editing, Writers Co-op

A to X Writing Advice, Courtesy of Copy Chief Benjamin Dreyer

Benjamin Dreyer is the VP Executive Managing Editor & Copy Chief of Random House Publishing Group. Below is his list of the common stumbling blocks for authors, from A to X.

  • One buys antiques in an antiques store from an antiques dealer; an antique store is a very old store.
  • He stayed awhile; he stayed for a while.
  • Besides is other than; beside is next to.
  • The singular of biceps is biceps; the singular of triceps is triceps. There’s no such thing as a bicep; there’s no such thing as a tricep.
  • blond man, a blond woman; he’s a blond, she’s a blonde.

A capital is a city (or a letter, or part of a column); a capitol is a building.

  • Something centers on something else, not around it.
  • If you’re talking about a thrilling plot point, the word is climactic; if you’re discussing the weather, the word is climatic.
  • cornet is an instrument; a coronet is a crown.
  • One emigrates from a place; one immigrates to a place.
  • The word is enmity, not emnity.
  • One goes to work every day, or nearly, but eating lunch is an everyday occurrence.
  • flair is a talent; a flare is an emergency signal.
  • flier is someone who flies planes; a flyer is a piece of paper.
  • Flower bed, not flowerbed.
  • Free rein, not free reign.
  • To garner is to accumulate, as a waiter garners tips; to garnish (in the non-parsley meaning) is to take away, as the government garnishes one’s wages; a garnishee is a person served with a garnishment; to garnishee is also to serve with a garnishment (that is, it’s a synonym for “to garnish”).
  • gel is a jelly; it’s also a transparent sheet used in stage lighting. When Jell-O sets, or when one’s master plan takes final form, it either jells or gels (though I think the former is preferable).
  • Bears are grizzly; crimes are grisly. Cheap meat, of course, is gristly.
  • Coats go on hangers; planes go in hangars.
  • One’s sweetheart is “hon,” not “hun,” unless one’s sweetheart is Attila (not, by the way, Atilla) or perhaps Winnie-the-Pooh (note hyphens).
  • One insures cars; one ensures success; one assures people.
  • Lawn mower, not lawnmower.
  • The past tense of lead is led, not lead.
  • One loathes someone else but is loath to admit one’s distaste.
  • If you’re leeching, you’re either bleeding a patient with a leech or otherwise sucking someone’s or something’s lifeblood. If you’re leaching, you’re removing one substance from another by means of a percolating liquid (I have virtually no idea what that means; I trust that you do).

You wear a mantle; your fireplace has a mantel.

  • Masseurs are men; masseuses are women. Many otherwise extremely well educated people don’t seem to know this; I have no idea why. (These days they’re all called massage therapists anyway.)
  • The short version of microphone is still, so far as RH is concerned, mike. Not, ick, “mic.” [2009 update: I seem to be losing this battle. Badly. 2010 update: I’ve lost. Follow the author’s lead.]
  • There’s no such word as moreso.
  • Mucus is a noun; mucous is an adjective.
  • Nerve-racking, not -wracking; racked with guilt, not wracked with guilt.
  • One buys a newspaper at a newsstand, not a newstand.
  • An ordinance is a law; ordnance is ammo.
  • Palette has to do with color; palate has to do with taste; a pallet is, among other things, something you sleep on. Eugene Pallette was a character actor; he’s particularly good in the 1943 film Heaven Can Wait.
  • Nounwise, a premier is a diplomat; a premiere is something one attends. “Premier” is also, of course, an adjective denoting quality.
  • That which the English call paraffin (as in “paraffin stove”), we Americans call kerosene. Copy editors should keep an eye open for this in mss. by British authors and query it. The term paraffin should generally be reserved for the waxy, oily stuff we associate with candles.
  • Prophecy is a noun; prophesy is a verb.
  • Per Web 11, it’s restroom.
  • The Sibyl is a seeress; Sybil is Basil Fawlty’s wife.
  • Please don’t mix somewhat and something into one murky modifier. A thing is somewhat rare, or it’s something of a rarity.
  • tick bites; a tic is a twitch.
  • Tortuous is twisty, circuitous, or tricky; torturous is painful, or painfully slow.
  • Transsexual, not transexual.
  • Troops are military; troupes are theatrical.
  • vice is depraved; a vise squeezes.
  • Vocal cords; strikes a chord.
  • A smart aleck is a wise guy; a mobster is a wiseguy.
  • X ray is a noun; X-ray is a verb or adjective.

