In the course of a week, between my two freelance copyediting jobs and general obsessing with everything written by my CPs and lots of other people on the Internet, I read about 4-5 manuscripts per week in addition to whatever I read for my full-time job. You can make a whole lot of mistakes in 4-5 manuscripts, and no one can be expected to catch them all. Spell and grammar check only go so far, but they won’t help with issues like homonym confusion, dialogue attribution errors, etc. And so it’s up to us, the writers, to educate ourselves on how to craft manuscripts as flawlessly as possible, and to help do my part – and, selfishly, for my sanity as a reader/editor – I prepared a bare-bones list of info to help with some of the most common errors I see:
- It’s a comma before a dialogue tag, and a period before an action tag. A dialogue tag is what follows quotation marks and expresses a conveyance of speech: said, asked, questioned, exclaimed, commented, etc. “Dahlia is awesome,” she said. An action tag conveys any other action. “I wonder if Dahlia would go out with me.” He shrugged. See why there’s a period there? Because shrugging does not convey speech. Yes, it can convey things about the speaker’s emotion, but it is not the method for conveying the words themselves. Ditto laughed, snickered, and, depending on how many words in the quote, sighed. Try doing these actions at the same time you’re saying the words. If you can legit do it, give it a dialogue tag. If not, it’s an action tag.
- Incorrect plural possessive of nouns, especially proper – for some reason, I’ve noticed that this is particularly prevalent even in otherwise well-copy-edited self-published books. As it happens, there are two generally accepted ways to write a plural possessive: 1) plural noun+’s (e.g. “the Smiths’s dog”) 2) plural noun+’ (e.g. “the Smiths’ dog. This latter option is the proper way according to CMoS). However, what I often see is the noun kept singular, so for example, “the Smith’s house” when it should be “the Smiths’ house,” or “my parent’s car” when it should be “my parents’ car.” When read aloud, they sound the same, but the meaning is quite different–“Smith’s” implies the house is possessed by one Smith, “parent’s car” by one parent. Obviously, that’s almost never going to be correct. So, as a test, remove the apostrophe+s. Is what you’re left with the right answer to “who does the object belong to?”
- Lie/Lay/Laid: I almost never read a manuscript where these are all used correctly. And I say “almost never” only because I try not to speak in absolutes. Yes, it’s tricky, but just remember that two things factor in to which one you use:
- Whether the tense is past or present
- Whether or not the word takes an object
Present tense, does not take an object: Lie. “I lie on the bed.”
Present tense, takes an object: Lay. “I lay the book on the bed.”
Past tense, does not take an object: Lay. “I lay on the bed.”
Past tense, takes an object: Laid. “I laid the book on the bed.”
- Similarly, Rise/Raise: Rise does not take an object; raise does. They are not interchangeable. I raised my eyebrows. My eyebrows rose. (Though the latter falls into the “wandering body parts” area, so maybe avoid that one.)
- Breath is the noun. Breathe is the verb. They are not interchangeable.
- Setting off direct address: Direct address is, as its name suggests, when one addresses someone directly. So, if you’re talking to someone and using either their name or an epithet, it must be set off by a comma. “You look so pretty today, Dahlia!” If, however, you’re talking about someone, that would not take a comma, for example: “Have you seen how pretty Dahlia looks today?”
- And speaking of commas, let’s discuss the difference between “restrictive” and “non-restrictive.” It’s just what it sounds like – restrictive means that the word/name/phrase in question has restricted applications, whereas non-restrictive means it doesn’t. For example, if you only have one sister and her name is Debbie, the descriptor “my sister” would be restricted to Debbie, which would place her name in commas in the sentence “My sister, Debbie, says I’m really pretty.” You can take “Debbie” out of the sentence and there’s no ambiguity as to who you’re talking about.
If, however, you had twelve sisters, one of whom was named Debbie, the descriptor “my sister” would not be restricted to Debbie alone, so: “My sister Debbie says I’m really pretty.” If you took out Debbie’s name, the would be ambiguous – there are twelve options.
This is one of the biggest errors I see in query letters, things like “Seventeen-year-old, Taylor Awesome, had no idea what was about to fall on his face.” The descriptor “seventeen-year-old” doesn’t solely describe Taylor Awesome; it describes every seventeen-year-old in the free world. If you lift out the comma’d off piece, your sentence no longer makes sense. If you have this in your query, please fix it yesterday.
When in doubt as to whether you should surround a word or phrase with commas, try lifting the comma’d-off phrase out of the sentence. If it doesn’t make sense when you do it, you should not be surrounding it with commas.
- “Alright” is not a word. Yes, some people will accept it, but they shouldn’t. It’s dumb. Two words. “All right.” Don’t assault my eyes with this again.
- Also not real? “Between you and I. This is not a thing. Ever. It is always, always “between you and me.”
- In America, single quotes go inside double quotes only. Unless you are quoting within dialogue, you have no reason to use single quotes.
- Other American things: Toward, etc. Gray. These are the correct spellings for Americans. Do not use “towards” or “grey” unless you are British.
- Farther – used strictly for distance, e.g. “He walked farther than I did.” Further – everything else, e.g. “He thought about it no further.”
- “Lead” is present tense. “Led” is the past tense of “lead.” There are no exceptions. It is not like “read.”
Got any burning copyediting questions for me? Please leave them in the comments or ask me personally and I’ll answer them in the post!