Copy Editing FAQs

It's been said that copy editors are the “first readers” as well as the “last line of defense.” They have to know all the rules and exceptions of language and grammar.

Common copy editing questions

This one is both straightforward and tricky: straightforward because the rules were once clear; tricky because “whom” is making a long, drawn-out exit from modern English, but it’s not gone yet.

The short answer: Use “whom” only when it directly follows a preposition (“To whom it may concern”). “Who” is standard in spoken English these days, and it’s getting that way in written English. So “who to call,” “Who do you trust?” and “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know” are fine.

Words and forms regularly enter and drop out of languages; it's natural. When was the last time you read or heard "thou"? (Church doesn't count.) "Thou" (and its forms "thee," "thy" and "thine") is a pronoun that is no longer used in English, and no language manual will insist that you use it. "Whom" is likely headed that direction, but it's not there yet. Hence:

The long answer: If you are writing for a stickler, follow these guidelines:

Use “who” when it’s the subject of a sentence or clause:

Who ate the last of the haggis?

I don’t know who ate it.

Benny is the one who loves haggis; ask him.

Use “whom” when it’s the object of a verb or preposition:

Marge, whom the churchgoers call the “Listen Lady,” couldn’t help Ned out of a jam.

Homer, with whom Mr. Burns is frequently irate, prevented a nuclear meltdown purely by chance.

Tip: To determine whether it’s the subject or the object, replace “who” with “he” or “him” – if “he” sounds right, you want “who.” If “him” sounds right, you want “whom.”

Example: The man, who/m police are seeking in connection with the crash, was last seen running from a McDonald’s. Police are seeking HE? No, police are seeking HIM → “whom.”

Example: The man, who/m police say crashed his car into busload of nuns, ran away after the crash. Police say HIM crashed his car? No, police say HE crashed his car → “who.”

Far more people will think you sound like a snooty twit when you use “whom” when you really need “who” than will think you sound like a cretin when you use “who” instead of “whom.” Know the rules, even if you don’t need to use them, and know your audience, so you know whether you need to use them.

Maybe. Commas are used in many ways, and part of the reason they can be confusing is that sometimes you must have them, sometimes you can’t have them, and sometimes it’s OK either way. Not the answer you wanted to hear, right?

Let’s look at some common comma situations.

1. Comma of direct address (sometimes called the “Donner Party comma” because it’s what makes the difference between “Let’s eat, people!” and “Let’s eat people!”)

When you have a person being directly addressed, the addressee must be set off by commas: one after if it leads the sentence (“Peter, did you get the memo?”), one before if it ends the sentence (“I've been everywhere, man.”), and one before and one after if it’s in the middle of a sentence (“Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”). Example: Freddy, someone’s pet skunk is loose in the hotel. (Freddy is being informed of this.)

2. Appositives

Appositives are phrases that provide a little extra information about a noun. They are set off with commas before and after. Don’t forget the “after” comma – that’s a common mistake. Example: Freddy, someone’s pet skunk, is loose in the hotel. (Freddy is the skunk.) Notice how one little comma can change the meaning of the sentence above. Dates and places fall into this category – comma before AND comma after. Example: On Jan. 10, 2013, they’re all going to Moscow, Idaho, for a family reunion.

3. Nonessential clauses

These are “who” or “which” clauses that, like appositives, give extra information but are not essential to the sentence. Also set off with commas before and after. Example: The KU men’s basketball team, which made it to the final NCAA game in 2012, last won a national championship in 2008. The sentence makes sense without the clause – that’s how you know the clause is nonessential.

4. List of items

This is called the “serial comma” or the “Oxford comma” and is a style matter. AP style says not to use a comma after the next-to-last item in a series unless it’s needed for clarity. The Chicago Manual of Style and other stylebooks say to use it. Example: The diner’s specialty is a breakfast of green eggs, ham and sausage. (No comma after “ham” in AP style.) Example: The diner’s specialty is a breakfast of green eggs, ham, and biscuits and gravy. (Use a comma for clarity because “biscuits and gravy” has its own “and.”)

