By Rob Reinalda
An extra letter here, a missed apostrophe there—it’s the stuff of nightmares. Here's a rundown of troubling text that often eludes even the most well-trained eyes.
The copy’s been proofread, and your article (newsletter, e-mail, whatever) has been published—in print or online.
You’re perusing it, admiring your handiwork. Then you see it. Ack! A rudimentary, easily fixed error is there in the text. It’s standard-size type, but to your eyes it’s in 54-point Bodoni Bold.
And somehow, it’s underlined. Blinking, too. Maybe even chuckling softly. Or so it seems.
In any case, you screwed up. You. Missed. It. Self-evisceration is the only option.
The horror… the horror…
The culprit, other than you—careless, worthless, moronic, overworked, under-appreciated, perfectionist, yeah-but-what-good-did-it-do-me? you—was probably one of the proofreader’s land mines.
These are the words that elude spell-checking programs and, on occasion, even the most experienced eye. Following is an incomplete collection of these verbal tripwires:
It’s, its. This combo drives editors/proofreaders crazy. Because the apostrophe is used in so many possessive forms, many people use it’s (which is, of course, a contraction for it is or it has) instead of the proper possessive pronoun its. Speaking of nettlesome possessives and contractions …
Your, you’re and you. Certainly the your/you’re distinction is on your radar, but many writers—even those who know better—will sometimes type the wrong one, out of habit or haste. As for you, it’s very easy to read past you where your should be. Any of these three words should raise a red flag—or at least illuminate a yellow caution light—telling you to slow down and make sure you’ve gotten it right.
There, they’re and their. These homonyms have distinct meanings, but, sure enough, the incorrect word can slip by if you’re not careful. There, there.
Apostrophe catastrophes. We’ve all seen—in copy, e-mails and tweets, on billboards, menus and signs—erroneous apostrophe placement (or omission): "Lets go to the movie’s,” or, "You’ll love our cheeseburger’s.” Wrong. Add the apostrophe to let’s (let us). No apostrophe on a simple plural; it should be movies, cheeseburgers. Mmmmm, cheeseburgers.
When using the possessive form of a plural—one that has been pluralized by adding an s—follow this format: employees’, hyenas’, trapeze artists’. (Incidentally, if your last name is Jones, here’s how your invitation should look: "Cocktail party at the Joneses’ house.” It looks wrong, but it’s right.)
When a collective noun takes an apostrophe to form the possessive, watch out! Children’s, men’s, people’s—these all can end up askew: childrens’, etc. Our tendency is to think that a plural possessive always gets the s’ treatment. So keep your eyes peeled for these proofing pitfalls.
On, or, of, off. Little words get lost in the shuffle, and these are no exceptions. They are the equivalents of no-see-ums—those barely perceptible bugs that bite you mercilessly. (Would you really expect mercy from a gnat?) For some reason, perhaps because of the letter shapes, of and or get interchanged—and missed—a lot. Also, of is sometimes inserted, mistakenly, in place of off. And off of is just plain wrong; lose of in that case: He jumped off the roof. (Probably driven mad by no-see-ums.)
In, is, if, it. More little words; they make the case for shutting the door of your office—or any available room—and reading your text aloud and enunciating every syllable of every word. Pronouncing words, even tiny ones, helps you identify errors.
Too, to, two. It’s to important not two give this troublesome trio appropriate attention—even if you must read the copy too times. (See?)
Lose and loose. This doesn’t come up a lot, but just remember: You have a lot to lose if your editing’s too loose. (I know, I know. Sorry.)
Then, than, that. The then/than confusion—then for time, than for comparisons—is common among writers (and even some editors), and proofreaders are generally on alert for them. However, that often is typed when than is meant—probably because it’s the more common word (and one that connects thoughts), so writers’ nimble fingers are likely, through muscle memory, to hit the t instead of the n. The same happens, to varying degrees, with these: though, thought, through, thorough. Bigger words, but the camouflage effect works for them. Very sneaky.
And, an. That muscle memory problem applies here, too, because and gets inserted in place of an quite a bit. Being ubiquitous, and is easy to scan past. On the subject of and, often a plural (compound) subject will be given a singular verb form, so be on the lookout: His new outlook and a commitment to change past behavior is encouraging. Nope. You need are. (This is far more common than you might realize.)
Only and new. All right, these last two—and there certainly are others to which this might apply—tend to be misused or at least misplaced. They’re not visually deceptive, but each should send up a flare. New is problematic because it’s frequently redundant: a new initiative, or, they’re building a new supermarket. Well, they certainly couldn’t build an old supermarket, could they? (Go ahead; come up with goofy hypothetical situations to dispute this.)
With only, precision is key. The old song "I Only Have Eyes for You” really should be "I Have Eyes for Only You.” (But that would screw up the meter.) It could be worse; it could be "I Have Only Eyes for You,” which suggests the singer is from an organ-donor program and can’t provide the usual delivery of kidneys, lungs, and livers.
So, keep an eye out for that.
Rob Reinalda is executive editor for Lawrence Ragan Communications and has 28 years writing and editing for newspapers such as the New York Daily News and the Chicago Tribune.