regarded as normal, right, etc.”

Stay tuned in future weeks for more unruly word pairs (or groups)!



Photo by Moyan Brenn, Flickr Creative Commons: https://www.flickr.com/photos/aigle_dore/5849712695/
Photo by Moyan Brenn, Flickr Creative Commons: https://www.flickr.com/photos/aigle_dore/5849712695/

One of the major grammar mistakes I see when line editing is matching plural and singular sentence subjects with their respective plural and singular pronouns. These are easy mistakes to make but they are also easy mistakes to correct.

If a subject within a sentence is singular, meaning the sentence is talking only about what one person, place, or thing did, the pronoun must be singular as well. If the subject is gender neutral, use it. If the subject is male, use he or his; if female, use she or her; if it has a gender but you don’t know or it doesn’t matter if the subject is male or female, use she or he or his or her. Granted, writing he or she all of the time can make the piece feel cluttered and reading tedious so it is tempting to use they or their. Don’t do it. If you are writing he or she too many times, make the subject plural so you can use they, their, or them, etc. properly.

As mentioned, perhaps the easiest way to get around the whole he or she dilemma is to make your sentence’s subject plural and use the more easily-read they or its derivative. Sometimes, however, it won’t be so clear cut. Perhaps the subject to which your pronoun refers isn’t contained in the same sentence. The rule is still the same: if the subject to which you are referring is plural, use the they pronoun. For example, from Missing Emily: Croatian Life Letters on page 20 with underlining to hopefully make it clearer which pronouns go with which subjects:

“Within a few hours, I knew the whole story. Aunt Shari had taken Emily for a walk in her stroller to the park in her neighborhood. When they left to walk back home, Aunt Shari Buckled Emily into her stroller. When they reached the intersection a block away from the park, Aunt Shari pushed the street light button and waited for the walk signal. The moment she stepped into the intersection, an unlicensed sixteen-year-old girl riding with her friends swerved around the cars stopped at the red light and struck Emily’s stroller.” (“They” refers to Aunt Shari and Emily.)

It can also get tricky when your sentence has multiple subjects or contains some descriptive words between the subject and verb. The rule is still the same: match the verb to the subject about which you are writing. They, them, and their also applies to inanimate objects or places as well as gender-neutral subjects, which also can make them easier to deal with. But in the interest of interest, change your work up at times. Find a synonym for your subject or use the he or she (properly) occasionally.

Of course, if you are talking about only yourself, use I. If you are including friends in your sentence talking about yourself, use the collective we. The good news is if you are talking directly to someone else (second person), you is proper whether you are addressing one person or a whole crowd.

Even if you know this rule about singular or plural subjects and pronouns, it is easy to slip up when you are cranking out a draft, making it that much more important when it comes time for line editing so read your work carefully and think through your sentences to ensure your grammar is correct.


CommaSutraTime to attempt to master another comma position in line editing: between adjectives. When using adjectives to describe a noun in sentences, at times you will need commas between them, at times you will not, and at times there will be commas between some of them but not others. Unlike with the intuitive comma use, often you can’t tell when a comma should or shouldn’t be used just by reading the sentence out loud. Fortunately, however, there is a rule you can use.

When using two or more adjectives, commas should be placed between those that describe the noun independently and separately. No comma is appropriate when the multiple adjectives are dependent upon each other. Diana Hacker (2009) in her A Pocket Style Manual refers to the distinction as coordinating adjectives and cumulative adjectives (p. 59-60). To test whether the adjectives are coordinate or independent, read them with the word “and” between them.

For example, from Missing Emily: Croatian Life Letters on page 13:

“I did not think again about the letter until I arrived home from school the first of March to find a thin envelope with a border around the outside like a red, white, and blue candy cane and several canceled stamps addressed to me on our kitchen counter.”

If you use “and” instead of the commas:

“I did not think again about the letter until I arrived home from school the first of March to find a thin envelope with a border around the outside like a red and white and blue candy cane and several canceled stamps addressed to me on our kitchen counter.”

This makes sense so the commas are appropriate. In fact, commas are needed so your words don’t read like they were written by a preschooler. In this case, you could also determine the commas are needed by reading it aloud. If you try to read it without, “outside like a red white blue candy cane,” you might pass out from loss of breath (especially because it is quite a long sentence anyway).

According to Hacker (2009), cumulative adjectives don’t describe the noun separately and reading them with “and” would be cumbersome and nonsensical. For example, from Missing Emily on page 12:

“A passing elbow collided with mine, sending my books flying to the floor in slow motion.”

