An Editor’s Musings on Usage and Style
By Ken White, Editor / Writer
I have always enjoyed English, but freely admit the language can be confounding. Certain mistakes drive me crazy, though. Writers and editors serve our readers by taking the appropriate time to create clear, concise, accurate messages rather than rushing them to the page or screen and out into the world. Panic to produce, and making errors because of it, potentially cause reader confusion or cast an unwanted light on the issue, the message, the company, the writer. Let’s look at a few of my favorite topics.
Some words / terms often confused
Fewer, Less: If you can count them, use “fewer”. If you can’t count them but measure them in some other way (quantities, time, portions), use “less”. “Fewer” people drive their own cars when adequate public transportation exists. As a result, “less” gasoline is consumed and “fewer” particulates fill the air, not to mention “less” carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, unburned hydrocarbons, and carbon dioxide. In standard usage, these words are becoming interchangeable, although some readers will cringe with their misuse. Do you speak with “less” people or “fewer” people on a slow day?
Farther, Further: In the U.S., we use “farther” to indicate measurable physical distance (think “far”), and “further” in all other cases. “Further” is a word in transition, and we often see it describe physical distance. Do you travel “farther down the road” or “further down the road”? Both are common in current usage. Is there any significant difference? “Further” can also imply a metaphorical version of distance. When selecting which to use, ask yourself, “Does either one sound incorrect?” Follow your best instincts while keeping the basic guideline in mind when everything seems equal (“farther” for actual distance; “further” for everything else).
Its vs. It’s / Your vs. You’re: People most often associate apostrophes with possessives. In the case of “it’s”, however, the apostrophe indicates contraction. “It’s” means “it is” whereas “its” indicates possession. “Its” vs. “It’s” is the most common mistaken usage I see: “It’s” everywhere. Why people confuse “your” and “you’re” is beyond me; most often, it seems the word “your” presents the problem. Remember to check if “you’re” using a contraction for “you are” or if “your” mind has wandered off. I believe “you’re” correct to think that “your” improper selection drives “your” readers crazy.
Loose vs. Lose: Oddly, often confused. “Loose” is usually an adjective. “Lose” is primarily a verb. “Loose” clothes are typically more comfortable than tight clothes. In the end, you generally “lose” money when you gamble at a casino. I must admit, I “lose” my train of thought when I see these words mistaken for each other.
Than vs. Then: Again, oddly, often mixed up. Perhaps incorrect selection results from the similar pronunciation of the two words in some dialects. Use “than” for comparisons (an elephant is larger “than” a mouse). Use “then” in reference to time sequence (a mouse slowly approached an elephant; “then” the elephant noticed the little critter); and use “then” in logical “if…then” constructions (“if” an elephant is startled by a mouse scurrying near its feet, “then” it might overreact and run away – just as it could if it were surprised by any other small creature). When I see “Five is greater then three” constructions, I find myself immediately question the correctness of the writer’s statement of fact – never a good thing.
Note: Many consider “then” in “if…then” constructions to be understood without including the word “then.” I agree that writers can drop “then” in most such instances as long as its absence does not negatively affect comprehension. I find myself removing “then” in these cases quite consistently.
Their, There, They’re: First thing to notice is they all start with “the” so “thier” is never correct. “Their” is the possessive. “There” refers to a place (also – read on). “They’re” is a contraction for “they are”. We also use “there” in passive voice constructions to replace the idea “exist”. This construction is acceptable, although rewording will often strengthen a sentence. For example, “There are people in the hall” can be strengthened by using “People occupy the hall”. Too many “There is…” and “There are…” uses weaken the overall message.
To, Too, Two: The first is the preposition; the second means “also” or “as well” or “to a greater degree” or “excessive”; the third is the number. “To” rather than “too” when intending to mean “excessive” or “also” is an incredibly common mistake.
Some thoughts on style / usage (can be specific to creator organization)
Guidelines for quotation marks and related punctuation: In addition to direct quotes, I use quotation marks around titles of articles, episodes, chapters, scenes, songs, and other such subsections of a primary, longer composition or compilation. I prefer double quotation marks (e.g., “ ”). Quotation marks are also used to indicate special usage of a word, such as one not normally used in the written context presented. Keep in mind, however, that quotation marks around a word or phrase may inadvertently signal the reader to use a pseudo, opposite, ironic, or sarcastic interpretation (think of how “air quotes” are used in conversation).
Although quotation marks are sometimes used by writers to indicate emphasis, because of the sarcastic / ironic potential for reader comprehension, an editor will typically ask a graphic designer to make a different choice, including bold, bold-italic, use of color, increased relative point size, etc. I use single quotation marks (e.g., ‘ ’) only for quotes within quotes.
For placement relative to other punctuation, style guides differ. I follow standard U.S. practice and place periods and commas inside quotation marks (with exception, see below); question marks and exclamation points outside quotation marks (unless the punctuation is part of a direct quote or intended sentence/question); colons and semicolons outside quotation marks. Exception: The period / comma exception applies when a word is referred to as a word, or a word or phrase is used figuratively or in a nonstandard way. When a word is in quotation marks because it is being referred to as a word, or such a word or phrase appears in a list of examples to help a definition, or when a word or phrase is used figuratively, commas and periods move outside the quotation marks (unless the comma or period is part of an example). Note: It wouldn’t be English if there weren’t exceptions to the exception, right?
Semicolons could be called super-commas (I did not invent the term, but I like it): Semicolons are not closely related to colons, appearance notwithstanding. Rather, semicolons are a comma’s big, tough sister – a super-comma – or a period’s smaller little brother – a three-quarter period. Hint to avoid confusion between colons and semicolons: A colon joins or introduces, and resembles an equal sign ( = ); a semicolon separates or divides. A semicolon indicates a greater division in thought than a comma, but less than a period. It is most commonly used to separate items in lists while avoiding excessive use of conjunctions between groups of items. If one or more listed item(s) include(s) a comma, semicolons are required to separate primary items. Its second-most-common use is to link independent clauses when the second clause begins with a conjunctive adverb – a transition word such as “however” or “therefore”. While semicolons have other uses, such as linking two independent clauses in place of a “comma-and” construction, these are less common. Notably, some writers and editors avoid semicolons completely; however, I believe they continue to have appropriate uses. The two most common are as follows:
- To separate independent clauses without an intervening conjunction but with a transitory conjunctive adverb like “however”. A writer could use a period and form two different sentences. A semicolon creates a stronger bond between the two independent clauses than two separate sentences would convey.
- To separate list items that contain internal punctuation (generally, commas).
When in doubt…
When you are in doubt, look it up – use a dictionary and a style guide – make a decision – and most importantly, be consistent within your document.
The English language evolves, grows, and changes, somewhat unchecked. Although there are no official English language referees, certain usages may distract readers from the writer’s intended message if experienced by the reader as improper. So, as communicators, we try to understand our audience first, and write for them. Our goal: Clear communication.
As always … write on!
Note: Some of the contents of this article appeared in an earlier LinkedIn piece by the same author.
Ken White has 30 years of experience editing and writing for financial industry firms, focusing on marketing, field communications, corporate communications, request-for-proposal responses, and social media. He is Corporate Editor | Writer | Communications Specialist for Sigma Financial Corporation / Parkland Securities, LLC / Sigma Planning Corporation.