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A Word, Please: ‘Little tells’ stand out in unprofessional writing

A few years back, a friend surprised me with a gift: a desk plaque bearing the phrase, “I’m silently correcting your grammar.”

I put it next to my computer, snapped a picture and sent the photo to my friend to express my gratitude.

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Then I pushed the plaque a little farther back on my desk. A few weeks later, it was scooched back a little more, then more, until it reached the sweet spot between “grateful for the gift” and “I don’t want people to think I mean this.”

You see, I’m not silently correcting your grammar. I understand that even the most educated people use informal language when they talk and that they make errors when they write.

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There’s also the matter of glass houses. So unless your grammar is off-the-charts bad, I judge you to be human.

But I’m not as kind toward published writing. In the pro-wordsmithing realm, error-free prose or nearly error-free prose serves an important purpose.

It says you’re serious about serving the reader. Your form reflects on your content: Careful, meticulous grammar, spelling and punctuation signal that you put great care into your information-gathering, too.

When text isn’t professionally edited, I notice. And obvious grammar errors aren’t the only mistakes that tip me off. Little tells — rules professional editors follow that other people don’t know about — always give the amateur away.

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Here are just a few of the tells that can tip your hand.

“Multi-million dollar” instead of “multimillion-dollar.” This compound is almost always used as an adjective in front of a noun, like a multimillion-dollar home or a multimillion-dollar deal. Compound adjectives are usually hyphenated, as we see in a simpler example like “a good-looking dog.”

Prefixes are attached without hyphens in most cases where doing so doesn’t cause confusion or look too weird. So: nonprofit and reread, but anti-establishment and post-1950. That’s why “multi” doesn’t need a hyphen to attach to “million,” but “multimillion” needs one to join forces with “dollar” and create a compound adjective.

Theatre. Wouldn’t it be neat if “theater” meant a place to see movies but the loftier, say-it-with-a-posh-accent “theatre” meant a place to see live performance art? Well, they don’t. In American English, the preferred spelling is “theater” for both.

“Premiere” as an adjective. According to the dictionary, it’s OK to say your new software is the premiere anti-virus program on the market. But if you do, I’ll know your text wasn’t professionally edited. Publishers use “premier” to mean “No. 1” or “leading” (or a prime minister) and “premiere” to mean a first showing or performance.

Hi-rise, lo-res. These don’t count as mistakes. But in my experience, pros don’t abbreviate “high” or “low.” They use “high-rise” for buildings and “low-res” for low-resolution.

Columbia for Colombia. This one shouldn’t be insider information. It’s a simple matter of correct spelling. But you’d be surprised how seldom American writers seem to get this one right. For the record, the country name has no U in it.

“In order to.” Professional editors frown on words that add nothing. In most cases, “in order to” is about as useful as “truly” (that is: not at all useful). “In order to get a good seat, arrive early” is better without those first two words.

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Lowercase “it” and “is” in headlines. Headline capitalization doesn’t follow a strict set of rules. But certain standards are popular among pros. Short prepositions like “in” usually start with lowercase letters: “Two Days in the Valley.” The words “is” and “it,” though as diminutive as “in,” are not prepositions. They’re a verb and a pronoun, respectively — important parts of speech critical for forming clauses. So the I is capitalized in “Life Is a Beach.”

Ampersands in running text: “Jones & Zander opened their restaurant in 2008.” Real editors use real words, like “and,” except in certain brand names and graphic elements like tables and bulleted lists.

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