Coming to Grips with the Singular They

I was hesitant to say much about this topic, as the internet is full of discussion, and most people in my circles feel that ship sailed some time ago, that there is nothing left to discuss.

Let me be clear: I 100% support gender neutrality. I support gender inclusivity, and I support empowering people to explore gender identity in whatever way helps them make sense of this reality we face. This is not a commentary about gender. This is a commentary about number.

What I choke on with the singular they is the loss of yet another distinction between singular and plural. We already gave that distinction up with the second person: thou/thee got merged with you/ye into you and now we have some terrible options for distinguishing singular from plural: you guys (really?), you all (y’all, which, so help me, makes me cringe) and youse (which I almost like, it’s cute, ish). With the historical use of the “royal we” and the increasing use of we to imply solidarity, collaboration and/or togetherness (even insincerely), a future completely devoid of singular pronouns other than “it” is not all that far-fetched.

As a professional wordsmith, it is my job to help people make themselves understood. If communication is two individuals sharing and understanding an idea (thank you Pat Parelli), there has to be a mutually agreed upon way to convey that idea. It seems important in many cases to be clear about whether we are talking about one or more individuals. However, from an academic writing perspective, the rabbit hole took me on a surprising journey.

Finding clarity through being vague

I have been noticing that in many contexts, particularly in non-fiction discourse, it’s not necessary to talk about an individual. I work on a lot of books that have been translated from French, and the translations are often not great, or too literal, but they reveal a lot about nuances in English and French that I find fascinating. I recently worked on a book about maps. The translators worked diligently to achieve gender neutrality which, bless them, resulted in a few instances of singular/plural discordance, my favourite of which was, in reference to the language of maps: “They makes good use of grammar…“. But I digress. Here’s an example to illustrate the point of being intentionally vague to achieve clarity:

The author may plan to deceive his readers, or not realize that his map will often be misinterpreted.

We’re not talking about a particular author here – this is just any old cartographer who might be making a map with or without the intention to mislead. Ironically, French, a language built entirely on masculine/feminine constructs, has the luxury of gender-neutral third-person possessive pronouns that agree in gender and number with the object, with no refence to the gender or number of whoever is doing the possessing. The original French of the sentence above reads thus:

Leur auteur peut prévoir de tromper ses lecteurs, ou ne pas se rendre compte que sa carte va être souvent mal interprétée.

A simple solution to this is to remove possession, which is not necessary to convey the intended meaning:

The author may plan to deceive readers, or not realize that the map will often be misinterpreted.

The sentence that follows in this passage further illustrates the trend I find in French writing to talk about a single individual when really a category of people, such as a profession (in this case, authors of maps), is the subject being discussed:

Il peut aussi intégrer des éléments graphiques qui vont éventuellement évoquer certaines idées ou sentiments chez les lecteurs

translates literally to

He (or she) can also integrate graphic elements that will eventually evoke certain ideas or feelings in readers…

So we could use they here, but it’s even cleaner if we just eliminate the pronoun altogether:

Authors can also integrate graphic elements…

This boils down to a simple guideline that I have been trying to apply in all my academic editing: If a pronoun can be avoided, avoid it. Speak to the idea, and take the emphasis off the individual.

Showing respect and inclusivity by not specifying

In a world rife with ad hominem attacks, I find it refreshing to take the emphasis off the individual and instead focus on the idea. Good academic writing should be about sharing ideas, making arguments, presenting hypotheses, observations, and conclusions. We can show sensitivity and respect for the individual by not assuming anything about an individual, especially when that individual is representative of a group (e.g., a profession) that hopefully is made up of diverse individuals. Speaking collectively about cartographers without any assumptions about gender (or any other axis of identity, for that matter) helps me counter the implicit bias that comes from visualizing an individual cartographer, something which I cannot trust my brain to do fairly or inclusively.

Up next: the individual they

It’s obvious that none of this is helpful for the nonbinary person who wishes to be identified as such. As a straight, cis-gendered, privileged white woman, I am still learning from individuals in my circles who are not straight, cis,-gendered, privileged or white. I’m hopeful that my efforts to write inclusively by not specifying will help bring unconscious bias to my conscious mind, where I can acknowledge it and learn from the lived experience of others who are willing to share that experience with me.