5. String of adjectives

This is tricky because some adjectives need to be separated by commas and some don’t. Here’s how to tell: if you can swap two adjectives and the sentence still makes sense, put a comma between them. If you can’t, no comma. Example: His incompetent, cruel boss made him work Saturdays. His cruel, incompetent boss made him work Saturdays. Both sentences make sense, so put a comma between the adjectives. Example: They work in a big gray (but not “gray big”) building downtown. You can’t switch the order, so no comma.

6. Lead-ins

Sentences sometimes start with a prepositional or participial phrase or an adverb clause that leads into the main clause. Usually these lead-ins need a comma to separate them from the main clause, but if it’s a single word, you don’t have to have a comma (read it out loud, and if you pause, put a comma in). Example: Being a top pick for the team, he tried not to let the attention go to his head. Example: After school, let’s get ice cream! Example: When the floodwaters receded, they found his body.

The difference between “lie” and “lay” confuses a lot of people, probably because the past tense of “lie” is “lay.” But they aren’t interchangeable, and here’s how to tell the difference:

“Lay” is a transitive verb meaning to put something onto something else. That means it takes a direct object. You lay the book on the table. Workers lay carpet. Soldiers lay down their lives for their country.

With “lay,” there has to be something, an object, that the verb is acting on. Ask yourself: Lay what? The book, the carpet, their lives.

“Lie,” which means to recline, is an intransitive verb. It has no object. You lie down when you are tired. Your dog lies around all day. The police found the body lying in the hall. The bank robber decided to lie low for a while. No direct object? You want “lie.”

The problem is that the past tense of “lie” is “lay.” No wonder people get the two confused. (“Lie” also means to tell a falsehood, but that one’s usually not a problem.)

Here’s how the two verbs conjugate:

Lie: lie (present tense) / lay (past tense) / lain (past participle)

Lay: lay (present tense) / laid (past tense) / laid (past participle)

Take the Bremner Editing Center's lay/lie quiz.

When pronouns are the subject of the sentence, use the subject forms: I, we, you, she, he and they

When pronouns are an object (direct, indirect or object of a preposition), use the object forms: me, us, you, him, her and them.

The problem with “between you and I” has its roots in something you may have heard as a child: you’d say “me and Sarah” are going to do something. “It’s ‘Sarah and I,’” you’d hear from your mother or your teacher. However, the correction was not for putting yourself first in the sentence, but for using an object pronoun in a subject spot. And we get so inured to having it corrected to “she and I,” “he and I” and “you and I” that we want to use it everywhere, as in: “Just between you and I, ...” But “between” is a preposition, which takes an object, so “between you and me” is correct.

Tip: Replace the pair of pronouns with “we” or “us.” If “we” sounds right, use the subject forms. If “us” sounds right, use the object forms.

“[Me and her] -> us are going to eat lunch.” No – “we” is right, so use the subject pronouns: She and I.

“Just between [you and I] -> we, I’d rather eat at home.” No – “us” is right, so use the object pronouns: you and me.

Either – it depends.

If you mean “none” as “not any of it,” use a singular:

None of the gluten-free, soy-cheese pizza was eaten. One pizza, singular.

After the fire, none of the factory remains. One factory, singular.

None of the research paper is done. One research paper, singular.

If you mean “none” as “not any of them,” use a plural:

None of the gluten-free, soy-cheese pizzas were eaten. Several pizzas, plural.

After the fire, none of the machines are operational. Many machines, plural.

None of the students are done with their research papers. Many students, plural.

A comma splice is when two independent clauses are joined by a comma instead of a period, semicolon or conjunction.

Example: Kurt goes to KU, Kassie goes to K-State.

How to tell if you have a comma splice: If you can put a period where the comma is and the two resulting sentences make sense, you shouldn't have a comma there.

