Devils and Details!

devils and detailsAh, devils and details. You’ve heard expressions that include that idea, right? Well, for me, because I’m an editor / copyeditor, I see typos everywhere — and I know many of you do as well.

We can’t know if the writer doesn’t know a rule or is trying to proof his or her own stuff (something most of us struggle with) and missing some details. What we do know is that even small errors can make a writer look careless. And who wants that?

So to help you see what I see, here’s a little quiz to see what errors you find in each of the following sentences. Every sentence, except one, has at least one goof in it.

Always remember: The rules here are for American grammar. Your version may be different.

1. Anne felt badly about Jims situation.

2. N.A.D.A stands for National Automobile Dealers Association.

3. Is John really just 3-years-old?

4. Bobby can’t be a 9-year old already, can he?

5. Christmas Day, December 25th, 2017, will fall on a Monday, so well get a long weekend!

6. Susan lives in Buzzards Bay, Ma.

7. Sharon thinks Brett is a “nerd.”

8. Ms. Cooper is a high profile client.

9. The box contains: scissors, tape, and paper.


Let’s see how you did. The original errors are in BOLD, with the correction coming after them.

1. Anne felt badly (bad) about Jims (Jim’s) situation. We always use “bad” when we talk about feelings (it’s just the rule), but we can certainly say we slept badly, or we drive badly. And there needs to be an apostrophe in “Jims,” because it’s a possessive word (it’s his situation).

2. N.A.D.A (N.A.D.A.) stands for National Automobile Dealers Association.Many times I see abbreviations like this one missing the last period. All the letters in the abbreviation need to have the period after them.

3. Is John really just 3-years-old (3 years old)? We do hyphenate ages, but not when they’re just a phrase. (See #4 for how to use the hyphens correctly.)

4. Bobby can’t be a 9-year old (9-year-old) already, can he? There are two times when we do hyphenate ages: when the age is a compound adjective, modifying the word(s) after it (a 9-year-old child), and when it’s a compound noun (as above). And ALL the words in the phrase need to be connected with the hyphen.

5. Christmas Day, December 25th, 2017 (December 25, 2017), will fall on a Monday, so well (we’ll) get a long weekend! We never use the th, nd, rd, or st when we have a full date that includes the year. And missing “well” is common because it’s a perfectly good word, and if we’re not paying strict attention, our eyes may skip right over it. This shows how limited spellcheck really is, right?

6. Susan lives in Buzzards Bay, Ma. (Mass.) There’s no such abbreviation for Massachusetts; the only two correct ones are Mass. and MA. MA, which is the postal version, is only supposed to be used in a full address that contains a street name: 6 Smith Street, Easton, MA 02334, not in regular text.

7. Sharon thinks Brett is a “nerd.” It’s a perfectly fine sentence. Periods and commas always go inside / in front of / before final quotation marks in the American system. And we always use doubles alone, never singles. Those go inside doubles.

8. Ms. Cooper is a high profile client. (high-profile) This one can be hard to spot, because the usage is so prevalent. But with the word “high,” it’s a good idea to use the hyphen and create a simple compound adjective, rather than run the risk of Ms. Cooper being seen as someone who is high from alcohol or drug use.

9. The box contains: (contains) scissors, tape, and paper. This is another American rule (it may be used more widely than that, but I don’t know for sure), one that makes no sense. When we write a list in a sentence, we can only use the colon after a word that could logically end the sentence, and “contains” cannot do that. Neither can “include,” “includes,” or “are.” We just write the sentence without a colon, at least in that place. (FYI: If your boss doesn’t care about the rule and wants the colon in that type of sentence, fine. It’s not worth losing a job over a punctuation mark that everyone thinks belongs there anyway.)

So, how did you do? Got questions?

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