Goals and Objectives: What Are We Aiming For?

red and white dart on darts board
Photo by Pixabay, from

In my work, I come across aims, goals and objectives all the time. You would think by now that I would have figured out what these words actually mean. But alas, today I got mired in the mud and went down the rabbit hole, and decided that these words are only as useful as the extent to which they are clearly defined in the context they are used. Here’s a brief travelogue of my journey there and back again.

From a strictly English language perspective, there is really very little difference between aim, goal and objective. Aim is the only one of the three that can be either a noun or a verb; the other two are nouns.

The most common word is goal, and aim and objective are usually used in more formal writing. Generally, though, an objective is considered to be more specific than a goal (e.g., Our goal is to improve health care for children. Our objective is to provide 10,000 children with vaccines).

In casual conversation, most people would use goal for both general and specific things: My goal is to lose weight OR my goal is to lose 20 pounds by the summer.

In business, aims relate to the end results, but goals and objectives help you achieve these results. Goals are abstract ideas, while objectives are more tangible and concrete.

An aim is a purpose or desired outcome – a vision (e.g., to become a successful entrepreneur).

A goal is a specific statement of intent – a target or destination (e.g, increase profits by 24 percent within one year)

Objectives are the actions needed to arrive at a goal – creating a road map or action plan (e.g., sending letters to prospective employers, obtaining a qualification).

It would seem there is a similar hierarchy in education, at least as far as writing curriculum goes: aims, goals and objectives (AGO) is the progression from larger ideas to smaller instructional components.

In this context, aims are general statements that provide direction or intent to educational action. They include terms like learn, know, understand, appreciate, and are not directly measurable (e.g. Students will understand and become proficient at identifying the different types of spoken English).

Goals are statements of educational intention which are more specific than aims, but they may still encompass an entire program, subject area, or multiple grade levels. They may use amorphous language or more specific behavioural terms (e.g., Students will be able to identify and use American slang terms and phrases).

Objectives in curriculum writing are usually specific statements of educational intention which delineate either general or specific outcomes. There are different types: behavioural, holistic, non-behavioural, problem-solving, expressive. According to this website, most educational objectives are written in behavioural terms using observable verbiage that can be divided into specific domains – cognitive (head), affective (heart), and physical (hand). The author offers an amusing example: Cognitive – Students will identify and list 5 slang terms they have heard from their peers. Affective – Students will choose 3 of the most offensive slang terms from a list developed by the entire class. Physical – Students will create expressive gestures to go with their favourite slang terms.

That was cute. And then I came across this attempt at clarity:

“You aim to accomplish a goal in order to achieve your objectives.”

Not really helpful. At all.

Moving on, another source presents aims and objectives as specific types of goals:

An aim is an ultimate goal, which the individual or the entity strives to achieve. It describes what is to be achieved and is not time-bound or measurable.

An objective is a specific goal of an individual or company. It describes how the aim is to be achieved and is both time-bound and measurable.

Seems clear enough, until a different article on the same website defines a goal as a “lifelong aim” and an objective as a “specific milestone.” Objectives are “precise, measurable, time-based actions that assist in achieving a goal.”

Confusing as that is, the common ground is that objectives are the means, and the goal or the aim is the end.

This hierarchy of specificity between goals and objectives is generally carried over into health and health research, at least in the US. An internship program defines a goal as a “big-picture statement exhibiting relevance to a declared mission or purpose, [which is] non-specific and non-measurable.” Objectives, they say, follow the SMART criteria: specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound. Measures are articulated for each objective. This goal-objective hierarchy extends to the CDC.

The Health and Community Workforce in Australia advises that developing goals and objectives is an important first step in developing a project plan. Consistent with the US references, goals and objectives are hierarchical, where a goal is a broad, long-term change the project seeks to achieve, and objectives are more specific and immediate. The SMART acronym is also used here to define objectives. This source also adds a third level, strategies, which are the steps taken to achieve the objective. Strategies can be further broken down into actions or tasks to be completed.

Now for some Canadian context:

CIHR’s Project Grant website defines the following for grant writers:

  • The goal states the purpose of the project, and what the project is ultimately expected to achieve.
  • The objectives clearly define the proposed lines of inquiry and/or activities required to meet the goal.
  • The proposed project outputs (i.e., the anticipated results of the project) are clearly described and aligned to the objectives.

