12 More Quick Fixes
That’ll Make You Look Even Smarter:
…or How To Impress An Editor

Absolute Blank

By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

In the original Quick Fixes article, I covered some basic spelling, grammar, and punctuation issues. Nearly two years have passed since then, and I’m pleased to announce that it seems everyone read my article and took my advice to heart. Those errors, once so common, are never seen anymore!

Ha ha! Oh, all right. The abuse of the apostrophe continues. Corporations—who can well afford to hire someone who knows how to properly place an apostrophe—omit it where it should be used, witness Tim Hortons (sic) and Earls (sic). Those are possessives, people! But not to fear, those dropped apostrophes aren’t lost, only misplaced—one can’t pick up a flyer or walk past a store window without being bombarded by DVD’s, tea’s, apple’s, sofa’s, and book’s. Eeeeee! It’s enough to drive a grammarian to drink.

But enough about the poor maligned apostrophe. We’re here to discuss some new peeves, er, issues. This article is the culmination of the list of errors I’ve been keeping since the first article came out.

  1. It’s a T-SHIRT, not a tee shirt.

This is a curious one, because it requires the writer to type two extra characters, which in the age of netspeak—b4, 2day, l8r, etc.—is a lot. Nevertheless, it’s an error that’s been popping up frequently. So let’s put an end to it. T-shirts are named after the letter T, which they resemble when laid out flat. A tee is the little wooden thing a golf ball sits on. It has nothing to do with shirts.

  1. A or AN?

AN goes before words that start with a vowel sound, i.e. words that start with a vowel or words that start with a silent H: honor, honest, hour. If you pronounce the consonant, as in historical, it’s A not AN.A goes before words that start with a consonant sound, i.e. words that start with a consonant or words that start with a vowel that sounds like a consonant: ukulele, unicorn, one.When in doubt, sound it out. One word that’s tricky is herb, which can be pronounced with a silent or an audible H. Use A or AN, depending on how you pronounce the word.

AN A
an apple a pear
an honor a historical drama
an herb, if you pronounce it “erb” with a silent H a herb, if you pronounce it “herb” with an audible H
an usher a ukulele
an octopus a one-shot deal
  1. Don’t PLURALIZE UNNECESSARILY.

Just as people have become inordinately fond of inserting apostrophes where they aren’t needed, they have also become fond of randomly adding an S to the end of words that don’t need to be pluralized. For some reason, this is especially true when it comes to trademarks and tradenames, which means you’ll often see sentences such as:

  • My mom has a box full of Legos stored in her attic.
  • You can buy my book at Barnes & Nobles.
  • Fred is the meat manager at Safeways.

Lego, Barnes & Noble, and Safeway do not end in S. Never pluralize tradenames when you’re writing about one of whatever it is. That is simply wrong. Similarly, acronyms should not be randomly pluralized:

  • Jane was dissatisfied with her 97th percentile score on the LSATs.

It’s the Law School Admission Test, not Tests. There is no reason to pluralize LSAT in this sentence.

Adding an S to pluralize a tradename is generally acceptable in informal writing:

  • While pulling an all-nighter, Sam drank six Cokes.
  • There are three Safeways in town.

There are exceptions, however. Lego works fine as both a singular and a plural—just like deer, fish, and sheep do:

  • My mom has a box full of Lego stored in her attic.

In formal writing, tradenames should only be used as modifiers, not nouns: Lego bricks, Barnes & Noble bookstores.

By the way, anyway, forward, backward, toward, etc. are all perfectly good words without the addition of an S. While both versions are acceptable, the sans-S versions are more formal. It’s fine to use the more colloquial S versions in dialogue, but your writing will sound more professional if you don’t do it elsewhere.

  1. PREMIER vs. PREMIERE.

While it’s true that both words mean “first” in French, in English, premier and premiere are two different words, each with its own meaning (and pronunciation).

Premier can be used as an adjective to mean first in rank or importance:

  • The chef only uses premier cuts of meat.

Used as a noun, premier is synonymous with prime minister (the chief executive in a parliamentary government):

  • While he was vacationing in Hawaii, Premier Campbell was arrested for driving under the influence.

