The following is a guest post from Associate Editor & Copy Manager Erika Spelman on copyediting “mistakes” that aren’t mistakes.
As copy manager at AMACOM, I am responsible for being persnickety about English grammar and usage and for commenting on mistakes. One of my colleagues occasionally sends me a response making fun of strict usage rules that begins, “Dear Grammarian About Whom My Mother Warned Me.” It is true that I come from a family of such grammarians.
Some time ago, I wrote a post for this blog titled Erika on the Top Ten Copyediting Mistakes. Having been asked to write a sequel, I thought it would be interesting to write a post on things that are often thought to be mistakes but that, according to the reference books we follow most at AMACOM (The Chicago Manual of Style, Sixteenth Edition, and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition) are not faux pas. Keep in mind that other publications may have different rules, but these two are generally highly regarded in book publishing. Note that all references to word-usage guidelines in Chicago are to section 5.220 unless otherwise noted.
1. My colleague would not be incorrect to write, “Dear Grammarian Whom My Mother Warned Me About.” Ending a sentence (or in this case a salutation) with a preposition is permissible according to Chicago section 5.176. In fact, twisting a sentence around in order not to end a sentence with a preposition can result in stilted prose. (In addition, Chicago notes a trend to allow the use of who instead of whom as the object of a prepositional phrase such as warned me about, noting simply that some writers and editors object to doing so).
2. Another outdated rule that can change the nuance of a sentence if applied is the proscription against inserting anything that splits an infinitive (“to boldly go” being the classic example). Chicago explains that “it is now widely acknowledged that adverbs sometimes justifiably separate an infinitive’s to from its principal verb” (section 5.106).
3. Although who and whom refer only to persons and not to inanimate objects, whose can be used to indicate possession for both. For example, it is not incorrect to say, “The book whose title contained a split infinitive sold well.” An alternative sentence, “The book of which the title contained a split infinitive sold well,” borders on not making sense, and “The book the title of which contained a split infinitive sold well” is not much better. See Chicago section 5.61.
4. Sticklers regarding precise expression may balk at the use of the word over as a substitute for more than to indicate approximate numbers of things. Chicago stipulates that it does not uphold this distinction (however, it does still distinguish less from fewer, fewer referring to countable items and less to mass nouns such as water).
5. Certain words often thought to take only a singular pronoun can sometimes be used in a plural sense and be followed by a plural pronoun such as they or their. These include indefinite pronouns such as everyone and nobody. For example, the sentence “Everyone read the blog post and shared it with their friends” would be acceptable according to Chicago section 5.64. Likewise, collective nouns such as audience can be used as plurals according to section 5.31. It follows that some words more frequently seen in AMACOM books, such as staff and team, could take a plural pronoun in some circumstances. However, Chicago still disallows what it calls “the singular ‘they’” (section 5.46)—that is, a form of they used in place of a form of he or she when there is a singular antecedent. For example, “Ask any editor if they agree with the writer of that blog post” would not be allowed.
6. Many people feel that the words while and since should be reserved exclusively for use with regard to time. According to Chicago, while can be used to mean although and since can be used to mean because unless ambiguity would result. Both of these definitions also appear in Webster’s. AMACOM has yet to allow these usages in our books, but stay tuned!
7. Controversy abounds over whether certain words normally used as nouns can be used as verbs. Impact is listed in Webster’s as both a noun and a verb. Loan is also accepted as a verb, with the caveat that it is used only literally. Thus, the figurative “Friends, Romans, countrymen, loan me your ears” (one of my grammarian parents’ favorite examples of why the verb loan should not be allowed) would not be appropriate. Chicago advises against the use of impact as a verb, but allows loan with regard to loaning money (did some of you cringe at that use of loaning?).
8. A few incorrectly used words that have been faithfully corrected by copyeditors everywhere have had their previously incorrect meanings gain traction to the point of being added to Webster’s. One example is the word actionable, which as of Webster’s tenth edition meant only “subject to or affording ground for an action or suit at law” but which as of the eleventh edition can also mean “capable of being acted on.” Another such word is incentivize, which did not appear in the ninth edition at all but appears in the tenth and eleventh editions as meaning “to provide with an incentive.” As with impact, however, just because it is in the dictionary doesn’t necessarily mean style gurus would advocate its use.
Incidentally, some of the things I have written here contradict things I said in Erika on the Top Ten Copyediting Mistakes. The first person to find two discrepancies and tell us in the comments will win one copy each of AMACOM’s Punctuation at Work by Richard Lauchman and The AMA Handbook of Business Letters, Fourth Edition, by Jeffrey L. Seglin and Edward Coleman.
The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010).
Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed. (Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, 2003).
Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 10th ed. (Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, 2001).
Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary (Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, 1988).