If you will forgive the dig: because it doesn’t seem to be in CIHR’s nature to be straightforward or consistent, in their Guidebook for New Principal Investigators, they suggest writing a research plan based on “a General Objective and Specific Aims.”  

Now I feel less embarrassed by my confusion.

So while the business and education worlds talk about aims sitting at the top of the hierarchy, followed by goals and objectives, in health research (at least in Canada) the concept of an aim seems somewhat … aimless. At the very least, the term is confusing and inconsistently applied. Maybe it’s best to leave aim as a verb, since that remains its unique feature among the words in question. (Yes, technically task and output have been verbified, but let’s not make things any harder than they need to be, shall we?)

Personally, I like the hierarchy of goals (non-measurable), objectives (measurable), and strategies or tasks (itemized milestones). I’m going to try that and see how it goes. But remember, if you’re writing a CIHR grant, you have the option of calling your goal your objective and your objectives your specific aims. Clear as mud?

This isn’t even jargon. These are everyday English words that are being applied in a variety of different contexts. The moral of the story is that it never hurts to clarify a term you are choosing to use in a very specific way. Because even if you manage to get it straight in your head what you mean, your reader or reviewer might be left aimlessly wandering and trying to catch up, or missing the mark entirely.

Editors beware: Scammers at large

Twice in the past few weeks, I have been contacted by someone looking for help with a document that raised the same series of red flags. I was alerted to the first of these email scams by my lovely Facebook community, because these scammers shamelessly and systematically target freelance editors. Thanks to my colleagues, then, I was slightly wiser this time around.

On top of that, recently I had a dinner conversation with two friends (both IT professionals) who shared stories of dealing with phone scammers who try to convince their victims that their computer has been infected by a virus. One friend led the person on with all kinds of bogus information, thinking that he was at least distracting the guy from bothering anyone else. The other friend recounted how he basically shamed the dude into confessing and actually got the scammer to admit he was a bad person. I found both stories amusing and inspiring each in their own right.

So when the red flags showed up for me this week, I settled on a straight-up, straightforward approach – not mean, but I did put on my mom voice, just a little. 🙂 I’m no saint, so this email went through several more colourful drafts, at least in my head.

The call-out

Dear Kylian,

I’m afraid there are several aspects of your overture which raise serious concerns for me:

  • a Google search of your name gives me only information on famous football players, and your email address is impossible to track
  • your English language skills in your email messages do not match the language in the attachment
  • you have not answered my questions clearly about your geographical location or the purpose and intended audience of your document
  • you have asked for a full estimate and proposed a paper method of payment even before you have determined I am the right editor for you
  • your deadline is odd and the term begins on a future date, even though your project is apparently already underway

Unfortunately, all of these factors call into question the legitimacy of your project. There are many shameless scammers out there who try to take advantage of freelance workers making an honest living, and I would hate to think (but I do think) that people like you are not so much looking for help as you are looking for victims..

I am willing to give you one more chance to prove to me you are a legitimate prospective client. If you are, then please understand the absolute need for transparency and clear communication, and give me reason to trust you. If you are not, then please reconsider your life choices, think about the kind of person you want to be, and find a better way to make your living.

Sincerely yours,

Karen A. Limbert Rempel, MSc


Consistency and Flexibility

One pitfall of being an editor is seeing things that I wish didn’t bug me, but do. I don’t want to be a critical or judgmental person, and I certainly don’t want to be one of “those people” who thinks she knows better than anyone else. But here’s a story of the (mis)application of style just for the sake of following the rules: the story of number styles in lists.

My son is about to write his test to prove he knows the rules of the road so the Province of Manitoba will grant him a learner’s permit. Last night, we were reviewing the Driver’s Handbook and having fun with the practice quizzes (a great resource, and a great refresher for veteran drivers like me).

