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Five editorial bêtes noires

by John Pettigrew

All editors have them – those infelicities or mistakes that get under your skin and cause annoyance out of all proportion to the offence. Here are five of my ‘favourite’ irritations. What are yours?

One of the joys of the editor’s life is dealing with the wonderful mess that is the English language. We’re all taught a huge number of ‘rules’ that must be obeyed, like “Don’t split infinitives” or “Don’t end sentences with prepositions”, and eventually come to the realisation that most of them are hogwash.

The editor’s job is to ride the ragged line between what the reader will perceive as ‘correct’ English and a dreadful formalism that kills the author’s voice and removes any life from the text. But, nonetheless, there are always rules to follow, guidelines to reflect, house style to apply.

Over time, though, we all accumulate our personal tics and preferences. Most, we hope, reflect ‘good’ English – even as we know that some are just personal preference or sometimes even just prejudice. Here are five of my own. Feel free to tell me which you disagree with, and to share your own little quirks, in the comments below!

Spurious subclauses

This has been a big one for me over the past few years.

“The Prime Minister, David Cameron, told a joke in Parliament.”

“The comedian Jimmy Carr told a joke in Parliament.”

The first sentence above contains a nondefining subclause – there’s only one Prime Minister of the UK, so giving his name is an aside and thus properly separated by commas. The name in the second sentence, though, is a defining subclause – there are many comedians in the world and so we need to be told which one told the joke. And defining subclauses don’t have commas (just like the classic “that/which” dilemma).

The problem is that commas seem to be being used in the second case more and more often. In written English, this is a bit annoying (the slight feeling that Jimmy Carr is The Comedian in some absolute way!). But, worse, it’s even creeping into spoken English on TV and the radio – presumably because people are reading it from their scripts. And it really makes no sense at all in that context!

Unnecessary -selfing

“One of the assistants or myself will be with you soon.”

This one seems to be the result of “I want to sound polite” but actually just seems really clumsy every time I hear it. What’s wrong with the simple word “I” or “me”?

Underway

This one is, I have to admit, pretty much a personal foible (the desired meaning is in most dictionaries). But it really annoys me when I see people writing that a meeting or a car journey “got underway”. What is this thing, “underway” that the meeting seized hold of? Surely you mean, “under way”? Or would you be just has happy saying that “I’m onmyway to the restaurant” or “The restaurant is ontheway to the shops”?

Till

Again, I may be in the minority on this one, but the correct abbreviation for “until” is surely “til” (or even “ ’til”) rather than “till” – the latter being something a shopkeeper keeps her money in!

Oxford comma

And, to finish, a really controversial one! I know that for many people, especially Americans, the use of the Oxford comma (sometimes called the terminal comma, and seen in lists like “the football teams wore red and blue, and black and white”) approaches religious dogma. Being something of a minimalist, however, I have to say that I don’t see any need for the Oxford comma unless it’s needed to clarify the sense. So, for example, I don’t see any point in using it when a list is clear, simple and succinct. (See what I did there?)

Leading

A bonus one: using “lead” as the past tense of the verb “lead”. Whatever happened to “led”?

So, there are some of my little tics. What are yours?

About the author

Hat wearer, recovering editor and now CEO & Founder of We Are Futureproofs, John Pettigrew has over 15 years of experience in educational, illustrated and academic publishing, and a history of successful print and digital product development.

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Comments

 Nico Macdonald – July 14, 2015

Mine is a meta journalist bêtes noire, which is concluding an article (or a broadcast piece) with ‘time will tell’. In my view, it’s the job of a journalist to analyse a situation and at least describe the parameters within which a situation will develop. Otherwise they just sound lazy.

     John Pettigrew – July 16, 2015

    Thanks, Nico. It’s strange how this stuff can get under your skin, isn’t it? 🙂

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