7 Editing Pet Peeves

By Mark Nichol

We all have our editorial idiosyncrasies. Here are seven words, phrases, or other subjects that make me peevish:

1. “Beg the Question”

If you see this phrase in print, it’s likely to mean “to bring up an obvious question,” as in “That begs the question of how we are going to balance the budget” or “to prompt a question in response to something,” as in “The new evidence begs the question of whether the defendant was guilty after all.”

To beg the question, however, originally meant to make a statement that assumes that the proposition in question is true; an example is “Most scholars discount Smith’s theories because they don’t agree with him.” This original definition, however, is being overwhelmed by the new senses described above. They are so ubiquitous that they are coming to be accepted as valid, but such acceptance dilutes the value of the pure meaning. It’s best not to use the phrase at all.

2. “I could care less.”

Perhaps I care about this too much, because it doesn’t come up often, but more than never is too much. The correct expression is “I couldn’t care less,” meaning, “The degree to which I care is the least possible amount.” Some people argue that “I could care less” is a way of shrugging an issue off by implying that the minimal extent to which one is concerned about it could be diminished even further. My opinion: It’s a mishearing of the correct form, and those who write it the wrong way are writing it the wrong way.

3. Different

When I read a sentence like “Seventeen different languages are spoken by students at the school,” my first thought is, “As opposed to seventeen identical languages?” In other words, different is redundant to the statement of plurality. Different is the default.

4. Latin

Latin abbreviations such as i.e. and e.g. are valid, but they’re often misused or at least punctuated incorrectly (or not at all), and “for example” and “that is” serve just as well. The same goes for the Latin for “and so on”: etc. — which, by the way, is redundant not only to the foregoing abbreviations but also to “such as” — and “et al.” (“and others”), which, outside of a bibliography, is simply not necessary. And why use ergo when you can write thus? A good proportion of English vocabulary derives from Latin, but I advocate minimizing direct borrowing.

5. Nonprofit

I abhor the use of nonprofit as a stand-alone noun, and I find I must append the word organization to that word, converting it into an adjective: “nonprofit organization.” The same opposition applies to multinationals; I favor “multinational corporations.”

6. Quality

I once worked for a publication whose editor in chief banned the word quality alone when “high quality” is meant, as in “This is a quality publication.” It was an oddly specific prohibition from a person who wouldn’t be expected to bother with such specific usage, but I agreed with her then, and I do now; I never use the term in isolation in that context.

7. Scare Quotes

Quotation marks used as the written equivalent of wiggled-finger air quotes are usually unnecessary. They’re especially so in conjunction with so-called — in fact, they’re redundant in that case: “So-called notification laws require businesses to notify customers when certain unencrypted customer data is improperly accessed.”

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25 Responses to “7 Editing Pet Peeves”

  • Jon

    With reference to point 2, I think David Mitchell sums it up perfectly, with a graph, no less (Link http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/video/2010/may/20/language-usa

  • Richard – Accessibleweb

    “Could care less” seems to be predominantly an American habit.

    My favourite pet peeve is using the word leverage as a verb e.g. “We could leverage the goodwill …”, if the word has to be used at all it should be, “We could lever the goodwill…”

    Personally I prefer to use e.g. than “for example” and i.e. for “that is” just because they are shorter but you are right that they are often reversed in use.

  • Stephanie

    I was about to disagree with you on number 4, but then I realized that, in professional writing, I DON’T use e.g. or i.e. – I only use them in casual writing to save time (e.g. emails, notes to self, blog comments).

    “Ergo” is more a voice decision, but I agree, I’d be less likely to use it in a professional piece than in a conversational one. “Thus” can sound outdated and therefore comical. “Therefore” is closer, but longer (I’m a copywriter, so length is often an issue).

    Side note: you inadvertently mis-defined i.e. and e.g. by reversing the order of their definitions – “for example” and “that is.” I thought I’d point that out since you mentioned misuse.

    Excellent post, as usual. : )

  • Jill

    THANK YOU for addressing “I could(n’t) care less”. Drives me crazy.

  • Sharon

    Wow, you only have seven? Or is this just the tip of your pet-peeve iceberg? 🙂 It is good to learn what bothers other people–I’ll probably start noticing these more often!

    I get editorially upset at “same exact” anytime I see or hear it; however, “exactly the same” is fine.

  • Richard – Accessibleweb

    The order of “for example” and “that is” may have looked the wrong way round, but it wasn’t explicit from the text that these were defiinitions in any particular order.

    Another peeve I have is the common expression “to talk to” when referring to an object, e.g. “I can’t talk to that situation”. You can only talk to a person or group and you talk about a situation.

  • shirley in berkeley

    I disagree about “I could care less.” Everywhere from casual conversation to movies and television, people are saying the opposite of what they mean. The correct usage, “I couldn’t care less,” is disappearing, first from spoken language, now from written language. It’s only a matter of time before the real meaning is gone for good. Ugh.

    There’s also the matter of “unique.” The word by itself no longer seems to be enough: anything worth talking about now is “very unique.” Again, ugh.

  • The Raven

    Well, just because some people – perhaps even most – misuse the expression “beg the question,” I don’t see why that should preclude its correct use. As for id est and exempli gratia, those abbreviations can be quite elegant if used well, and convey a slightly different tone than their English counterparts.