The question came up: how far away from a railway track do you have to park? Well, that one stumped us both (I’ve never had to think about parking next to a railway track), so we looked it up. Page 88 of the Driver’s Handbook has a lovely, comprehensive list that looks like this:

It’s illegal to park:
• on a sidewalk
• across the entrance to any driveway, back lane or intersection
• within three metres from the point on the curb or edge of the roadway
immediately opposite a fire hydrant
• on a crosswalk or within three metres of a crosswalk
• within 15 metres of a pedestrian corridor
• within nine metres of a stop sign or other traffic sign or signal posted
at an intersection
• within 30 metres of the nearest rail of a railway crossing, unless
otherwise posted
• within six metres of a driveway entrance to a fire station, unless
otherwise posted
• on a roadway beside another vehicle that is already parked
• at a curve on the highway outside a city, town or village, when
the vehicle cannot be clearly seen from at least 60 metres in each
direction upon the highway
• in such a manner that it becomes a hazard or that is contrary to
any section of The Highway Traffic Act or any municipal bylaw

Now, I have no way of knowing how this list strikes you, but it bugged me. So much so that I stopped and said, “As an editor, this bugs me.” My son said, “Yeah, what’s with the mixing of the words and numbers?” To him, it seemed totally illogical. I laughed, because the poor handbook writers are just trying to follow the rules.

Follow the rules – to a point

The basic rule is simple, and follows Chicago 17: the numbers zero through nine are written out, and everything else is set in numerals. I tend to write this way myself, and I’m not sure why except that I’m used to it (which is, by the way, the wrong  reason to insist on any point of style). But if I’m used to it, why did this list bug me?

In an earlier post I pondered number styles according to Chicago 17  in far too much detail, having spent far too much time trying to decide whether to reverse the decisions of a copy editor. I settled on the section in the manual called Consistency and Flexibility, which in its essence says, “Follow the rules unless you have a good reason not to.” One good reason to bend the numbers-vs-numerals rule is “local” consistency, such as a list like the one above. Using numerals consistently to indicate how far away from something you should park would make the whole thing so much easier to scan and memorize, would it not? See for yourself:

It’s illegal to park:
• on a sidewalk
• across the entrance to any driveway, back lane or intersection
• within 3 metres from the point on the curb or edge of the roadway
immediately opposite a fire hydrant
• on a crosswalk or within 3 metres of a crosswalk
• within 15 metres of a pedestrian corridor
• within 9 metres of a stop sign or other traffic sign or signal posted
at an intersection
• within 30 metres of the nearest rail of a railway crossing, unless
otherwise posted
• within 6 metres of a driveway entrance to a fire station, unless
otherwise posted
• on a roadway beside another vehicle that is already parked
• at a curve on the highway outside a city, town or village, when
the vehicle cannot be clearly seen from at least 60 metres in each
direction upon the highway
• in such a manner that it becomes a hazard or that is contrary to
any section of The Highway Traffic Act or any municipal bylaw

This kind of local consistency does not mean that the rules aren’t followed elsewhere throughout the handbook. It just means you make an exception for that list, because really, what are you trying to remember? Distances. In metres. Numbers.

  • 3 – fire hydrant, crosswalk
  • 6 – driveway entrance to a fire station
  • 9 – stop sign
  • 15 – pedestrian corridor
  • 30 – railway crossing
  • 60 – range of sight of a vehicle parked on the road.

What a nice, neat list of multiples of three. Yes, three. The list is done, and so I revert back to the rule.

(Un)common sense

It comes down to common sense, a lot of the time. Following the rules absolves us of the responsibility of thinking for ourselves. It’s better to think and make a conscious choice than hit something and claim you had the right of way.

In writing to convey information, our goal should always be to never make the reader work harder than they should have to. Some information is hard to process, and we’re not talking about simplifying everything. We are talking about avoiding unnecessary distractions, which can be likened to impairment. Check out this Driving Quiz question (just because it’s funny):

A few drinks after work before driving home: good because you miss the rush hour traffic good because they help to release the day’s tension and make you a safer driver
c.will impair your ability to drive
d.will never hurt anyone

If blindly following a style rule impairs the ability of the reader to retain the information you are trying to convey, then it undermines the purpose of the writing, just like alcohol in your bloodstream impairs your reflexes. Even rules of the road, if blindly followed, can get in the way of defensive driving (for example, driving according to conditions instead of blindly following the speed limit or proceeding because you have the right of way).

Be safe, be kind

The central message of the Driver’s Handbook is, don’t be stupid or reckless. The central message of the astute editor is: don’t be stupid or reckless. Be courteous. Be safe. Be kind. To other drivers and to your readers. Just be glad “reader rage” isn’t a thing. Unless you’re on social media. But that’s another thing altogether.