34 thoughts on “A to X Writing Advice, Courtesy of Copy Chief Benjamin Dreyer

  1. Great list, GD! Thanks for reposting. (Not riposting, which means . . .)

    I laughed aloud at this: “One’s sweetheart is ‘hon,’ not ‘hun,’ unless one’s sweetheart is Attila (not, by the way, Atilla) or perhaps Winnie-the-Pooh (note hyphens).”

    Here’s a mispronunciation (granted, not a spelling error) that makes my left eye twitch: When someone giving a presentation in the corporate world mispronounces three-syllable “verbiage” as two-syllable “verbage”. (“Here’s some verbage we wish you to use to use when discussing . . .” What?! You’re only suggesting verbs?)

    And this ofttimes misused phrase: “to beg the question” means “to assume the premise in your statement.” It does NOT mean “to raise the question.” If I say, “Modern art sucks because it’s crap” I have begged the question, not raised it. Stop the madness, people!

    Liked by 6 people

      • Can I beg to differ? From the Cambridge Dictionary:
        If a statement or situation begs the question, it causes you to ask a particular question:
        Spending the summer travelling around India is a great idea, but it does beg the question of how we can afford it.
        Of course this begs the question of whether the Cambridge is right.

        Liked by 5 people

        • I feel no qualms about disagreeing with the Cambridge Dictionary.  I’ve disagreed at some length with the Haiku Society of America’s official definition of the word [haiku], which does not describe what many eminent HSA members actually write.  🙂

          Tho I stoutly defend of the principle that lexicography is about how words are used (not what they “really” mean), I’m also aware that various subcultures have various usages and stoutly defend some usages as better than others.  Using [beg] in place of [raise] is like using [if] in place of [while].  People do it, but it’s confusing.

          Anyway, I am no longer a [beg] vs [raise] virgin, having been deflowered by no less than the Cambridge Dictionary.

          Liked by 4 people

        • Assuming writing to be less about being correct and more about being understood, I rely on Houghton Mifflin’s “The American Heritage Dictionary” on the grounds that (most?) English speakers understand its words well enough for me to communicate what I want understood.
          (😏Torturous sentences, however, continue to plague my thoughts.)

          Liked by 3 people

          • It has indeed changed. I remember becoming aware of it at some point a few years ago. I don’t know when that change was noted in the dictionary, but it’s actually one I have no trouble with, indeed rather welcome as I find it quite useful. As Mellow says, language is more about usage than rules, so I’m pretty relaxed about anything that reflects a general, gradual evolution. The only thing that sends me into a paroxysm of fury is it’s for its (or vice versa).

            Liked by 2 people

  2. But if the people tell you that you may rule over them in any way you wish as long as they don’t have to pay you, wouldn’t that be free free reign to reign? Or perhaps free reign to reign free. Or if someone gave you a strip of leather to replace one of a pair so you could steer your horse, that would be a free rein, right?

    I’m delighted he admitted defeat regarding “mic”. I’m sure e.e. cummings’s cousin michael resented every “mike” drop.

    Liked by 5 people

  3. mimispeike says:

    Amusing. But anytime I have the least doubt about a word or phrase, I google the hell out of it. Not so easy to pin down: punctuation, caps or not, italics or not. For instance:

    … in his everyman outfit … in his everyman outfit … in his Everyman outfit … in his Everyman outfit.

