The Petty Writing Mistake That Drives Me Nuts

Photo: John F. Funk/Mennonite Church USA Archives

Earlier this week, I was reading a tweet from a writer I admire (the new “I was enjoying a novel”?), and she ended it with a parenthetical that should have had the period outside the close parenthesis (like this). But instead, it ended like (this.) I know it’s stupid, but this inconsequential error drives me crazy. Maybe it reminds me of what I hate about myself: a tendency to start things but never finish them, a droopiness, a carelessness. Or maybe it’s my own fear of missing details that are obvious to others. It makes me want to reach in and move the period into the right place, as if I could do it that easily for myself, too.

A friend mentioned that she feels the same way when people type “woah” instead of “whoa,” because it provokes a sense of being ignored, akin to when someone you’re talking with scans the space over your shoulder at a party. “You see the rest of us spelling it ‘whoa,’” she told me, “or are you not seeing it? Why are you sticking to this? Why are you choosing to be this way? The rest of us have agreed on something!”

Typing this all out mostly makes me feel ridiculous and wonder if the whole thing isn’t an illustration of even deeper personal flaws: the urges to show off and criticize (isn’t it great to know the rules?!) while missing the bigger picture.

In any case, it makes me wonder what other people’s petty style grievances are, and why. And so I asked several people I consider grammatically righteous — copy editors, writers, linguists — for their own examples. I was expecting to gather some entertaining rants, but I was surprised and moved by their thoughts on communication. I was also a little embarrassed, in part because the letter I sent out had more than one mistake of its own, not that anyone explicitly corrected me, which made it all the more touching that they responded at all. It’s probably morally wrong to complain about other people’s mistakes (people who live in glass houses … ), but it’s interesting to hear about the mistakes that stand out to us on an individual level. Does it align with the truism that what we dislike in others is what we dislike most about ourselves?

“As a copy chief, many people think that I view the world as a field of grammatical landmines, but the one error that makes me see red is the one I committed at the beginning of this sentence, in which the noun in the introductory bit (‘copy chief’) and the subject of the main bit (‘many people’) don’t align — a dangler, in the local parlance. Danglers are the easiest errors to commit and somehow the hardest to spot — a dangerous combination — and they elude careful eyes and make it to print with dismaying frequency. Some readers speed by danglers without a second thought; after all, such sentences sort of kind of mostly make sense, don’t they? For others of us, especially those of us with a personal or professional taste for tidiness, there’s the electric shock of the missed connection: The pieces of a puzzle that are meant to interlock neatly and cleanly and, frustratingly, don’t fit.”
Benjamin Dreyer, Random House vice-president, executive managing editor, and copy chief, also author of Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style

“I’d have to say that although I know it has nothing to do with clarity, to me, nothing in writing is more ‘bedhead’ than confusing it’s and its. ‘After a shaky first few years the studio finally found it’s way’ … It’s an innocent little mistake, but gosh, it looks icky — like watching someone walking down the street with a stray Kleenex stuck to their shoe.”
John McWhorter, linguist, associate professor, podcaster, and author of The Creole Debate

“I feel your pain about improperly deployed parentheticals — when I have final cut, I will make a parenthetical at the end of a sentence stand alone. (Like this.) Nine times out of ten, it can function this way structurally and helps to avoid that dreaded droop. Oh, and the redundant ‘TK-year anniversary’ — ‘anniversary’ means ‘year’ already — copy-desk alumnus Chris Bonanos corrected me on this one once, when I was very green, and I have never skipped over it since.”
Lauren Leibowitz, New Yorker copy editor

“I can’t stand pluralizing names with apostrophes. Charles and Ray Eames are the Eameses, not the Eames’s or (God help us) the Eames’. This may be because I occasionally see it actually, non-metaphorically carved in stone, outside people’s houses. I guess it’s usually a wooden plaque, if you want to be precise. It’s when the plural is also capped with a possessive that people really get messed up. ‘WELCOME TO THE JOHNSON’S.’ Oh, and there’s another one! ‘Reverting back.’ Can we avoid? Hmm, I just looked up errors like ‘revert back,’ and it turns out that this form has a name: pleonasm. (Other examples: gather together. Free gift. Tuna fish sandwich. Four different people. Entered into.) Oh, here’s one that genuinely bugs me: acronyms with the final word repeated. ATM machine, HIV virus, etc. It’s just a case of Not Paying Attention. NPA attention.”
Christopher Bonanos, New York editor and author of Flash: The Making of Weegee the Famous

“This is a silly thing, but it bothers me when people say (or write) ‘more importantly’ instead of ‘more important,’ as in ‘[what is] more important …’ Another one that bothers me unreasonably is ‘masterful’ for ‘masterly.’ Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady is masterly. Hemingway was masterful. I have rigidly enforced this practice, and lamented the impossibility of ‘masterlyly’ (one must go with ‘in a masterly fashion’), only to find out that it is just something someone (a schoolmarm) made up, much the way I have my own standards for making ‘hung over’ two words. I’m also a bear about hyphens. The hyphen is a subtle, ever-changing conductor of meaning, and compounds are forming single words faster than ever (doesn’t it seem?). The fleeting hyphen!”
Mary Norris, former New Yorker copy editor and author of Greek to Me: Adventures of the Comma Queen

“Problems with verb-subject agreement in sentences beginning with ‘There’s’ always catch my eye in the worst way. I appreciate contractions as much as the next person looking to save a few characters, but using ‘there’s’ as a stand-in for both ‘there is’ and ‘there are’ really grates on me. ‘There’s plenty of reasons to look past it’ might be an intelligible sentence, but you wouldn’t say ‘There is plenty of reasons,’ so why use that contraction?”
Hannah Birch, ProPublica production editor

“I’m not working as a copy editor currently, but one thing that does still get to me, grammatically, is how people use the word ‘nonplussed.’ When they use it, which is kind of rare, they often use it wrong. ‘Nonplussed’ means ‘confounded or at a loss for words,’ meaning that someone has done something so confounding you can only sputter, at least metaphorically. The dictionary tells me it comes from the French non plus, meaning ‘no more,’ as in, sort of, ‘I have no words.’ Yet people often use it to mean the opposite: ‘not bothered’ or ‘chill.’ (As in, ‘He was nonplussed by the angry lecture his roommate gave him after he left the tub full of water for three days, and didn’t give it a second thought.’) If people are word-oriented enough to know of that word, they should also keep to its meaning. My two cents.”
Eliza McCarthy, writer and former New York copy editor

“I think the thing that really bugs me is when I’m talking with someone in an informal context who insists on using a formal style all the time. There are so many nuances of tone of voice that can be conveyed with a shift in capitalization or a well-chosen smiley — I wrote a whole book about them! — and to insist on texting as if you’re writing a formal essay tells me that you care more about an arbitrary notion of ‘correctness’ than the actual feelings of the person on the other end of the chat bubble. Let your hair down! Live a little!”
Gretchen McCulloch, author of Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language

The Petty Writing Mistake That Drives Me Nuts