On the other hand, a premiere is the first performance of a play or movie:

  • All the A-list celebrities showed up for the premiere.

Premiere can also be used as verb:

  • The movie premiered on May 1st.
  1. ANYMORE does not mean NOWADAYS.

I have a friend who uses anymore to mean nowadays, as in:

  • Anymore, I shop at Pottery Barn. (Meaning: Nowadays, I do shop at Pottery Barn.)

When I first heard her do this, it struck me as wrong, but I couldn’t put my finger on why it bugged me. Apparently I’m not alone. As Paul Brians says: it’s “guaranteed to jolt listeners … Even if they can’t quite figure out what’s wrong.” Exactly.

Using anymore in this fashion is acceptable in dialogue, because people do talk this way. But not otherwise. Anymore (or any more—either form is acceptable, though any more is less common nowadays ;-)) is a term of negation. Use it when you mean that someone doesn’t do something that they used to do:

  • I don’t shop at Pier One anymore. (Meaning: I used to shop at Pier One, but I stopped.)
  1. An ELLIPSIS consists of three dots.

Not two, not four, not ten. Three.

Ellipses are used to indicate omission. If you’re quoting another writer and you leave out part of the passage, indicate the omission by inserting an ellipsis:

  • “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you probably want to know is where I was born and what my lousy childhood was like … but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.” –JD Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye

If the omission comes at the end of a sentence, a space should be left between the period and the ellipsis:

  • “When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. … His left arm was somewhat shorter than his right; when he stood or walked, the back of his hand was at right angles to his body, his thumb parallel to his thigh.” –Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

Ellipses can also be used in dialogue to indicate that the speaker is trailing off or that her speech has become inaudible:

  • “I wish I knew what to do,” Brandy said, “If only Bob were here…”
  1. EM DASHES vs. EN DASHES vs. HYPHENS

Em dashes are the long dashes used to offset a section of text—like so. Word will automatically create an em dash if you type two hyphens together flush to the text on either side (no spaces). But beware: this formatting won’t always translate to other programs. For example, if you’re sending a submission via plain text e-mail, the dash will probably turn into a single hyphen-like this. Notice how “hyphen-like” ends up looking like a compound word. If you send a lot of electronic submissions, you may want to turn off the auto-formatting, and use two hyphens in place of a dash (the old typewriter method) so there is no confusion.

Dashes can be used as a more informal way than a colon to introduce a list or explanation at the end of a sentence:

  • My first celebrity crush was Randolph Mantooth—John Gage on Emergency!

They can also be used in pairs (much like parentheses) to indicate a digression from your main train of thought:

  • Melissa—the class valedictorian—only dates boys whose names begin with A.

They are also used in dialogue to indicate that the speaker has broken off suddenly or has been interrupted in mid-speech. Note the subtle difference between the use of a dash in dialogue and the use of an ellipsis in dialogue:

  • “I wish I knew what to do. If only—” Brandy turned as Bob ran into the room.

En dashes are shorter than em dashes, but longer than hyphens. They’re generally used to connect numbers that are inclusive. Word will create an en dash if you type a hyphen (or two) with a space on either side. Like em dashes, en dashes should be flush to the text on either side, so delete the spaces once the dash is created:

  • The Athens Olympics will be held August 13–29, 2004.
  • Reception: 7–9 p.m.

For electronic submission purposes, a hyphen will suffice, but if you’re printing a hard copy, use the en dash. Note that it’s difficult to see the difference between the en dash and the hyphen in some fonts, like Verdana, but they are different, as you can see here in Times New Roman: — – –

Hyphens are used to make compound words: quick-witted, e-mail, bow-legged, co-operative, and to separate non-inclusive numbers such as phone numbers: 1-800-555-1234. Like dashes, hyphens should be flush to the text on either side, with one exception, the hanging hyphen, which has a space after it:

  • There are both four- and five-year-olds in Billy’s kindergarten class.
  1. Leave ONE SPACE after periods, not two.