    And the like.

    Liked by 5 people

  4. victoracquista says:

    Excellent! Thanks for posting. It caused me to brush the dust off my copy of “The Superior Person’s Field Guide to Deceitful, Deceptive & Downright Dangerous Language.” Not because it’s a book about how words are misused but rather for the fun and enjoyment about using words and phrases.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Perry Palin says:

      Someone gifted me with “The Superior Person’s Complete Book of Words”. The gift was a joke, I’m sure. A now-defunct writers’ group asked members to bring something to read, and also to bring a word or phrase to discuss, and this book was a great resource for me. But in my stories I prefer not to distract a reader with strange words and phrases, or send them too often to a dictionary.

      Liked by 5 people

  5. MamaSquid says:

    I’m the Queen of smashing words together. Lawnmower doesn’t begin to cover it. My spellcheck is apoplectic. I say, if two words belong together, there’s no sense separating them. But then, I’m a hopeless romantic.

    Liked by 5 people

  6. But here’s the problem, Curtis. What do we replace that phrase with? One used to be able to say to one’s debating opponent: “You have begged the question.” Succinct, sharp, cogent riposte. Now a general audience might think: Well of course he raised it; it’s a debate! Now one must explicitly state: “You have not made your argument; you have merely engaged in sophmoric tautology: stating a premise twice.” This is why I abhor and abjure the shifted meaning that now attaches to that phrase: It destroyed a perfectly serviceable logical objection to flawed rhetoric/thinking. Thus, I argue: a muddying of linguistic waters, hence a debasement of the language.

    Liked by 3 people

    • I don’t think the earlier meaning has been replaced or is obsolete. The dictionary has both meanings so the phrase is merely ambiguous now, as a large percentage of language is, with meanings made clear by context. Of course that doesn’t mean the earlier meaning won’t mutate or disappear – but if that starts to happen I will stand resolutely by your side to defend it. Let us remain vigilant!

      Liked by 3 people

  7. Perry Palin says:

    The editor’s list is useful for writers, I guess, especially when we don’t want to distract from the message with a stumbling block of a strange phrase or a misused word.

    We should recognize, however, that language is fluid and changing. Words go out of style, and others are amended or are added to modern dictionaries, and more importantly, added to our own usage.

    Decades ago the French Academy tried to keep the French language “pure”, and it was a losing battle in the face of globalization.

    My grandparents came from Finland about 100 years ago, speaking Finnish, and my parents learned Finnish as their first language. The Finnish communities in the Upper Midwest were isolated from Finland, and bilingual by necessity. Later visitors from Finland commented on the archaic and quaint Finnish language spoken in America; in Finland, the language continued to evolve and added new words such as “imuri” that never made it into the American voices. “Imuri” is “vacuum cleaner”, something new in Finland after my grandparents left for their new lives.

    The list is helpful, but it will never be static.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Of course, Perry. No argument here! Language shifts–everywhere and always–over time. What I am against is the muddying and vulgarization of the mother tongue by hordes of cretinous, semi-literate brainstems who know not what they do …. (Cried the poverty-stricken, working class peasant drive-by readers mistook for a snobbish, ivory-tower elitist–heh!)

      PS. Now let’s all go to the lie-berry to actualize authorial intentional fallacies the better to manifest emergent synergies between content, best practices and monetization re: fiction. (fingernails-on-blackboard mispronunciation and numbing corporate-speak) :::shudder:::

      Liked by 3 people

    • Perry Palin says:

      And then there’s dialogue and dialect. My linguistics professor, Spring, 1970, said he used at least four dialects himself, one for home, one for the classroom, one for meetings of the faculty senate, and one for his frequent visits to the bait shop in town. Didn’t want to sound like a Ph.D. university professor in the bait shop that offered free coffee and donuts and had easy chairs and couches for customers to sit on to tell fishing stories.

