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Sure, it would be easy to slap together some obviously ungrammatical prose, slip it to an editor for approval, and watch the sparks fly. But just being wrong is boring—there are much better ways to drive editors crazy, and you won’t even have to make any mistakes to do it. The following are three tried (and tried and tried) and true methods to set your favorite editor’s teeth on edge without breaking any rules.

1) Inconsistent (Correct) Spelling

I don’t mean swapping out the all-American “color” for the Brits’ preferred “colour”, or “center” for “centre”. Those are regional issues, and it’s more than likely that your editor’s word processing software will simply highlight the poly-voweled perpetrator with a little red squiggle (not unlike the one underneath “poly-voweled” on my screen now). These words are easily addressed and brushed aside; your editor won’t even break a sweat. This is a more insidious ploy: slip in  a few alternate—but accepted—spellings of the same word. For example: perhaps the candles on a romantic dinner table help to establish the ambience, but a few paragraphs later, after a bottle of Chianti, the two would-be lovers are instead discussing finance and the ambiance has shifted.

Did you see what happened there? Both “ambience” and “ambiance” are accepted spellings of the word, but any editor worth her salt knows that you have to pick one and stick to it. There are plenty of words like this, with two or (horror of horrors!) three alternative but acceptable spellings. A few examples: “grey” and “gray”, “toward” and “towards” (took me 23 years to realize they didn’t mean different things, however subtly), “ax” and “axe”, and the contentious “whiskey” and “whisky”. Trust me: this one will have an editor cringing the second she notices what’s happening.

2) Technicalities

It shouldn’t come as a huge shock that many editors, having chosen to spend their time ridding the written world of errors big and small, become, to put it blandly, detail oriented. It seems a fairly natural extension of my duties; if, for example, I ought to know the proper spelling or punctuation of an acronym, it seems only natural that I know an acronym when I see one. This isn’t always as simple as it sounds.

Nearly everyone knows that when I say “acronym” I am referring to a set of letters, all of which represent the first letter of longer words. For example, “scuba” stands for “self-contained underwater breathing apparatus”, and “FBI” stands for the “Federal Bureau of Investigation”. But there’s a catch: only one of those is a true acronym.

Allow me to explain: the definition of “acronym” is more specific than the broader sense in which it’s typically used. The actual definition, per Merriam-Webster, reads as follows: “a word (as NATO, radar, or laser) formed from the initial letter or letters of each of the successive parts or major parts of a compound term.” Therein lies the rub! It only counts as an acronym if all the letters abstracted from the words themselves forms a separate term, pronounced as a word of its own, as “NATO”, “radar”, or the previous example, “scuba”. “FBI” we pronounce as three separate letters, “eff bee eye”, meaning that, technically speaking, this kind of abbreviation is an initialism, not an acronym.

3) Stylistic Quibbles

This is a big category, and could probably be its own blog post (no promises that I won’t write it next month). Matters of style, like how many commas are necessary or which words should be hyphenated, are difficult to argue. As long as the style is consistent and no rules of grammar are being broken, it isn’t technically wrong—but it might still make your editor’s skin crawl.

How many commas do you use in a list, for example? Do you go to the store for “butter, cheese, eggs, and milk” or for “butter, cheese, eggs and milk”? The difference is that last comma, just before the “and”, called the serial comma or the Oxford comma, and what a contentious little thing it is. The two most popular style guides, the Chicago Manual of Style (now in its 16th edition), or the Associated Press Stylebook, differ in many ways, but perhaps most dramatically (if you can call it that) in their treatment of the Oxford comma. Chicago recommends a comma after each item in a list, including the Oxford comma, while the AP insists that the last comma is unnecessary. Personally? Although even the Oxford Style Guide no longer insists upon the last comma, I side with Chicago on this one. Can’t be too careful.

These are by no means the only things that get editors worked up. There are plenty of plain old mistakes that will make our red pens twitch (try using the wrong “there/they’re/their, for instance). But whenever you next have a need to send an editor (or better yet, a whole team of them) into fits without actually committing any grammatical crimes, I hope you’ll remember these three tricks and put them to good use.


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