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A Word, Please: An editor’s grievances to start the new year

An archaeologist works on the site where a cemetery was found at Tlatelolco square in Mexico City.
An archaeologist works on the site where a cemetery was found at Tlatelolco square in Mexico City in 2009. June Casagrande writes that she has “some bones to pick with certain writers.”
(Ronaldo Schemidt / AFP via Getty Images)
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In an old “Seinfeld” episode, perennially hotheaded Frank Costanza resurrects a holiday he invented years before, Festivus. Instead of a Christmas tree, there’s a Festivus pole. Instead of carols, there are “Feats of Strength.” But perhaps the most important Festivus tradition is “The Airing of Grievances,” in which the family members sit around the dinner table while Frank tells them all the ways they’ve annoyed him over the past year.

Me, I’d never trade the eggnog and mistletoe to get screamed at. But now that the gifts are unwrapped and the cookies are long gone, I have some bones to pick with certain writers. So settle in for my 2023 airing of editor grievances.

Quotations that haven’t been set up properly. “‘They are the finest educators in the country,’ said John Doe, president of the education association, speaking of Barb Taylor’s team.” If you have to add “speaking of,” “referring to” or something like that in a speech tag, you’re doing it wrong. In this example, which I adapted from a real article, the reader has to slog through almost 20 words to learn the meaning of the first word, “they.” Fix this by talking about Barb Taylor’s team before you quote John Doe.

A hyphen is no substitute for the versatile em dash, a sentence punctuation mark some may simply call “dashes.”

Ampersands on auto pilot. “We’ll serve beer and wine, gin & tonic and rum & Coke.” Some people think ampersands show closer connections than the word “and” can show. So “beer and wine” can be connected with “and,” but for the inseparable pair “gin & tonic,” only an ampersand will do. This makes good sense except for one tiny detail: There’s no such rule. In running text, just use “and.”

For every organization, a force-fed abbreviation. Lots of writers believe that readers need to be taught the initials of every organization immediately after its full name: The National Assn. for Abbreviation Obsessives and Similarly Afflicted Individuals (NAAOSAI). Sometimes they’re training readers in how to read the rest of the article: “Memorize this abbreviation now if you want to understand what I’m saying from here on!” Rude. Other times, the abbreviation never appears again. The writer is just saying: “Stop what you’re doing and note that this organization has initials.” Rude and pointless. The Associated Press Stylebook agrees with me: “Avoid alphabet soup,” the guide says. “Do not use abbreviations or acronyms that the reader would not quickly recognize.” Instead use words the reader knows: the association, the group, the club or, if all else fails, its full name.

Needless words. I recently edited an article that started a sentence with “But what’s possibly most important to acknowledge is that …” This type of wordiness is a big problem if you want your readers to remain conscious. This phrase should be chopped out entirely, or at least pared down to “perhaps most important.” Always look for opportunities to streamline your sentences. Instead of saying the company “is committed to providing” quality care, say the company provides it. Instead of saying the organization’s leaders “make a point to” invest in their local community, just say they invest in their community. Instead of saying an adviser “serves to” guide students, just say she guides them. Instead of saying that patients experience “symptoms such as” headache and fever, just say they experience headache and fever. Instead of saying, along with “a host of partners like” the Humane Society, the ASPCA and others, just say along with the Humane Society, the ASPCA and others. Instead of saying the school superintendent “was pondering the idea of finding” a way to shelter homeless students, just say she was looking for a way. Instead of saying that the common cold and flu viruses “gain entry into” the body, just say they enter the body. Instead of saying “start by separating three eggs,” just say “separate three eggs.” These real-world examples all show how, by cutting out needless words, you can hold your readers attention while saving them a lot of time.

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 JuneTCN@aol.com.

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