If you learned to type on a typewriter, you were probably taught to leave two spaces after a period. This is because typewriters use fixed-width fonts, i.e. each character takes up the same amount of space. Leaving two spaces after a period made it easier for readers to distinguish where one sentence ended and another began.With proportional fonts, characters take up proportional amounts of space, e.g. m is wider than l. Word processing programs automatically adjust the spaces between words. If you place two spaces after each period, your text will not kern properly and you’ll end up with rivers of white space running down your pages.

  1. Don’t use BEING to imply BECAUSE.

I hate it when writers start sentences with being:

  • Being seventeen, Joy works at McDonald’s.

Yecch. Such sentences have always irritated me—at the very least, they sound clunky—but are they technically wrong? Actually, yes. The problem with such sentences is that being is used to imply because (the technical term is “misrelated participle”), i.e. Joy works at McDonald’s because she is 17. But really, the first sentence doesn’t actually tell the reader anything more than: Joy, 17, works at McDonald’s. Readers must decide what the connection is between the two facts on their own. A much better sentence would be:

  • 17-year-old Joy works at McDonald’s because it’s the only place in town that hires teenagers.
  1. Make sure you’re using the RIGHT WORD.

A malapropism is the substitution of a similar-sounding word for the one actually intended. Sometimes the consequences are amusing; other times they’re just baffling. Dubya Bush isn’t the only person prone to malapropisms; I often come across them while reading submissions.

While malapropisms are sometimes due to ignorance, I think what often happens is than in the midst of a creative jag, writers will plug in a word that sounds like it might be the right one but isn’t—e.g. “hyperbolic chamber” instead of “hyperbaric chamber”—fully intending to go back and change it later. Then, in the editing process, it gets missed. That’s not surprising; the writer knows what he meant and his eyes glide over the word, giving it the intended interpretation. This is why it’s important to have someone else proofread your work!

  1. Use ITALICS to indicate EMPHASIS, not quotation marks.

Quotation marks are almost as popular as apostrophes these days:

  • Mmm! “Juicy” tomatoes!!!
  • Have we got a “surprise” for you!
  • Please park in “back.”

The primary purpose of quotation marks is to indicate that something is being quoted. It could be a passage from someone else’s writing or dialogue in a story. Their secondary purpose is that of the “air quote” variety, used to indicate irony. When you stick quotation marks around a word or phrase, the implication is that what you’re saying isn’t really true:

  • Mom and Aunt Joyce are out on the back porch drinking “coffee.” (Meaning they’re drinking alcohol, but we’re maintaining a polite fiction that they’re drinking coffee.)

Speaking of coffee, the most famous of all air quotes would probably be the post-date:

  • Would you like to come up to my place for “coffee”? (Meaning… well, you know.)

As for those tomatoes, “juicy” implies that the tomatoes are something other than actually juicy. “Surprise” implies there’s really no surprise or the surprise is something you won’t enjoy. If you want to emphasize something, use italics: Please park in back.

  1. When there isn’t a wrong or a right, SPELL CONSISTENTLY.

There are often two correct ways to spell a word: glamor/glamour, theater/theatre, judgment/judgement, check/cheque, gray/grey, traveling/travelling. Journalists are usually taught to go with the first-listed version in the dictionary, which apparently is why words like adviser and intervener have gained in popularity over advisor and intervenor in recent years.

If you’re a staff writer, you would be wise to learn your publication’s style and write to it. However, if you’re freelance writing, you’ll find that each publication has a slightly different style. For example, The New Yorker uses coöperate and coördinate, rather than hyphenating (co-operate) or merging the prefix with the word (cooperate). You’d go mad trying to adjust your spelling each time you submit a piece. So unless a publication specifically asks you to use a particular spelling, use whatever version you prefer, just use it consistently! Don’t meander between judgment and judgement as if you didn’t know whether one was right or couldn’t decide which one you liked best. As long as you’re consistent and correct, no reasonable editor will hold your spelling choices against you.


With thanks to my favorite grammar sites: Owl Online Writing Lab, Paul Brians’s Common Errors in English, and the Guide to Grammar and Writing, as well as: John M. Lawler, Get it Write, The Keables Guide, and Fun With Words.

Final Poll Results

Print Friendly, PDF & Email