I started my career in publishing in the early nineties as a copyeditor, freelancing with several of the Big Six (at the time), a twenty-something kid from the South absolutely dazzled at the privilege of working with the big publishers in New York City on the prepublished manuscripts of my heroes: Pat Conroy, Walter Mosley, Jennifer Weiner, Lisa Wingate, and hundreds more.
A lifelong word nerd fascinated by language and grammar (I was the student who always raised her hand to race to the chalkboard for sentence diagramming, a skill I adored that’s sadly no longer taught in most schools), I loved copyediting, tedious to some but a terrific fit for me. I relished constantly learning arcane rules of usage, logical and elegant as a math problem but without math’s annoying absolutes. I loved that language adapted to the needs of the text, of the author, of the sentiment being expressed.
All that is to say that I’ve meant to write a line-editing post like this for some time, one that shares some of the common misuses of language I saw authors struggle with most frequently (and still do), and pass along some of the “shortcuts,” as I like to think of them, to mastering those vexing language bugaboos, which were generously passed along to me by the editors and authors I worked with over the years.
Language is the most important tool in a writer’s toolbox, so it’s important to know how to wield it properly.
This one ranks right up there in most-misused words I encounter, authors tending to either randomly insert “whom” in the hope that it’s the more correct usage, or giving up and just refusing to use it at all.
Before I share the little shortcut managing editor Nora Reichard at Random House shared with me, fixing my confusion forever, this is a good place to state the Hippocratic Oath of Copyediting (as I made it up in my head during my years in this role): First do no harm.
A mistake newer copyeditors often make is that of rigid adherence to language and grammar rules at the expense of author style or voice or the “feel” of a story. As left-brain a skill as copyediting is, it also requires some right-brain imagination and finesse to intuit whether the absolutely correct usage detracts from the author’s intentions or draws attention to itself in a way that may pull readers out of the story.
The rule in all the publishing houses I ever worked with was generally to defer to the author’s preferences, grammar be damned. While I admit that sometimes that gave me the heebie-jeebies (I’m looking at you, “snuck”), good copyediting isn’t about making prose conform to strict language rules, but rather making sure that if it doesn’t, it’s intentional on the part of the author, not an oversight.
Language, remember, isn’t math. It’s fluid and subjective, and always in service to the author’s intentions. The starkest example of this came when I worked on Chuck Palahniuk’s book Pygmy, written entirely in an aboriginal patois that would have rendered attempts to “correct” it downright destructive to the author’s vision.
Back to our little vixens “who” and “whom,” and the ridiculously easy shortcut that will save you from ever not knowing again which one to use: Mentally rework or “answer” the question implied in the sentence—for instance, “For whom the bell tolls” might become, “The bell tolls for him”; “She didn’t know who was at the door” could become, “He was at the door.”
If the reworked sentence calls for a subject pronoun (meaning the one making the action happen)—“he,” “she,” “I,” or “they”—you use “who.” If the reworked clause refers to the object pronouns “him,” “her,” “me,” or “them” (meaning the one acted upon) you use “whom.” That’s it, easy and pretty infallible.
But per the copyeditors’ sacred oath, if an author thinks “whom” sounds too stilted for their voice or the character’s voice, then by all means intentionally misuse that little sucker.
That leads us organically to:
This is another area where authors may use the wrong pronoun out of a misunderstanding of its role in the sentence–and where the correct usage can sometimes sound wrong. Take this sentence:
My uncle left the money to my brother and me.
I’m betting a lot of you are itching to correct that ungrammatical-sounding “me” to “I,” aren’t you? (It’s okay to raise your hand. No judgment here…)
But “me” is actually correct–based on the same theory as who/whom: it’s the object of this sentence, not the subject (in easier-to-remember terms: the thing being acted upon, not the thing acting). Your uncle was the one who acted, the subject of this sentence; you merely passively received the money and were thus the object of his action. Thus “me,” the object pronoun, rather than “I,” which would be the subject pronoun.
But you don’t have to wrap yourself up in identifying the subject or object. The shortcut here is to take out the other noun(s) or pronoun(s) in the pairing or grouping: “My uncle left the money to me.” Now it’s clear intuitively that you’d never say, “My uncle left the money to I.”
Now I’ll really make your head explode—using this same shortcut, you now know that “My uncle left the money to him and me” is dead correct…even though I bet everything in you wants to change that to “he and I.”
Here’s another example:
Peter, Zahid, and I went to claim my uncle’s money.
Take out the other nouns—Peter and Zahid—and bam, you instinctively know the right word here is “I” (a.k.a. the subject—or actor—of the sentence).
I’m including this here because it ties in with our subject/object theme, and because this is also probably one of the most vexing grammar bugaboos I hear authors—or everyone, really—struggle with.
Here’s the shortcut: “Lie” is something a person or thing does under its own steam; “lay” requires that something act upon it.
In other words, “The book lies on the table” (that’s where it sits, all on its own), but “She walks in and lays the book on the table” (the book is the object acted upon by the subject of the sentence, the woman).
This one is especially tricky because of the conjugations of each word:
- Lay: The present tense is “lay,” the past tense is “laid,” and the past participle is also “laid” (“he had laid the book on the table”).
- Lie: The present tense is “lie,” but the past tense is “lay” (“yesterday she lay on the sofa all day”), and the past participle is “lain” (“she had lain there like a corpse”).
Maddening, isn’t it? And this doesn’t even consider “lie” used to denote speaking an untruth.
The trick here is just to memorize the conjugation of each verb. Then, once you use your shortcut to know which is the correct usage, you simply plug in the right conjugation of that word.
A few more instances to help clear the murk:
- “Go lie down!” (Hopefully spoken to your dog and not your spouse.) BUT “The vet lays the dog down on its side.”
- “She is lying on the sofa” BUT “He lays her on the sofa” if he carries and puts her there. (Now, I know where your little gutter minds are going, readers. And yes, you’re right—if they are having conjugal relations, he also is laying her on the sofa in another way as well….)
- No disrespect to Bob Dylan, but “Lay, Lady, Lay” is nails-on-a-chalkboard incorrect. Technically she lies upon that big brass bed, dammit.
- By contrast, well done, Snow Patrol: Your “If I Lay Here” is deliciously grammatical, because the correct verb “lie” is used in the subjunctive tense here—meaning a statement contrary to fact, i.e., “if I were to lie here (even though I’m not right now)”—which correctly conjugates as “lay” in this usage. This song’s meticulous grammar gives me shivers of word-nerd delight.
All right, that’s far enough into the rabbit hole for one post. If you guys dig this kind of post I’ll make it a series, so let me know what you think in the comments—I keep long lists of common usage and grammar mistakes, and I’d love to share more of them if they’re of interest.