Update: James Harbeck recently posted about number style on The Editor’s Weekly. Because he is way smarter than I am, I get very excited when we agree on a style decision. 🙂 However, I also recently encountered a client preference to follow the one-to-nine spelled out rule even in the face of an exception as outlined above. Here I made an exception to my exception, because clients preferences trump mine, and that is just the way it is.

Why I Love Editing: Brain Balance

Editing is a varied and dynamic process that is sometimes hard to define, and that is actually one of the things I love about it. It is a very personal process that will depend entirely on the context not only of the work itself but of both the creators and the audience.

When anything is written down to convey information, it is only useful to the extent that it reaches its intended audience. And I don’t just mean that they receive it; I mean that it reaches into their minds and hearts and that the intended message is understood.

Editing happens all the time, all around us. We self-edit an email before we send it. We ask a trusted person to bring “fresh eyes” to something when the stakes are high and after we’ve read it a thousand times already.

What I love about editing is that it is simultaneously intuitive and technical.

When I was in school, I could never decide if I was an arts or a science person. My parents and teachers suggested that people are either right- or left-brained but that some (like me) are pretty balanced between the two. Rather than embracing this, I tried very hard to pick one at the expense of the other. When the technical side was in charge, my creativity suffered, and when I let the creativity peek through, it felt like the technical side tried to keep it in line with the “rules.”

In hindsight, this led to a lot of frustration, but it also led to me to the level of understanding I have today. Editing allows me to use both sides of my brain. I can be creative and intuitive as well as technical and methodical, and I can use these skills for good.

I even have two “missions” in my freelance work:

When I am feeling creative and intuitive, my mission is to help brilliant minds shine brightly. I have encountered so many bright and inspired people who know what they want to say but, whether for lack of training or a language barrier, cannot always bring that brilliance to the written word without some help.

When my left brain kicks into gear, my mission morphs accordingly: to help clients convey information that is both useful and helpful to the intended audience. By “useful,” I mean that the writing fulfills its purpose, whether that be to instruct, inspire, or inform. By “helpful,” I mean that the writing fulfills its purpose while inflicting no unnecessary pain – that is, that the intended audience can read and understand with no distraction and without having to think any harder than they should have to.

A couple of weeks ago, a post on Editors’ Weekly by Anna Williams resonated with me, because it asked the question whether editors are born or made. As with all things, I honestly think the answer is “some of each,” but it made me smile to think that other editors out there love what they do, and dare to wonder why.

Scary “Scare Quotes”

It seems a topic only too appropriate for today: I ran across scare quotes today in a page proof. They were used inconsistently, so I dug into my trusty Chicago manual to see the scoop and what rules might apply. As usual, I never open that book without learning something. 

“Scare quotes,” according to CMOS 17 (7.57), are used to alert a reader that some term is being used in a nonstandard way: to be ironic, as slang, etc. The manual cautions against overuse, warning that the device (much like the F-bomb, actually), loses its force and becomes irritating when overused. 

In my real-like example, a footnote in an accounting article refers to “big bath” accounting. The term “big bath” (which, by the way, is a sketchy if not fraudulent behaviour, in case you are interested) is used four times in just as many lines of text. It is encased in scare quotes three of those times.

Adding quotes to the fourth “big bath” did reek like overuse to me, but my consistency antenna was blinking, so what to do? A couple of paragraphs down from the don’t-overuse-it advice, I read that “a word or phrase preceded by so-called need not be encased in quotation marks” (CMOS 17, 7.59). That seemed like a workable solution: add so-called before the first occurrence of big bath, and establish the term without using quotes. 

BUT (because exceptions are the rule), CMOS goes on to say that quotes can (and maybe should) be added if only a part of the phrase is highlighted: so-called “running” shoes,

In the case of “big bath”, in this context it is indeed used as a modifier of not less than three nouns that are related but not identical: big bath charges, big bath accounting, big bath reporting behaviour. So, the exception to the rule may apply: so-called “big bath” charges sets off the modifier as being the ironic or nonstandard part of the phrase. 