Reading “A passing and elbow collided with mine” doesn’t make sense so a comma would not be appropriate. As has been the case with all of the Comma Sutra positions thus far, whether to use a comma or not is still a subjective decision to a certain degree. The “and”s might make sense to some but not to others. The important thing is to consider the use of commas in your sentences and make purposeful choices about whether or not to use them.



Hacker, D. (2009). A Pocket Style Manual (5th ed.). Boston/New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s.


CommaSutraPosition Three of the Comma Sutra in line editing addresses the commas which should occur between two, three, or more (though I wouldn’t recommend too many more) independent clauses in sentences. Usually, these independent clauses are connected by and, but, or or one of their siblings of nor, for, so, and yet. Or and nor bring up their own whole other issues – either, or and neither, nor – but that isn’t really about commas, so we’ll table the discussion for now.

Unless your sentence contains short independent clauses, you should use a comma before the and, etc. (the coordinating conjunctions) to, according to Diana Hacker in A Pocket Style Manual (5th Ed.) “tell readers that one independent clause has come to a close and that another is about to begin” (p. 58). As Ms. Hacker warns, this rule only applies to independent clauses.

Here are a couple of examples from Missing Emily: Croatian Life Letters:

Two short independent clauses where a comma is not necessary:

“I think she likes Mate but I am not worried.”

Longer independent clauses with a comma:

“I have not known what I should write to you, but I will try to answer the questions in your last letter.”

How do you know if your clauses are independent and whether they are short enough to omit the comma? You guessed it: read the work out loud. Read the clauses as their own sentences – such as “I think she likes Mate,” and, “I am not worried.” If they make sense as standalone sentences, they are independent. To determine if the length of the clause requires a comma, read the sentence out loud. If the meaning is clear, you can leave the comma out. If the meaning is confusing, or if by the time you finish the sentence, you are lost and don’t remember what the first part of the sentence said, you probably need a comma.

As with Positions One and Two of the Comma Sutra, this one has a degree of ambiguity, and it is open to varying subjective interpretations. What’s the bottom line? Seek out every coordinating conjunction and multi-clause sentence in your writing and question it. Make an informed, purposeful choice – comma or no comma – and go with it. Others may disagree, but you’ll have your thought-out reasons with which to defend yourself.

Source:     Hacker, D. (2009). A Pocket Style Manual, 5th Ed. Bedford/St. Martin’s: Boston/New York.

The Comma Sutra – Position One

The “Comma Sutra” posts were by far the most popular on my first blog, so I thought I’d repeat this one originally posted on September 1, 2012.

CommaSutraThe comma so perplexes me in writing and line editing that I think a whole book could be written on the topic. It is used in so many different ways and its usage is different depending on what you are writing and what you intend to say. I’ve gone from being a comma-abuser to a comma-avoider to everywhere in between.

Because of the complexity, I will concentrate on comma usage in a particular minute instance, and maybe one day, I’ll have it mastered. This week – the list.

I grew up hearing you always use a comma between the second to the last item in a list with three or more items and the conjunction (“and” or “or”) appearing before the last item in the list (unless, of course, a semi-colon is appropriate which is a whole other topic). Then when I became a paralegal, I was told this was wrong – you should leave out that comma. And then I read somewhere you should use the comma when writing lists in fiction but you should leave them out when writing non-fiction. Even when reading a Harvard Business School case for a class, I noticed there were no commas between the last two items in lists in the text – “proving” the fiction vs. non-fiction distinction.

To solve this confusion, I turn to the “experts.” According to A Pocket Style Manual, Fifth Edition, on page 58, by Diana Hacker, you should follow the advice I received in grade school of “use a comma between all items in a series of at least three, including the last two.” Hacker acknowledges the paralegal no-last-comma camp but indicates “most experts advise using [the comma] because its omission can result in ambiguity or misreading.”

According to The Associated Press AP Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law, 2009 Edition, you “do not put a comma before the conjunction in a simple series” which appears to consist of three similar items (p. 355). The Essentials of English, 6th Edition, by Vincent F. Hopper, Cedric Gale, Ronald C. Foote, and Benjamin W. Griffith appear to agree with Diana Hacker though it does admit it is “not absolutely essential” (p. 114). The Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, Sixth Edition, also agrees with the comma-always mantra (p. 88).

So what will the Wordsy Woman do? Well, unless someone asks me specifically to leave it out, I will insert a comma between the second-to-last item and the “and” or “or” in my list of three items or more.