A Word, Please:

When I worked in a grocery store, nobody but us clerk types cared that the computer code for Anjou pears was 028. When I worked as a waitress, customers didn't care how we rolled the silverware. When I was in sales, clients couldn't have been less interested in how my company divvied up sales territories or how I organized my Rolodex of leads.

Looking back at my professional life, I'm shocked to see how much time I spent learning stuff that was completely useless outside of the job — jobs that, 99 times out of 99, I didn't have for long.

Then I discovered copy editing.

Finally, the stuff I learn on the job is interesting to a whole lot of people — not just folks wearing uniforms that match mine. Here are some of the issues that have come up during the course of my regular work that you, too, may find useful.

A colleague e-mailed me this question: When you write about Olympic Boulevard and Pico Boulevard, is it “Olympic and Pico Boulevards,” with a capital B, or “Olympic and Pico boulevards,” with lowercase B?

A lot of people get this one right without having to ask the friendly neighborhood copy editor, but for the record: Olympic Boulevard is a proper name. Pico Boulevard is a proper name. But Pico Boulevards is not. When you force two proper names to share a part of their name by making it plural, “boulevards,” it's no longer part of the proper name. It becomes a generic, and generics are lowercase. So “Olympic and Pico boulevards” is how you want to write it.

Here's another thing I've learned. Imagine that the following is a news headline: “American Idol's” John Doe to be disqualified. If you're like most people I know, you probably find that apostrophe and S maddening. It doesn't make sense to put them inside the quotation marks because they're not part of the name. But outside the quotation marks they look horrible: “American Idol”'s. That's why in copy editor land we put them inside the quotation marks: “American Idol's.”

Of course, this raises the question: Are TV show titles written in quotation marks, or should they be in italics or perhaps underlined? For a question like this, it's best to have two copy editors, one who edits news and one who edits books. They'll give you conflicting answers, with the news editor telling you quotation marks are proper and the book editor telling you to use italics. That's how you know there's no right or wrong answer. It's just a matter of style.

Copy editors can also explain to interested users of the language why you might sometimes see “Senator Jane Louis” with a capital S in the same publication that writes “the senator, Jane Louis” with a lowercase S.

The reason has to do with that comma and, to a lesser extent, with the “the.” When you have “Senator Jane Louis,” the word “senator” is part of her proper title. You might even address her by it, “Hello, Senator Louis.”

But “the senator” is a different story. That's not part of any one person's moniker. Like “boulevards” above, this “senator” is a generic word. So while you can follow “the senator” with her name, “Jane Louis,” the first isn't modifying the second.

Oh, and for all of you who cringed at my use of “us” in the opener “nobody but us” — well, I've learned the score on that matter, too. The conjunction “but” moonlights as a preposition. And prepositions take objects, which come in object form, “us,” instead of subject form, “we.”


Get in touch JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of “Mortal Syntax: 101 Language Choices That Will Get You Clobbered by the Grammar Snobs — Even If You're Right.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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