Thus, as with many elements of style, there is more than one right way to do things, and as a proofreader, my only job is to check against the author copy. In this case, the proof matches the copy, so I choose the least invasive approach and add quotes to the fourth occurrence. Consistency trumps overuse for the lowly proofreader.

However, as a copy editor, I might flag this whole footnote to the author, and suggest introducing the term using so-called “big bath” charges,

Happy Hallowe’en!

Serious Serial Comma Silliness

I am a fan of the Oxford comma (also called the series or serial comma): parsley, sage, rosemary[,?] and thyme. Or at least I thought I was. Recent conversations and reading have led me to think again about where I place my comma allegiances, and why.

My go-to example in favour of the series comma has always been this one:

I’d like to thank my parents, Bono and Lady Gaga for their inspiration.

One might question who my parents are, exactly. Add the Oxford comma and the fog clears:

I’d like to thank my parents, Bono, and Lady Gaga for their inspiration. 

However, the fog clears only because “parents” is plural and Bono, bless him, is just one person. Consider this:

I’d like to thank my father, Bono, and Lady Gaga for their inspiration. 

Now we can’t tell the difference between the series comma and the pair of commas used to set off what’s called a non-restrictive appositive. A what now? This is just a fancy name for an optional descriptive word or phrase for the noun next to it. If Bono were my father, his name in this sentence would be an optional modifier of “father”. But since he is not, leaving out the series comma may actually be more clear:

I’d like to thank my father, Bono and Lady Gaga for their inspiration. 

Or not. As you may have noticed, we have come full circle to a sentence constructed exactly like the first example. So an interesting side note might be that if Bono and Lady Gaga were indeed my parents, a second comma would be required in the first example above to delineate that sneaky non-restrictive appositive. Bonus points if you can place it. 🙂

In the end, and in my opinion, the best option is to change the order of the list in question:

I’d like to thank Bono, Lady Gaga[,] and my father [or parents] for their inspiration. 

Now it really doesn’t matter if the series comma is there or not.

In her book The Subversive Copy EditorCarol Fisher Saller uses similar examples to caution against what she calls “witless, raging allegiance to one style or the other.” She acknowledges the importance of rules to establish standards for consistency. The rules are there for the express purpose of avoiding unnecessary distraction for a reader. When following the rule itself becomes a distraction, then suddenly we editors have defeated our own purpose. 

So am I still a fan of the Oxford comma? Perhaps, but hopefully not to the point of being witless and raging. The Chicago Manual of Style (17th ed., section 6.19) maintains that the series comma solves more problems than it creates, and I tend to agree. However, I am rather charmed by the cheeky footnote at the beginning of Matthew Stevens’s book The Subtleties of Scientific Style, which sets a certain tone:

I am not a fervent proponent of the “serial” or “Oxford” comma, so you will find here instances of where I haven’t inserted a comma where you might have. Without our getting into an argument about “my parents, Ayn Rand and God”, this usage reflects schooling and not logic. I can find examples of where the serial comma creates ambiguity, not solves it. But feel free to insert your own commas. Here are some spares: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Matthew Stevens, The Subtleties of Scientific Style, p. viii

I am grateful for the reminder to avoid the tar pits of style rules, but what is life without a bit of serious silliness?

Nit-picking Numbers

How a day spent grappling with “2” and “two” taught me something about numbers, numerals, and life

Sometimes I appreciate the technical side of editing. I don’t mean editing technical documents, necessarily – I mean the technical aspects of grammar and style that give me the illusion that I can tell right from wrong. As my previous post relates, sometimes there are good reasons for making certain changes to the copy even without the author’s permission. Even so, these are sometimes rather pompous reasons like because it’s the right way to do things or because the style guide says so.

And yet, if I learned anything today, that sort of fundamentalism can start me off on a slippery slope. Because I have a past life (emphasis on past) where I could quote chapter and verse of the Good Book with the best of them, I am all too familiar with the perils and pitfalls of dogma, no matter what the context. 

The thing I am learning to appreciate about the Chicago Manual of Style is that it makes no claims to have all the answers, and in the end, it is consistency and flexibility that truly matter. How do these things even coexist? Today’s lesson is brought to you by the number two (2). Not Number Two, silly – the number two!