      I shared a short story with a writers’ group that had two midwestern male 20-something characters. A member of the group said that the two characters sounded exactly alike. Well, that was what I was trying for.

      I’m working on a short story that plays out in a golf club bar in Cleveland. The two main characters are Black men in their late 20’s. That’s not my world. I’m listening to people speak, and I’m working hard to make the first person narrative and the dialogue believable. I’ve got some good resources, and I’ll need some luck.

      I had a line editor once try to change the language of a poor, rural, midwestern teenage boy to use the words of an entitled graduate student, which is what I assumed the editor was. Nope. That didn’t work for me. The words themselves were fine, but not there, in that story. They’d be a distraction, and I ignored those suggestions.

      I have a lot to learn about words and how to use them. But I’m trying, with reasons that make sense to me.

      Liked by 4 people

  8. Character dialogue is a whole different conversation. BTW: Check out Michael Chabon’s TELEGRAPH AVENUE for a recent example of a white writer getting black dialogue/dialect correct (and treating the differing black characters within the novel with character-appropriate levels of dignity and respect). For an older example, John M. Del Vecchio’s THE 13TH VALLEY (which I am currently rereading). Or Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn (which contains eight different types of dialect:(1) Missouri Negro; (2) backwoods Southwestern; (3) the “ordinary Pike County”; (4) “proper” era-appropriate English, and finally (4) four variations of modified “Pike County.” Whew!

    Liked by 3 people

    • Perry Palin says:

      I’m not familiar with your first two cited resources. I should look for them. Mark Twain’s dialects are a part of each character, and they work for me because I wouldn’t otherwise know how people in Missouri spoke in the 1840’s. My resources are urban Black men, including one who grew up poor, lived in Cleveland for a time, spent time in a golf club bar there, and as a teacher, manager, and supervisor was a keen observer of speech and behavior. Others include Black men from Chicago and Minneapolis who worked for the same employers that I worked for.

      Liked by 5 people

  9. mimispeike says:

    Dialogue is a problem for me. I was told by an editor that my characters sound alike. And they do. My people are all schemers and grifters. I’ve tried to make my two boys more childlike in their speech. I’ve modeled my archbishop on the man who played Santa Claus in Miracle on Thirty-fourth Street, that’s how he sounds to me as I write him.

    My people are all elites, or wanna-be elites, playing the part. And the language they speak is not English–except for Sly, born and raised in Northern England–but he’s not speaking English in Haute-Navarre and who knows what a cat sounds like anyway. I resort to strategies. Spontaneity. Measured, reflective, etc. But my speeches have to be appropriate to the situation so, yes, my characters often sound alike.

    In book three, Sly, back in England, has some lengthy conversations with a pig and a cow. I work in some rural, sixteenth century style accents and grammar there.

    Liked by 4 people

    • No, I’ve read many of your stories, Mimi, and it never occurred to me that your characters sound alike. They don’t. Each expresses themself differently because each has their own take on the situation. The situations and the characters springs from a common source, you. But it’s your author’s voice telling their stories that makes them delight-full. Ignore editors who simply don’t “get it.”

      Liked by 3 people

      • mimispeike says:

        Thank you for that, GD. This is the point I’m most concerned about.

        I should write that criticism off. I’ve written off eighty percent of her other comments and am confident in that dismissal. Why can’t I let go of this one?

        I’m still hunting for a missed quotation mark here, a changed tense there, while I finish the cover. But, on the whole, Sly is what it is.

        Liked by 3 people

  10. Dislexics and wryters unite agianst the vile ohpression of lyberal speling. Moreso, I procliam,
    herewith and henceforth, the word ‘moreso’ defined and validated forever. Down with dastardly dislexia dyscrimination. All frie spirits must fite the evil spel-chekkers, grammar-bots, stile bookers, and auto-sugjestors for the lyberty of the Inglish tongue.

    Liked by 3 people

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