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Sunday, December 1, 2013

A US Copy Editor's Perspective: What Are the Two Most Common Errors Found in Manuscripts?

Hyphens and commas.


The majority of the errors of the first can be corrected simply by consulting Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition (Web11), either manually or possibly from selecting Web11 as your default dictionary within Windows 8 or Microsoft Word (MSWord) 2013. Since I have neither, I am going by secondhand info here.

However, I do know firsthand that my MSWord 2010 edition does not have Web11 as its default for spell-checking functions, because there are misspelled words that are overlooked and correct words that have suggested spelling options given for them.

I bought a hard copy of Web11 and uploaded on my computer the disk that came with it. I use the resident soft copy as it's great and much faster than any free online Internet version while that remains as an option. Remember also that the online version does not give you full access to all the Web11 entries that are within the hard copy or its soft copy.

There are many hyphenation exceptions (like when two As or two Is are run together, and sometimes when two Es are found side by side), but your copy editor can help out there for all you Indie authors.

Of course the Web11 is for US authors. UK authors and others around the globe have their own preferred reference and style guides.


In general there are five easy rules for authors to know about in dealing with commas. The rest can be covered when your copy editor reviews your manuscripts. Here's my choice five:

16CMS 6.24 (paraphrased): Parenthetical elements midsentence take a pair of commas. Example: I was, at the least, mortified. NOTE: This sentence still makes perfect sense when you delete the phrase, the pair of commas and what was in between. Ending up with this: I was mortified.

16CMS 6.25 (paraphrased): The only one-word intros that require commas are: therefore, indeed and however. Example: However, I was tired. NOTE: When internally placed, a pair of commas is needed (per 16CMS 6.24 above). As in: I was, however, tired. Otherwise I would suggest no commas for other single words, especially with stand-alone LY-ending adverbs, unless for a pause effect or to add clarity for the reader.

16CMS 6.28 (paraphrased): If you have two complete sentences (each with its own subject and verb) that are conjoined by a conjunction, then a comma must precede the conjunction. Example: I had to run to the store for bread, but I needed to leave soon to avoid traffic. NOTE: Here is an exception example: I suppose that you know what you are doing and you can be trusted. Technically "I suppose that" is shared by both parts of this sentence, with "I" as the shared noun and "suppose" as the shared verb, so no comma is needed before its conjunction "and."

16CMS 6.29 (paraphrased): If a noun is shared within two clauses conjoined by a conjunction, no comma is needed before the conjunction. Example: I had to run to the store for bread and would need to leave soon to avoid traffic. NOTE: "I" is the shared noun here. Because each phrase is not a complete sentence on its own, no comma precedes the conjunction "and" here (as also discussed in 16CMS 6.28 above).

16CMS 6.36 (paraphrased): If your intro phrase has a verb in it, then a comma should follow that phrase. Example: If you had not driven me, I am sure I would have gotten lost.

Again there are many exceptions within 16CMS as to usages of commas (like none are needed around Jr. or Sr. or III as referring to names). These your copy editor can address.

In Closing

Per 16CMS 7.85, "In general, Chicago [Manual of Style] prefers a spare hyphenation style..."

Per 16CMS 6.16, the comma is for "a slight pause" or for "ease of reading."

As a copy editor and an Indie author, I am very interested in making our Indie manuscripts as professional as possible. To that end I believe both author and copy editor alike should always consult Web11 first, then 16CMS second, especially if you are an Indie author who is not a copy editor and has also chosen not to use such services. Whether you attempt to tackle the five comma rules above is up to you and how much you love learning more about our English language as used here in the States. But if you do, you will have given your manuscript an undeniable polish.

Best wishes to all.

Denise Barker, author + blogger + copy editor

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