If you’ve ever had your work edited by a professional editor, you might find yourself conducting a virtual conversation with him or her as you review the edits. “Oh! Good catch,” you may murmur to your computer screen. Then, you squint at another edit, wondering why the heck he or she thought that was important enough to red-line. Does it really matter whether a number is spelled out when it appears at the beginning of a sentence and written as a number in the middle of one? Or maybe there are instances where you have no idea the grammar or usage rule that your editor used to make a change, so you shrug and accept the change on blind faith.
Ah, the wonderful and maddening complexities of English grammar.
The catches that a good editor can find may sometimes seem nitpicky or even insignificant, but often what seems unimportant can alter the meaning or clarity of your words. Studies have shown that readers doubt an author’s credibility as a professional in his/her field if even a minor editing mistake is found in the material. Maybe unfair, since knowing what a comma splice doesn’t necessarily mean you aren’t a good web developer or child psychologist, but there you have it. So, as my mother used to say, say what you mean and mean what you say. You’ll come across better both in your intention as a writer and as a professional in your field.
Here are a few simple things to catch in your own writing:
“fewer” refers to numbers of things: pencils, people, or dogs. “Less” refers to an amount of something: water, sadness, or importance. In my experience, “less” is more commonly misused than “fewer.”
You wouldn’t say, “I have fewer water in my glass”—you would say, “I have less water.” Similarly, you wouldn’t say, “There are less dogs here at the dog park today than yesterday.” You would say, “There are fewer…”
singular noun (“author”) with plural pronoun (“their”)
This is an extremely common one. Often, authors will write something like, “The client (single noun) may redeem their (plural pronoun) coupon” to avoid the cumbersome he/she pronoun problem (“The client may redeem his or her coupon”). It’s annoying and sometimes confusing to have to write gender-specific singular pronouns (he/she) when referring to people when the subject’s gender isn’t even important to the sentence—again, the complexities of the English language!
Unfortunately, there aren’t currently non-gender-specific pronouns to use when referring to living beings (except “its,” which, when referring to a person is considered dehumanizing), so the best course of action is to try to avoid the need for the singular pronoun. For example, the example above could be re-written as: “Clients (plural noun) may redeem their (plural pronoun) coupons.”
Or, even better, remove the need for the pronoun altogether: “Clients may redeem coupons.”
This takes a little fiddling around with, but with a little practice, can be done!
it’s is a contraction for “it is” and its is a possessive pronoun. So, “It’s raining today,” and “Its center was gooey.”
inconsistencies in presentation
(type 2 diabetes; Type II Diabetes, adult-onset diabetes)
This is especially common for authors writing in the medical profession, but can spring up anywhere specialized language is used.
There can often be several terms for the same condition (example: the medical term for a lazy eye is amblyopia), or sometimes different ways of referring to a condition (bipolar II disorder or Bipolar 2 Disorder). Consistency in presentation is important to avoid confusing the reader (who may not be as medically knowledgeable as you) as to whether you’re referring to the same disease or condition or not. It’s also important to show the reader that you’re as thorough, conscientious, and detailed a writer as you are a professional in your trained field. So, find the most widely accepted or the most specific term—whichever fits your goals most in your particular context—and stick to it!
Often (and incorrectly) used interchangeably, these brief combinations of letters make most writers pause, mostly because their ancient definitions are a little unclear. i.e. is Latin for “that is,” which means a definition or clarification is about to follow.
So, use i.e. when you’re about to redefine something:
“The banana was ripe—i.e., it was yellow.”
e.g. is Latin for “exempli gratia” or “for the sake of example.” Think of it as another way of saying, “For example.”
“There were socks of many colors on the rack, e.g., purple, red, orange, and blue.”
One easy way to remember the difference between i.e. and e.g. is that e.g. looks like “egg,” which sounds like “example.”
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