Erika on the Top Ten Copyediting Mistakes

The following is a guest post from Associate Editor-Copy Manager Erika Spelman on the top ten copyediting mistakes that appear in our manuscripts.

Being asked to write a post on the top ten copyediting mistakes can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it is nice to be recognized for expertise in copyediting. On the other hand (horrors!), what if someone finds an error in the post? Let me know if you catch anything and, as we say at AMACOM, perhaps I can correct it in reprint.

I polled others in the department–my supervisor Andy Ambraziejus and colleagues Jim Bessent and Michael Sivilli–for the most common errors they encounter. Here are the top ten mistakes we came up with:

1. Using a plural pronoun (e.g., their) for a singular antecedent (e.g., company or everyone).

Incorrect: This company treats their employees well.
Correct: This company treats its employees well.

Incorrect: Everyone had their share.
Correct: Everyone had his or her share.

2. Overusing he or she and similar forms.

Correct: Everyone had his or her share.
Creative: Everyone had a fair share.

3. Confusing that and which. That is restrictive–it introduces a defining piece of information about the noun being described. Which is nonrestrictive–it introduces parenthetical information that could be removed without changing the meaning of the sentence. Generally, which is preceded by a comma.

The company that treated its employees well won an award. (There are many companies being discussed, and the one that treated its employees well won an award.)

The company, which treated its employees well, won an award.
(The one company being discussed won an award, and it happened to treat its employees well.)

4. Using a comma between parts of a compound predicate as opposed to using it to separate two independent clauses.

Incorrect: The company treated its employees well, and won an award.
Correct: The company treated its employees well and won an award.
Correct: The company treated its employees well, and it won an award.

5. Hyphenating prefixes. The current editions of Webster’s dictionary and The Chicago Manual of Style stipulate that words formed with prefixes such as re-, pre-, post-, and a host of others are not hyphenated except where ambiguity would result (whatever your spell check may tell you).

Correct: preemployment
Correct: postmarketing
But: re-creation (as distinct from recreation, which means something else)

6. Not hyphenating compound modifiers preceding a noun.

Incorrect: The employee centered company won an award.
Correct: The employee-centered company won an award.

7. Hyphenating compound modifiers appearing after a noun.

Incorrect: The company was employee-centered.
Correct: The company was employee centered.

8. Hyphenating certain compounds such as decision making and risk taking when they are used as nouns rather than modifiers.

Incorrect: The manager excelled at decision-making.
Correct: The manager excelled at decision making.
Correct: The manager had excellent decision-making skills.

9. Using while to mean although or whereas.

10. Neglecting to make list items parallel.
For example, all of the items in this list begin with gerunds.

Thanks Erika!

And whoever finds a copyediting error in this post gets a free copy of The AMA Handbook of Business Writing!

15 responses to “Erika on the Top Ten Copyediting Mistakes

  1. Barry Richardson

    Outstanding! Erika really knows her stuff! I often consult her on copyediting questions–the more obscure the better.

  2. Wow, this is really concise and useful, I will tell some of my friends about it, it is really good to know some of the common mistakes that many of us make sometimes, this is a high quality post, it made me realize sometimes I make some of these mistakes as well.
    thanks for sharing it.

  3. I enjoyed Erika’s blog posting on common errors from beginning to the very end. I was feeling pretty smug until I got to number 10 on her list. Then she reminded me that I had forgotten what a gerund is. Bummer. Dick

  4. Erika Spelman

    I had a limited amount of space for the post, so I trusted to the examples to make things clear without explaining all the terms. I have been asked to explain what a compound predicate is and what a gerund is.

    A compound predicate occurs when two verbs in a clause apply to the same subject. For example, in the sentence “The company treated its employees well and won and award” the predicates are “treated its employees well” and “won an award.”

    A gerund is a form of a verb that is used as a noun. Gerunds typically end with “-ing.”

  5. Oh, so THAT’s when you use “that” vs. when you use “which” — thanks! Also, I don’t think I realized that “everyone had their share” was wrong. This was a very educational blog post for me!

  6. Erika Spelman

    @Her Artichoke Heart: At my first publishing job 20 years ago, I overheard my boss telling someone, “Now that we have Erika, we have our ‘whiches’ and ‘thats’ under control.” I thought “Uh, oh, I’d better learn that rule!”

  7. Wow! This is excellent. Now I understand the difference between “which” and “that” and how to use them. I’m definitely going to refer to this post when I write.

  8. These ten mistakes are so clearly explained that I will definitely be able to use them. The hyphenating rules are especially helpful. I’ll be referring back to this post so frequently that I’m going to print out out Erika’s top ten mistakes and hang it on my office wall. Thank you!

  9. Hi Erika,

    This list is so well done! I listened to NPR on Saturday, where they spoke of a new book, THE GLAMOUR OF GRAMMAR (wherein apparently words that mean the exact opposite of their definitions are discussed, I’ve already forgotten the term, but like using “literally” to mean figuratively… VERY heady stuff!):

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  14. Hello my family member! I want to say that this post is awesome,
    great written and come with approximately all important infos.
    I would like to peer extra posts like this .

  15. Pingback: Top 5 Common Proofreading Mistakes To Avoid In Your Paper | Online Copywriter

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