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10 Common Editing Mistakes

January 30, 2012

This is a repost from a guest post I did for Piper and MJ over at Babes In Boyland, and I’d like to have it posted here on my blog as well. While I’m biased, I do think this is valuable information. It’s so important to me that, probably next month, we’ll take it and expand it to 20 Common Mistakes and post the whole thing up on the Storm Moon Press blog and SMP author loop for authors to peruse.

Post Title: Top 10 Common Editing Mistakes
Author: S.L. Armstrong

Over the past two years since starting Storm Moon Press, we’ve been approached with a respectable number of submissions by authors seeking publication. As we’ve reviewed these submissions, we and our editors have noticed a number of commonly occurring errors cropping up time and again. I’d like to take this opportunity to point out some of them and ways to correct them. Taking the time to zap these errors out of your writing will make your submissions cleaner and more attractive to publishers, and greatly increase your chances of getting picked up.

I. Commonly Confused Words

1. Lie vs Lay

This is probably one of the most common mistakes of all time. If there were an Editing Mistakes Hall of Fame, this would be in the entrance lobby. So let’s break it down. “Lay” is a transitive verb; this means it requires an object — the thing you’re laying down. “Lie”, by contrast, is intransitive, so it does not take an object. So why is this so confusing? Quite simply, because the English language is tricksy. The past tense of “lie” is “lay”, which just… isn’t fair. It’s very easy, given that, to mix things up.

* Lay the book on the table. –> He laid the book on the table.
* Lie down and relax. –> He lay down and relaxed.

Complicating things even further is the fact that there is also an intransitive use of “lay” as a slang term for sex, as in “I got laid”. And that’s not even considering the uses of “to lie” to mean “not tell the truth”!

2. Who vs Whom

It’s unfortunate, but I feel like I’m fighting a losing battle on this one. A lot of people seem to feel that using “whom” is nothing but a sign of pretension, and that “who” is always appropriate. This is not the case. “Who” and “whom” are pronouns, and they represent different cases in the same way that “he” and “him” or “she” and “her” do. “Who” is the nominative (subject) case, and “whom” is the accusative (object) case. The easiest way to be certain of the correct word is to reword the sentence using either “he” or “him” — whichever is appropriate for the sentence. If you use “he”, then “who” is correct; if “him” is correct, then so is “whom”. (Both “him” and “whom” end with “m”, so it’s easy to remember.)

* Who is knocking at the door? –> He is knocking at the door.
* To whom am I speaking? –> I am speaking to him.

3. Which vs That

This one is a little harder to explain. “Which” and “that” are both relative pronouns: words used to introduce relative clauses, which are clauses that act as modifiers to nouns or noun phrases. For example, in the previous sentence, everything after the word “which” is a relative clause modifying the noun “relative clauses”. “Which” (and “who” when referring to people) is used to introduce non-restrictive clauses; “that” is used for restrictive clauses. By “restrictive”, I mean modifiers that qualify or “restrict” what sub-group of all members of the noun group the sentence is referring to. The best way to illustrate is by example.

* Diamonds, which are expensive, are the hardest type of stone.
(The relative clause “which are expensive” is non-restrictive because all diamonds are expensive.)

* The girl that I saw yesterday was here again today.
(The relative clause “that I saw yesterday” is restrictive because it identifies a specific girl.)

Note that the non-restrictive clause is set off by commas, while the restrictive clause is not. This is not a coincidence. Because non-restrictive clauses do not alter the meaning of the sentence, they can be safely removed entirely and are therefore set off by commas. Removing a restrictive clause, though, can change a sentence, so it is not surrounded by commas. Mixing this up can create unexpected misunderstandings.

X Diamonds that are expensive are the hardest type of stone.
(This implies that there are non-expensive diamonds, and that they are less hard than the expensive kind.)

X The girl, who I saw yesterday, was here again today.
(This implies that there is only one girl.)

II. Punctuation Errors

4. Comma Splices

I don’t care how good a story is. If I run into more than three comma splices, it goes right into the DNF pile. It’s one of the easiest errors to correct, and yet so few people care enough to do it. As far as I’m concerned, it is the hallmark of lazy writing and lazy editing. A comma splice happens when two independent clauses are “spliced” together with only a comma rather than being connected by a semicolon or a coordinating conjunction. And while there are many people who shrug their shoulders and say it doesn’t make any difference, I just reply, if it doesn’t make a difference, then why not do it right?

X School is serving pizza today, I’m glad I brought my lunch.
* School is serving pizza today; I’m glad I brought my lunch.
* School is serving pizza today, so I’m glad I brought my lunch.

5. Commas Between Adjectives

This is another easily corrected mistake, but also another prevalent one. When using multiple, unrelated adjectives to describe a noun, they must be separated by commas. The trick, if there is one, is being able to recognize when adjectives are unrelated. As a general rule, if you can read the sentence with any of the adjectives removed, and the meaning doesn’t change, then the adjectives are unrelated to each other.