The house style of the academic journal I am working for instructs authors to spell out the numbers zero through nine and use numerals for 10 and up. The exceptions are measurements (8 percent, 6 degrees) and references to specific parts of the paper (Table 1, section 5). Seems simple enough, right? Trucking along through a page proof, I come across the following:

The minimum (maximum) number of days between [event A] and [event B] is two (538) days, and the minimum (maximum) number of days between [event C] and [event D] is two (642) days. 

As an aside, this particular writing style has the peculiarity of displaying two options using parentheses: in the example above, the minimum is two days and the maximum is 538 days (or 642 days in the second clause). Two for the price of one!

This sentence struck me as odd because of the use of words and numerals in juxtaposition like this. Certainly, I thought, the copy editor was just obeying the rules… unless of course “days” is a measurement. What to do? Consult the manual, of course!

And down the rabbit hole I went, wading through several principles and their exceptions, until I came to section 9.7, so appropriately called “Consistency and flexibility”:

Where numbers occur within a paragraph or series of paragraphs, maintain consistency in the immediate context. If according to a given rule you must use numerals for one of the numbers in a given category, use them for all in that category. 

Chicago Manual of Style, 17th ed., section 9.7

Aha, I thought. Regardless of whether “days” is considered a unit of measurement, “consistency in the immediate context” directs me to change “two” to “2” in this sentence:

The minimum (maximum) number of days between [event A] and [event B] is 2 (538) days, and the minimum (maximum) number of days between [event C] and [event D] is 2 (642) days. 

Not that I enjoy stetting any copy editing decision, but this at least made me feel a tad more confident in doing so. Resting on my little laurels, then, I press on until I encounter this gem:

both measured over the last 2 years of [term A]. … we also calculate the average return on assets, ROA, over the two fiscal years preceding [event B]. The [variable of interest] is the excess of each [firm]’s 2-year ROA over the mean of…

Consistency is out of vogue, apparently. As a proofreader, technically my only job is to compare the proof to the author copy. And lo and behold, the author copy uses “two” in all three cases in this excerpt! Why then, would a copy editor change two two’s to 2, and leave one alone? (Are you dizzy yet?)

The reason I even care is that part of my role is to follow the style guide and correct style errors in the proof, because things do get missed. Plus, for me the inconsistency is like an itch that won’t go away. The question of the day seems to be whether “years”, like “days” in the first example, is considered a unit of measure, and if it is, then why is “fiscal year” exempt?

[Note: Because this particular realm of academia walks a fine line between the humanities and mathematics, it’s not always clear whether strict scientific style applies here. And incidentally, Scientific Style and Format basically says use numerals, (almost) always, because it’s just easier that way.]

A quick email to the client reveals that no, units of time in the magnitude of days, months and years do not count as units of measure and we should spell out zero through nine in this context. Okay, I say. This is flexibility. Flexibility within a principle of style, combined with consistent application at all levels of editing (including proofreading), is a recipe for peace of mind for editors, authors, and publishers. 

More than that, I think the principle of “consistency and flexibility” could go a long way in helping me find peace of mind in other parts of my life too: relationships, parenting, hobbies, and working with animals. Being consistent and flexible helps others know what to expect, but allows for change and growth along the way. 

After all, like everything in life, language and style are constantly evolving, so we’re always reaching for a moving target. What better reason do you need to cut yourself some slack?

Comma Confusion: To Include or Not to Include?

Recently, in reviewing an academic article, I came across the following sentence in the notes to a table:

“Industry and year-specific intercepts are not included for brevity.”

At first glance, the meaning might seem obvious, but let’s look again. Are you including the intercepts or not? Because this could mean two things: that the intercepts are there not for brevity but for completeness, OR that in an effort to be brief, the intercepts have been left out. 

The Chicago Manual of Style (17th edition) addresses this in section 6.31:

A dependent clause that follows a main clause should not be preceded by a comma if it is restrictive, that is, essential to the meaning of the main clause. For instance, in the first example below, it is not necessarily true that “we will agree to the proposal”; it is, however, true that “we will agree” to it “if you accept our conditions.”

We will agree to the proposal if you accept our conditions.

Paul was astonished when he heard the terms.

He wasn’t running because he was afraid; he was running because he was late.

