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    Ranking Editing "Hang Ups"

    Wednesday, December 02, 2009
    "What should you say on the phone: 'It is me' or 'It is I?' Maybe you should just hang up the phone and send a fax."

    - Laurie E. Rozakis, The Complete Idiot's Guide to Grammar and Style

    You can find top ten (or 20) lists covering just about anything: Top business schools, top crime novels, top angry comedians, most unusual pets,…even the most unusual Japanese chewing gums. Very funny. There are entire books devoted to lists; that's how popular they are. Some of these lists inform us (safest cars); others entertain us (just tune in to the David Letterman Show).

    I'm not sure why we're so attracted to lists. Do we have a deep-seated need to rank things or an innate desire to have information classified and pre-packaged? Certainly all of our technological gadgetry lends itself to classifying and ranking.

    Anyway…if you Google "most common errors in writing," you will (surprise, surprise) have instant access to any number of helpful lists. There are general-usage lists as well as more specific lists, such as one devoted exclusively to business letters and another devoted to accountants and their writing.

    One of the lists that I find most useful was compiled by Andrea A. Lunsford and Robert J. Connors. They analyzed the errors in 3,000 college-level papers as marked by college instructors, and compiled their list according to the frequency that certain errors appeared. Here are the first five errors that they identify:

    1. No comma after a longer introductory element.
      With a devil-may-care attitude and a bowl of chips Rico marched into his man cave to watch another Detroit Lions' loss.

      (A comma is needed after the long introductory prepositional phrase: With a devil-may-care attitude and a bowl of chips, Rico…)
    2. Vague pronoun reference.
      While Samantha talked with Yvonne, she offered advice about dealing with the Neanderthals in shipping.

      (As stated, it is unclear who is offering the advice. She should be replaced by Yvonne or Samantha, depending on who is the advice giver. Example: While talking with Yvonnne, Samantha offered advice…)
    3. No comma in a compound sentence.
      Mr. Peabody said he was truly humbled about his promotion yet he spent more than 10 minutes blathering about it.

      (A comma is needed before the coordinating conjunction yet.)
    4. Using the wrong word.
      Let their be no mistake about the sale's figures. Their awful.

      (The first their should be there; the second one should be they're.)
    5. No comma in a nonrestrictive element.
      J.J.'s Sandwich Shop which makes the best hard rolls ever now has delivery service.

      (The clause which makes the best hard rolls ever should be set off by commas because it offers unnecessary information.)

    Another useful list compiled by Maxine Hairston focuses on errors as viewed by business people. The top errors are the ones that bothered the participants the most. Scroll down to "The Non-Educators View of Grammatical Errors." Here are the first five errors that Hairston identifies:

    1. Nonstandard verb forms
      Anxious Inc. has went through two takeovers in the past three years.

      (The correct verb form is has gone.)
    2. Lack of subject-verb agreement
      Neither Boris nor Bruno are attending the wellness fair.

      (Singular subjects joined by nor take a singular verb - in this case, Neither Boris nor Bruno is…)
    3. Double negatives
      After carefully reviewing the new Web designs, we don't think none of them are cutting edge.

      (Any should replace none to avoid the double negative.)
    4. Objective pronoun as subject
      April and me will edit the new employee's manual.

      (Use the nominative pronoun I in the subject position: April and I will edit…)
    5. Sentence fragments
      HM Investments offers a great opportunity. If you're into high-risk, no-reward employment.

      (The fragment if you're into high-risk, no-reward employment should be connected to the sentence that comes before it: …great opportunity if you're…)

    Note: As you might guess, incorrect spelling is, far and away, the most frequent and obvious error and, thus, not included in either study.

    Do you use a list as a guide when checking your business writing for errors? If so, how closely does it match one or the other of these? Your business writing handbook (if you use one) may provide an editing checklist based on an error analysis. For example, the editing guide on pages 156-157 in Write for Business is based on the Lunsford and Conner study.

    Final Thought: According to grammar authority Constance Weaver, if you try to edit without using a top-ten (20) list, you may find yourself "falling into a big black hole of errors," not really knowing what to look for once you get past checking for spelling, capitalization, and end punctuation. If you need more convincing, check online for a list of the most compelling reasons to use a top-ten errors' list. I'd put your odds at finding one at one in twenty.

    - Dave Kemper