* The rusted, green pickup sat neglected in the yard.
(The pickup is green. It is also rusted. The two adjectives are not related.)

X The rusted green pickup sat neglected in the yard.
(This implies that the pickup is a “rusted green” color, which is probably not the intended meaning.)

* The faded green pickup sat neglected in the yard.
(In this case, the pickup is a “faded green” color, so the adjectives are related.)

6. Overuse of Dashes

I don’t know when this happened, but it seems that there is a recent trend of using the dash as a replacement for just about any other punctuation mark. The dash should only be used to set off interrupting clauses or to indicate cut-off speech. And yet, I have seen it used in place of colons, semicolons, and even commas.

X He said–“What are you doing here?”
* He said, “What are you doing here?”

X She looked everywhere–the cupboard, the pantry, and even under the sink.
* She looked everywhere: the cupboard, the pantry, and even under the sink.

X I called her four times–she never called back.
* I called her four times; she never called back.

* “I’m telling you, there’s nothing out–” The sudden snap of a twig put the lie to that statement.
* The boots were caked with mud and–this was the important bit–bits of sawdust and sand.

III. Grammatical Errors

7. Verb Tense Agreement

This error is frequently caused when a sentence is rewritten, and the tense of one of the verbs is changed, but subsequent verbs are not. There are instances where it can be correct to have different verb tenses in a single sentence, but as a general rule, all of them should match.

X She had done fifty push-ups, swam for an hour, and ran three miles.
* She did fifty push-ups, swam for an hour, and ran three miles. (All verbs are simple past tense.)
* She had done fifty push-ups, swum for an hour, and run three miles. (All verbs are past participles.)

8. Dangling Participles

Dangling participles occur when an introductory participle phrase refers to a particular subject, but that subject is not the subject of the rest of the sentence. This leaves the first part of the sentence “dangling”: it has no connection to the conclusion. This is another situation that is easily corrected by always making sure that the first word following the participle phrase is the subject associated with the phrase, or by simply rewriting the sentence to remove the participle entirely.

X Having fallen out the window, the teacher declared the experiment a failure.
(Implies that it was the teacher who fell out the window.)
* Having fallen out the window, the experiment was declared a failure.
* The teacher declared the experiment a failure after it fell out the window.

X After being whipped into a froth, the cook added sugar to the egg whites.
(Implies that it was the cook who was whipped into a froth.)
* After being whipped into a froth, the egg whites were incorporated with sugar.
* The cook whipped the egg whites into a froth, and then added sugar.

9. Concurrent Participles

In addition to dangling participles, there is another danger when using participle phrases, and that is the problem of concurrency. Quite often, when two actions are meant to be occurring one after the other, they are incorrectly written with a participle phrase that implies they are happening at the same time. Sometimes, this leads to quite humorous imagery:

X Putting on his pants, Phil opened the door.

This isn’t a dangling participle, because the participle is definitely referring to Phil. However, the sentence is still misleading, as it is phrased to imply that Phil is trying to open the door while putting on his pants, which is almost certainly not what is supposed to be happening. Instead, such sentences should be rewritten to clearly indicate the sequence of events:

* After putting on his pants, Phil opened the door.
* Phil put on his pants, and then opened the door.

10. Then As A Conjunction

I’m ending on this one because it can be a bit controversial. Start with this example:

? John took his physics final, then he went out for ice cream.

Plenty of people would look at this sentence and see nothing wrong with it. But, strictly speaking, it’s incorrect. The word “then” cannot be used as a coordinating conjunction to join two independent clauses. The only coordinating conjunctions are for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so — just remember the acronym FANBOYS. One way to demonstrate that “then” is not acting as a coordinating conjunction is to move the word around in that side of the sentence.

* Then he went out for ice cream.
* He then went out for ice cream.
* He went out, then, for ice cream.
* He went out for ice cream then.

It doesn’t change the meaning of the sentence to put the word in various places. Compare that to the same sentence using a coordinating conjunction:

* John took his physics final, and then he went out for ice cream.

It’s clear that the word “and” can’t be moved anywhere else in the sentence without completely destroying the structure. The coordinating conjunction is required in that place and no other to make the sentence make sense. “Then” can’t function in that capacity, and so the initial example sentence is actually a comma splice.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of editing mistakes, not even of common editing mistakes. However, these are definitely among the most glaring, but thankfully, also among the most easily fixed. They are the ones that stick out in my head as passing over my desk over and over, and I’d love to see that happen less frequently, if possible. 😉

One Comment leave one →
  1. Carole-Ann permalink
    January 30, 2012 1:05 pm

    Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you!! I’m a bit of a stickler for correct grammar, and often cringe when something doesn’t read right – even though I may not understand why 🙂

    I’ve never really grasped the correct definitions, so I couldn’t have outlined these points in the (superb) way you have just done. But they do cause a hiccup in the flow of the reading!


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