If the dependent clause is merely supplementary or parenthetical, it should be preceded by a comma. Such distinctions are occasionally tenuous. In fact, as the third example below makes clear, the meaning in such cases can depend entirely on the presence or absence of a comma (compare with the third example above). If in doubt, rephrase.

I’d like the tom yum, if you don’t mind.

At last she arrived, when the food was cold.

He didn’t run, because he was afraid to move.


Because he was afraid to move, he didn’t run.

CMOS 17, 6.31 “Comma following main clause”

Bottom line: we include the comma for clarity. For clarity, we include the comma. We do not include the comma for frivolity, we include it for clarity. 

Do you see what I did there? 

While we’re on the topic of clarity, let’s look at the hyphen. “[Y]ear-specific intercepts” is clear enough, but are we talking about industry intercepts or industry-specific intercepts? An expert in the field may find this laughable and the answer obvious, but for the sake of clarity, if we are talking about industry-specific intercepts, we would need what Chicago 17 calls the “suspended hyphen” (section 7.88): “industry- and year-specific intercepts”. 

Put that all together, and the diamond-clear sentence looks like this:

For brevity, industry- and year-specific intercepts are not included. 

As a proofreader, it would technically be my job to only flag this to the publisher, but not to mark it for correction. As a copy editor, I would fix it because the assigned style guide backs me up in both cases. Depending on the publication process and my relationship with the managing editor, as a proofreader I may have room to make a judgement call. 

But yes, I am one of those rare breeds who thinks this stuff is fun, and fascinating. And sometimes, a missing comma can have big consequences, so it’s worth it to have someone around who notices these things. 


This evening I attended the Manitoba Editors’ Association workshop entitled “Get to the Point”, where the organizer Adrianne W. led us through a fun and informative series of exercises in concise writing. The first exercise took me into familiar territory: writing concise business communication. Adrianne shared the Top 10 Tips for editing business writing, and then we got out our pens and pencils and used them like machetes to chop away at some very wordy examples. My very favourite was this one:

On the afternoon of June 12 at the most recent meeting of the ad hoc committee on workplace communication policies, each and every member of the committee was in agreement with one another that first and foremost it is imperative that all forms of workplace communications be completely accurate and perfectly clear.

People in this organization are clearly frustrated by inaccurate and unclear communication, and who can blame them, if this is what their communication committee gives them? Ho boy.

Revision: The communications committee unanimously agreed at the June 12th meeting that all workplace communication should be clear and accurate. Unfortunately, we suck at that. 

Okay, that’s not what I wrote, but it’s what everyone thought. 🙂

We moved on from there to Flash Fiction, apparently also known as postcard stories, and we were asked to choose from an array of pictures on a table and write something. I have virtually no experience in writing fiction, and, truth be told, almost as little interest. I am a great reader of fiction, but would rather leave the writing to others! So I snatched up a cartoon that appealed to me only because I saw in it a window into my own life. The cartoon depicts a messy kid’s room, and on close inspection, is likely that of a girl. But I have sons, so I framed my story accordingly.

We had 20 minutes to bleed onto the paper. I share my exsanguination below, because I was pleasantly surprised at how easily it flowed, and at how well it was received.

Thank you to the MEA for a really great event.



For the millionth time, I walk by the door of that room and my teeth clench. I cringe and writhe and agonize over what I did wrong to bring up such a slob. There’s probably stuff growing in there, waiting for its opportunity to crawl into his nose or lungs or under his skin. No wonder he can never find anything. I fight despair, and close the door.

Then something makes me pause. I open the door again, and dare to have another look. Suddenly everything looks different somehow. This is an active, living place, where an active, living boy has been catapulted into my world, for me to guide and direct but also from whom to learn. Where I saw mess, I suddenly see exploration. From the piles of disorder, possibilities emerge.

I am no longer angry. I am calm, and grateful. I remember that this amazing, living being that came out of me never has, and never will, belong to me. He is his own self, and he reminds me how to let go, because holding on too tightly would crush him. Everything in this room talks to me about him, because this is where all things happen for him: this is where he sleeps, dreams, reads, thinks, works and plays.

Maybe I can help him find the line between controlled chaos and unsanitary conditions. Maybe I can do this gently, and with a sense of humour. What I do know, is that I love him fiercely, and that is enough. I walk away, and leave the door open.