    In practice, if I’m working with a manuscript that misuses “beg the question, I’ll delete it because it’s the wrong expression, and I’ll silently correct i.e. and e.g. errors on the fly. I pretty much agree with you on the rest.

  • Nan Roberts

    Mine are: 1. Local, as in local neighbor, local library, local police — when it is obvious from the context that it is indeed local.
    2. Local area
    3. Local area residents
    4. Area as an adjective– area residents, say.
    These just drive me nuts. NUTS.

  • Precise Edit

    I nearly always strike out “currently,” “presently,” and other such words.

  • Robert

    Aren’t nonprofit and multinational simply developments in language, whereby an adjective becomes a noun? Multinational is both an adjective and a noun according to the Oxford dictionary. I admit that “nonprofit” grates on me, but it seems that it will eventually become a noun like multinational. In my country, we have “not-for-profit” becoming a noun – horrible!

    If you object to multinational, you’d also need to object to cathedral. The term is “cathedral church” – a church that houses the bishop’s throne (cathedra) – with cathedral being the adjective. But, through common usage, “cathedral” is now used as a noun. “Automatic” and “manual” are understood to be types of cars when used on their own, but they can still modify other nouns (e.g. process).

    Is there a term for these kind of nouns that started their life as adjectives?

  • Lisa Martinez

    All points above are valid. I totally agree with number 2. This has always been a huh-yooge peeve of mine. Uh, hello people, do you not listen to yourselves??? Like number 3 too.

    In fact, I like all seven different quality peeves (ie 1 through 7) Ergo, I enjoyed them all! (I wanted to fit all 7 peeves into one point but that would beg the question…)

  • Simon Duck

    Must make sure I use my for e.g. and i.e. correctly in the future ha, I’m sure there are about 10 different ways I have used them over the past two years.

  • Kristen in CA

    Thank you, thank you! Your #2 is at the top of my list! I correct people (and yell at the television!) whenever I hear it. People, come on, if you could care less, then fine – just don’t use this phrase when you really mean your couldn’t! 🙂

  • Amazing Blair

    I don’t understand number 7. Can you explain scare quotes again?

  • Mark Nichol

    Robert:

    Good point. I suppose it’s just that the nominalization of “nonprofit organization” into nonprofit and the similar evolution of multinational have occurred during my lifetime, whereas I was not around to protest the shift to cathedral. I am not generally one to command the tides of linguistic progress to obey me, but I do like to wade in and dam them up a little now and then.

  • Beth

    I was somewhat surprised when i found out my education hadn’t readied me for the reaction i would get when I used Aboriginals in a paper. Alas, the paper was presented to a group of Indigenous people. They were very kind, but pointed out that they don’t like being referred to by an adjective. I’ve since never forgotten that Aborigine, aboriginal person or indigenous person is OK, but that Aboriginals is not.

  • shirley in berkeley

    Mark, when I said I disagree about “could care less,” I meant that I disagreed that it didn’t come up often. It comes up all the time, and I hate it!

  • Gabe

    I could care less about those examples above. How about some more widespread and “academic” peeves such as “cf.”, “ibid”, “sic”, “aff.”, “viz.”, AD. (or A.D.? before or after year?), i.a. (interalia, or is it inter alia?), BA and MA (or is B.A.? Master or Masters?), his MO (or is it M.O.?), NB. (or is it N.B., and can you say “It’s very N.B. that you forward the copy AM!), PhD (or is it P.hD, or Ph.D or Ph.d?)

    PS. you’ll have my CV. a.m., i.a. my MA can be cf., viz. my LL.M, so don’t hesitate to PM me re. the PhD

    RIP

  • Mark Nichol

    Gabe:

    Search the site for “abbreviations” to read posts covering some of these abbreviations.

  • pattisj

    Would “high quality” used as an adjective be hyphenated then?

  • Mark Nichol

    Pattisj:

    Yes, before a noun.

  • venqax

    I cannot and can not agree more emphatically with the first example. I would say it is a fantastic shibboleth for literacy vs. illiteracy except I don’t think I have EVER heard it used correctly, by ANYONE (save right here). I wouldn’t condemn it to disuse, tho, just because it is misused by 100% of its users.

    Just as a side note: I was taught that in the cases of e.g. and i.e. specifically (it never came up regarding other Latin abbreviations) that while they were written as such, they should be pronounced in their English translations. So, if you were reading aloud a text written, “The two non-contiguous U.S. states, i.e. Alaska and Hawaii, are on this map”, you should read it as,
    “The two non-contiguous U.S. states, that is, Alaska and Hawaii, are on this map”. Did anyone else receive this elevated wisdom?

  • Cheryl Knagg

    I keep waiting for someone (other than me!) to decry the prevalence of the phrase “each and every.” In my humble opinion it is a repetitive redundancy. 😉

  • venqax

    Cheryl Knagg: I sympathize, and agree that the phrase is redundant. But I’m inclined to see it as an idiom which has its own validitiy in informal speech. English uses redundancy a lot for emphasis, and always has: every little bit (there aren’t usuallly big bits), teeny tiny, tiny little, close or near at hand, forever and always, etc. Not that just anything commonly said earns idiom status. I still get irked when I hear there were, “Two people chasing each other down the street”!

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