Doctor's notes

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Apostrophes are often put in the wrong place in people’s (of people), others’ (of others), women’s, men’s and children’s (of women, men and children). People are also reluctant to use apostrophe ‘s’ with names ending in ‘s’, like James or Chris, but modern style is James’s and Chris’s. Classical or historical names can leave out the final ‘s’ depending on style; remember to record all instances on your style sheet.

Don't include the final ‘s’ when you have made a name plural, so you would say the Kennedys’ dog rather than the Kennedys’s dog.

‘Both’ is a popular word – in fact, it's a bit too popular. In text like ‘they were both born in the same town’ the ‘both’ is unnecessary, and you don't need it every time two things are mentioned, either. ‘Both’ is at its most effective when it emphasises contrasting elements: ‘She was both strident and sensitive to others.’ Note the ‘and’ in this sentence. Often you'll hear ‘both ... but’, but ‘and’ is correct with ‘both’.

When you see ‘both’, do what I call the copyeditor’s count. In this case, look for two elements. I’ve seen ‘both’ applied to three or more items, and I’ve heard it, in the media, applied to just one.

A comma splice occurs when what follows a comma could stand as a sentence on its own. ‘Tim was an excellent surfer, he often visited the beaches in Cornwall’ is a comma splice. Instead of the comma, you have three options:

  • add a joining word or term, such as ‘and’
  • add a full stop and a capital letter
  • add a semicolon.

Your decision will partly depend on whether the connection between the first clause and the second is lost if you use a full stop to separate them. If you want to make it clear that the second clause follows in meaning from the first, expanding or explaining it, use ‘and’ or a semicolon.

‘Walking past two Range Rovers in the driveway, it was clear to see that the Coopers were well off.’ This is a dangling participle, with the person who walked past the Range Rovers not named in the sentence, leaving us looking for the performer of the action (and sometimes assigning it to the wrong actor, for example ‘the Coopers’).

You need to name the person who did the walking: ‘Walking past two Ranger Rovers in the driveway, Yasmin could clearly see that the Coopers were well off.’

Sometimes danglers are more subtle than this, so make sure you can apply the introductory phrase directly to the part of the sentence it is supposed to be referring to: ‘An excellent chef, her Belgian buns were renowned the world over’ might seem all right at first glance, but the Belgian…

En dashes – twice the length of a hyphen – are used for ranges, for example number ranges (66–67); communicating relationships (work–life balance); or for enclosing or introducing parenthetical text (an aside or extra to the main text – like ‘twice the length of a hyphen’, above). In US and Oxford style an unspaced em dash—like this—usually does the job of enclosing or introducing parenthetical text.

As an editor your job will often be to change spaced hyphens in running text - like this - to spaced en dashes – like this – or unspaced em dashes—like this—depending on style.

Microsoft Word’s Find and Replace is your friend as an editor, and you can keep it as simple or make it as complicated as you like. If you’re interested in more complicated Find and Replace operations that involve wildcards there are lots of resources to help you, from a webpage by Microsoft experts to Jack Lyon’s Wildcard Cookbook for Microsoft Word.

You can employ Find and Replace in simple but effective ways. At the beginning of your job, use it to get rid of things like double spaces between sentences (type two spaces in Find, type one space in Replace), and spaces before question marks, exclamation marks, colons, etc. (type a space then the mark in Find, type just the mark in Replace).