Example: Kurt goes to KU. Kassie goes to K-State. (The period makes sense, so there’s a comma splice.)

How to fix a comma splice: Replace the comma with a period (above), semicolon or conjunction.

Fix: Kurt goes to KU; Kassie goes to K-State.

Fix: Kurt goes to KU and Kassie goes to K-State.

There are two instances where you can use a semicolon; one is optional and one is necessary.

1. Use a semicolon to separate two independent but related clauses and avoid a comma splice:

Example: Cousin Eddie hunts squirrels; Jason Hawes hunts ghosts. If you don’t want to use a semicolon in these kinds of sentences, you can use a conjunction instead:

Example: Cousin Eddie hunts squirrels, and Jason Hawes hunts ghosts. This is the optional one: you can always fix a comma splice (see above) with a period or conjunction instead.

2. Use a semicolon to separate comma-containing elements in a list:

Example: Presenters included, from left, Karl Swartz of Morris, Laing, Evans, Brock & Kennedy; Lathi de Silva of Sullivan, Higdon & Sink; and Jeff Ronen of Kanza Bank. This is the necessary one: semicolons simply help your readers understand where the items in a list are separated.

In U.S. English, there is a useful difference between “that” and “which.”

“That” is used with essential clauses, which are clauses necessary to the sentence. This means that the clause is needed to distinguish a noun somehow.

Example: They ate the cake that was sitting on the table. (but didn’t eat the cake that was stored in the fridge – the “that” clause lets a reader know that there was other cake besides the cake on the table)

“Which” is used with nonessential clauses, which give extra bonus information that is not necessary to the sentence.

Example: They ate the cake, which was sitting on the table. (this simply lets the reader know where the cake was)

“Which” clauses are usually set off by commas. This distinction is not made in British English and other varieties of English, which use “that” and “which” more or less interchangeably.

Apostrophes are used for two things: contractions and possessive nouns (not pronouns, just nouns).

Contractions are shortened forms of words, and the apostrophe indicates where something has dropped out:

I’m = I am (the “a” is dropped)

You’re = you are (the “a” is dropped)

Hadn’t = had not (the “o” is dropped)

Should’ve = Should have (the “ha” is dropped – do not spell this “should of” even though that’s what it sounds like)

The ’50s = The 1950s (the “19” is dropped)

’tis = it is (the first “i” is dropped)

it’s = it is (the second “i” is dropped) or it has (the “ha” is dropped)

Tip: If you have a word such as “it’s,” “you’re,” “they’re” and so on, to determine whether you need the apostrophe, say it as two whole words (it is, you are, they are, etc.). If it makes sense as two words, use an apostrophe for the contraction. If it doesn’t make sense, you want another word that sounds the same but is spelled differently: its, your, their, etc.

Possessives indicate that something belongs to or is otherwise associated with a noun. These are usually formed with ’s for singulars and s’ for plurals.

Joe’s Cafe = cafe belongs to Joe

Mom’s apple pie = the pie of Mom, or the pie made by Mom

The team’s strategy = the strategy of the team

The sisters’ dog = dog that belongs to the sisters

The Rolling Stones’ tour = tour of the Rolling Stones

The children’s toys = toys of the children

Possessive pronouns do not take apostrophes: hers, its, theirs, yours. Do not use an apostrophe to make a simple plural: pies, dogs, strategies, tours, toys.

Take the Bremner Editing Center's apostrophe quiz.

You can. This is one of those "non-rules" of English that have no basis in English grammar.

Often in English, prepositions get attached to verbs to shift the meaning of the verb or do double-duty as adverbs, and end up at the end of sentences in that capacity. But even as true prepositions -- the kind with an object -- they've been ending sentences for centuries.

In many cases, it's far more natural to end a sentence with a preposition than to contort the writing to avoid it. As John Bremner wrote, "With is sometimes a good word to end a sentence with."

Have an editing question?

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