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A Copy Editor's Lament

I'm vexed by agreement issues lately.

For example, an article I recently copy edited said something like, "The suites feature Jacuzzi tubs and a balcony." Here's another example, "Homeowners throughout the country should buy an insurance policy tailored to their unique needs." All parents should come to the school by 6 to pick up their child."

Besides aiming for clairity, the copy editor's job is also to aim for precision. So we have to think about possibly implying that multiple suites share a single balcony. We have to think about whether all homeowners can collectively buy a single insurance policy. We have to worry whether a sentence suggests that dozens or perhaps hundreds of parents all come to pick up one child.

The alternatives get messy, and writing around the problems isn't always ideal, either.

"Suites have Jacuzzi tubs and balconies" -- Making the items all plural is imprecise and can lead to potential misreadings. Does each suite just one one tub and one balcony? Or might some have more? From the way this is written, there's no way to be sure.

"Each suite features a Jacuzzi tub and a balcony" -- Making the items singular is often a handy way around the problem, but it can get very old very fast. And in some contexts it just doensn't work, like when you're talking about many different types of suites and keeping them straight means keeping them as groups.

That's what I usually try to do, though the result is usually far short of ideal.

Of course, I wouldn't change "All dogs have four legs" to "Every dog has four legs." But that just further shows the insidiousness of subject-object agreement.

It's frustrating because, in a job that offers some very solid satisfactions, there's no way to feel good about a lot of these situations. (Or maybe I'm just whiny because tomorrow the company I'm working for filed Chapter 11 but keeps swearing that I'll get they money they owe me. Yeah, that could be makin' me whiny.)

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Bring back debtors' prisons.

June, be sure to get your name (high) on the list of folk to be paid by your ex-employer.

Interestingly, although nitpicking analysis of your example sentences reveals their flaws in logic, the content of each imperfect sentence is readily understood. Such flaws are common (almost colloquial) in spoken English.

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Getting my name high on that list seems unlikely, since others on it have six- and seven-figure claims and have names like Citibank and BofA. I've been assured that, as an ongoing freelancer, I'm categorized differently from general creditors (I'm in the, "Can't screw 'em because we still need 'em" category, as opposed to the "Thanks for the big loan, schmucks" category").

We'll see how that turns out.

 Re the sentence examples: You're right. All the original "bad" sentences are perfectly clear in meaning. Which means I'm useless. Which means I may not see that money after all ... 

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When the very guardian of grammatical goodness is vexed, what hope have we underlings of...um...er....de-vexing ourselves?

 Oh the despair!


Eric P. Nichols P.O. Box 56235 North Pole, AK 99705 (907) 488-0483 kl7aj@acsalaska.net eric.nichols@eielson.af.mil http://ericnichols.net

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Yup, it's bad

Normally, I don't mind the messy nature of grammar. But when it's my job to navigate it, that's when I mind.

Anyway, even Barbara Wallraff and Bryan Garner agree this brand of agreement is not an exact science and that common sense should prevail. Still ... you know ... vexing.

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Hi June,

At least two subjects -- you and I -- can agree on this much: money woes are no fun.

Sorry you're having a tough time. Try and trust your instincts and experience on the grammatical questions. Caring as much as you evidently do ought to take care of the rest.

As far as getting paid, I can only wish you best of luck. I've been screwed too many times to offer blind optimism. Yet, still we perservere.

All my fingers are crossed for you. Or is it my fingers are all crossed up for you?

Good luck!

Chris R.

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Thanks for the commiseration.

Luckily, it's not a serious hit. But, as someone who's been screwed in the freelance world, you know how maddening it is. (I've been in those "completely S.O.L." situations, too.

They're telling us that we freelancers -- the ones they still rely on on a daily basis -- are in a different category from their bank creditors. "So keep on coming in to work."

 We'll see.

 Anyhoo, thanks!