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A Word, Please: Some editing errors can blindside you, but don’t despair

Editing and proofreading might seem like a dull profession. Scanning page after page for errant commas, badly conjugated verbs and the occasional misused “whom” sounds dull indeed.

But in fact, the job is often terrifying. Errors you didn’t expect — including errors you didn’t know existed — can broadside you when you least expect it. And the mistakes you’re not looking out for are the easiest ones to miss.

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Here are a few errors and issues that came at me out of the blue recently.

“The care we deliver is of the upmost quality.” For all the countless times I’ve heard people use the word “utmost,” I don’t recall ever seeing it in print. The first consonant is never well enunciated.

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So, it’s possible that every time I’ve thought I heard “utmost,” I was either mishearing “upmost” or the speaker was mispronouncing it. Turns out, these words are both right. “Upmost” means “uppermost,” often suggesting physical height or things in the 3-D world.

“Utmost” usually suggests metaphorical heights or extremes, like “the utmost importance.” The words are somewhat interchangeable. But I replaced “upmost” with “utmost” anyway.

“The blog highlights great limited-time offers, coupons redeemable at brick-and-mortar retailers and e-commerce websites, as well as general tips for stretching the family budget.”

The mistake in this passage is sneaky, indeed: “as well as” should be replaced with “and.” That’s because the conjunction “and” has some unique properties that “as well as” simply doesn’t possess.

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“And” can signal the last item in a list of three or more items. “As well as” can’t. It’s “bacon, eggs and toast,” not “bacon, eggs as well as toast.” In long sentences, it’s easy to forget that you need an “and” before the last one.

Our sentence above should say “ … limited-time offers, coupons redeemable at brick-and-mortar retailers and e-commerce websites, AND general tips …”

Here’s another error I came across: “The goal is to position ABC Roofing as both a leader in the local home-repair industry and strengthen its name recognition.”

The word “both” can be bad news. My personal peeve is seeing it before two plural nouns, as in “Both parents and teachers enjoy the new app.” This isn’t wrong. It’s just disorienting.

“Both parents” sounds as though you’re talking about just two people. True, it doesn’t take long for the reader to figure out that “both” is modifying two nouns together, parents and teachers. But my philosophy is that if you can avoid leading readers down the wrong path, even if it’s a very short path, do it. That’s why I took “both” out of that sentence.

“We’re a local leader in providing high-quality, patient-centered healthcare.” There’s no error here — unless it appears in a publication produced by the hospital group whose copy I was editing.

Their style is “health care.” So it’s not enough for me to know that both “healthcare” and “health care” are acceptable. I have to know which to use in any given situation.

“The Dawsons adopted a beautiful, friendly, German shepherd.”

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Most of us are never taught that in a sentence like this it’s appropriate to put a comma between “beautiful” and “friendly” but not between “friendly” and “German.” That’s because “German” has a more powerful connection to “shepherd” than “friendly” does. You can’t just change the order of these modifiers: “a German, beautiful, friendly shepherd.”

When adjectives all have the same relationship with the noun, put commas between them: a friendly, beautiful, energetic dog. But when they’re not on equal footing with the noun or with each other, no commas: a great big social media faux pas.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of “The Joy of Syntax: A Simple Guide to All the Grammar You Know You Should Know.”

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