by Emily Lawless & Brenna O’Toole, Infinity Publishing Copyeditors
Copyeditors are, as a group, very patient and forgiving readers. We love noticing nitpicky details and fixing subtle errors to help you present your audience the most polished and professional version of your book possible. We could spend all day moving commas and repossessing possessives, and many days we do. Editors aren’t impervious to frustration, however, especially when we come across the same small exasperating errors over and over again . . . in the course of one manuscript.
What errors make us reach for our red pens every time? We asked the Infinity copyediting staff, “What is your biggest pet peeve?”
Brenna: One of the most common mistakes an author can make is punctuating dialog incorrectly — and if it happens once, it’ll probably happen many times. Here are a few simple things to check for when punctuating dialog:
1. Quotation marks should surround only the text spoken by a character — not the attribution (he/she said), and not reported speech (I told him yes).
incorrect: “The apple tree is too tall to climb, he said.”
correct: “The apple tree is too tall to climb,” he said.
2. When a character ends a statement, use a comma instead of a period if the sentence continues after the dialog. Similarly, if any text introduces the dialog, a comma precedes the quotation.
incorrect: “That is a tall order.” She said. He turned to me and said. “I don’t want to go home.”
correct: “That is a tall order,” she said. He turned to me and said, “I don’t want to go home.”
If a complete sentence follows the dialog, it is safe to use a period.
incorrect: “I’m a private eye,” my cigarette glowed in the dark room.
correct: “I’m a private eye.” My cigarette glowed in the dark room.
3. Punctuation (including question marks and exclamation points) lives inside the quotation marks.
incorrect: “Is there really a rainbow over there” she asked? “That’s amazing”, she yelled!
correct: “Is there really a rainbow over there?” she asked. “That’s amazing!” she yelled.
Robin: Dangling and misplaced modifiers are hateful things. Although the name might sound intimidating, they are simply descriptors that have lost their way in a sentence, so that they no longer explain what the writer intended. A dangling modifier seems to have no subject at all, whereas a misplaced modifier wants to be adopted by a new one. The easiest way to avoid this trap is to keep related words close to each other within a sentence.
incorrect: Being Saturday night, the student decided to procrastinate.
Being Saturday night is a dangling modifier — it has no subject, and so it seems that the student = Saturday night.
correct: Since it was Saturday night, the student decided to procrastinate.
incorrect: My phone has a specific ringtone for my girlfriend that sounded chipper.
That sounded chipper is a misplaced modifier — it’s been separated from its subject, a specific ringtone, and instead, seems to imply that the speaker has a harem of girlfriends, but only one who sounded chipper.
correct: My phone has a specific, chipper-sounding ringtone for my girlfriend.
Caryn: Homophone (or homonym) confusion is so rudimentary that it almost shouldn’t be considered a pet peeve, but it’s everywhere! Of course, many people have difficulty remembering the differences between words that sound alike, such as to/too/two, farther/further, and your/you’re; it’s harder to be patient with mistakes involving less common words that sound similar, but mean very different things, such as so/sew, cereal/serial, idle/idol, and except/accept. Many of these errors are made when an author is writing quickly and relies on a spelling checker alone to catch his or her mistakes; others stem from a lack of understanding of the words’ meanings. There are two techniques to help reduce homophone confusion:
1.) Read your manuscript multiple times, and have as many people as possible read and critique it.
2.) If you have any doubt about the spelling or use of any word, look it up in a dictionary.
incorrect: For a different prospective, I asked my dad, formally a minor, if a mining cart would need duel break peddles to keep access wait stationery. I listed to what I herd with wrapped attention.
correct: For a different perspective, I asked my dad, formerly a miner, if a mining cart would need dual brake pedals to keep excess weight stationary. I listened to what I heard with rapt attention.
Emily: Overuse of clichés is bad enough on its own, but cliché confusion is a surprisingly common, and funny, phenomenon. An expression is generally considered to be a cliché when it is used so commonly that it is familiar or tired; although clichés weaken writing, giving it a staleness and predictability (qualities most writers hope to avoid!), they do sometimes have a role to play in character dialog or other specific instances. When writers grow careless, however, a cliché can morph into an ugly mess that makes its author look silly. Although some resources (such as the Cliché Finder at http://www.westegg.com/cliche/) exist that can help you “keep all your ducks in a row,” — but not “in one basket” — the best rule of thumb regarding clichés is “when in doubt, leave it out.”