A Word, Please: Some grammar errors are common but still wrong

Years ago, I worked for a team of editors who hired someone from another department in the company.

It became clear pretty quickly that the newly minted editor was out of his element — not the born wordsmith his colleagues were.


Like those other editors, he would send me, the copy editor, an email to tell me when an article was waiting to be reviewed in a shared computer folder.

But, whereas the others would tell me there was a story waiting for me in the queue, he would report he’d sent me something in the “cue.”


Some things you’ve just got to know. If you’ve heard the expression “eek out a living,” you’re not going to check your dictionary to see if that’s a valid definition of “eek.”

Only by having read and noted, either consciously or subconsciously, that the correct term is “eke out a living,” would you understand that “eek” is an error.

Here are some other things that, as I’ve learned in my editing career, you’ve just got to know.

Ordnance. I once edited an article that mentioned “unexploded ordinance.” An ordinance is a rule or law passed by a local government, often dealing with things like parking or potholes, which are unlikely to massively combust.


The writer wanted “ordnance,” which means military weapons, often artillery, which you don’t want left lying around unexploded.

Till. Everyone, or almost everyone, uses the one-syllable alternative to “until.” It’s pretty natural to assume that the shorter term is actually a shortened form, a truncation that lobs off the first syllable and replaces it with an apostrophe: ’til.

You can contract it that way if you like, but you’ll be out of sync with every professional editing style in American English. They all agree that the term you want is “till.” This did not evolve from an error. “Till” actually predates “until” and means essentially the same thing.

Commas around “etc.” The abbreviation “etc.” is a bad choice for news-quality writing because journalism calls for specificity. Terms like “etc.” and “and much more!” gloss over details and serve as sort of a cop-out by the writer.

But in marketing writing and feature articles, these terms have their place. In the case of “etc.,” that place is between commas. “Traditional use dictates that the abbreviation ‘etc.’ … is preceded and (unless it ends a sentence) followed by a comma,” according to the Chicago Manual of Style.

Sleight. If you’ve heard someone talk about a magician doing card tricks, you may have heard the expression “slight of hand.” But if you’d read those same words, you would have seen “sleight of hand.” The noun “sleight” means deceitful craftiness and it can also mean dexterity or skill.

Out of curiosity, I did a Google search for the word “sleight” minus the words “of” and “hand.” Except for a German film by that title and some references to people with the last name Sleight, I found no indication that people uses this word outside the “sleight of hand” expression.

No serial comma before an ampersand. The serial comma, also known as the Oxford comma, has a lot of fans. It’s the optional comma before a conjunction in a series, as in “red, white, and blue.” It’s neither right nor wrong. You can opt for “red, white and blue” if you prefer.


But if you’re going to replace that “and” with an ampersand, the choice is no longer yours. “When an ampersand is used instead of the word ‘and’ (as in company names), the serial comma is omitted: ‘Winken, Blinken & Nod is a purveyor of nightwear,’” notes the Chicago Manual of Style.

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