14 January 2020

Copyediting tips

A lot of editors wear one hat or another. They do developmental editing or copyediting. Not both. But not me. While I prefer developmental work, I also happily do copyediting. Helping make a manuscript consistent appeals to the anal-retentive side of my personality. (And while we're on it, yes, I know, that looks wrong: copyediting. It should be copy editing, don't you think? But the Chicago Manual of Style is what most (all?) publishers rely upon for fiction, and Chicago says to use copyediting and copyeditor. So I will here, even as I shiver while doing it.

Anyway ... it's late and I'm short on time tonight, so I'm going to quickly talk about two copyediting problems I spot all the time, not just in fiction, but on blogs and Facebook and, basically, everywhere. Both issues deal with when it's appropriate to set words or word phrases off by commas.

You think you know the answer? Let's see. I'm going to post some example sentences and you decide which ones are properly punctuated.

Example 1

A) My short story "The Case of the Missing Pot Roast" was published in 2018.
B) My short story, "The Case of the Missing Pot Roast," was published in 2018.

Example 2

A) My newest short story "Alex's Choice" was published in Crime Travel.
B) My newest short story, "Alex's Choice," was published in Crime Travel.

So what do you think? In each example, was (A) or (B) correctly punctuated? Based on a mistake I see often, I'll bet most of you (including you writers out there) said (B) for both. And I say to that ...


You lose that round. In Example 1, the correct answer is (A). But in Example 2, the correct answer is (B). Why? It all has to do with whether the story titles are necessary for the sentence to be clear.
A pot roast dinner because ... why not?

You set a story title (or any information) off with commas when that information is not necessary for the sentence to be clear. So let's look at Example 1. If I wrote it without the story title it would say: My short story was published in 2018. That would probably leave you thinking, "Which story are you talking about? You've had a lot of stories published. You even had more than one published in 2018." And you would be right, which is why you need to know the story title for that sentence to be clear. Since the story title is required, you don't set it off with commas. So the correct punctuation for the sentence in Example 1 is: My short story "The Case of the Missing Pot Roast" was published in 2018.

Turning to Example 2, here's how it would read without the story title: My newest story was published in Crime Travel. Assuming again that you're familiar with my work, do you need the story title to know what story I'm talking about? Nope. I only have one newest story, so I don't need to say its name for you to know which story I'm talking about. Since the story title isn't necessary in that sentence, if I were to add it, the title should be set off with commas, as such: My newest story, "Alex's Choice," was published in Crime Travel.

Think you've got it? Let's try again.

Example 3:

It's 2006, and I call my sister and say, "My short story was nominated for an award." She would congratulate me and know exactly which story I'm talking about because at that time I only had one story published. As such, if I'd included the story title in the sentence, it would have been  unnecessary detail, so it would have been set off by commas: My short story, "Murder at Sleuthfest," was nominated for an award.

But let's say I had two stories published in 2005. If I called my sister a few months later and said, "My short story was nominated for an award," she would ask, "Which one?" She can't tell which story I'm talking about because it could have been my first story published in 2005 or my second one. So I have to revise my sentence to make it clear: My short story "Murder at Sleuthfest" was nominated for an award. Since the story title is necessary for the sentence to be clear, it's not set off by commas.

Paul Rudd
Here's another example, just to be sure you've got it. Assume I'm not a bigamist and I'm married. Which is correct?

A) My husband Paul Rudd reads more than I do.
B) My husband, Paul Rudd, reads more than I do.

If I had just one husband (and if I have to make one up, Paul Rudd is a good choice), his name would be set off by commas because you wouldn't need to know his name for this sentence to be clear. If I had simply said "My husband reads more than I do," you'd know I'm talking about Paul Rudd.

But what if I were a bigamist? Then if I said, "My husband reads more than I do," you would rightly say, "Which husband? Paul Rudd or Robert Downey Jr.?" (If I'm going to be a bigamist, I might as well do it right.) So for that sentence to be clear, I'd have to say: "My husband Paul Rudd reads more than I do." You'll notice there are no commas in that sentence because dear Paul's name was necessary for the sentence to be clear.

More Paul Rudd
Let's move on to something related: Which versus That. I see the word "which" used so often when the correct word in a particular situation is "that." When do you use "which" and when do you use "that"? If information is necessary to a sentence, you use "that" and no commas. If information is unnecessary to a sentence, you use "which" and commas.


I've just gone shopping and come home with one new blouse. I put it on and show it to my husband, Paul Rudd. (Set off by a comma because I'm no bigamist!) And he says, "Your new top is pretty." And I smile, pleased that he liked my new top. There was no confusion in our conversation. He could have said, "Your new top, which is blue, is pretty." But he didn't have to mention the color because I only bought one new top, so I know which top he's referring to. Since the color wasn't necessary for the sentence to be clear, the information was set off by commas and the word "which" was used.

You can never have
enough Paul Rudd
But what if I'd come home with two new blouses? I model both of them for Paul and say, "What do you think?" He replies, "Your new top is pretty." Instead of smiling, I say back, "Which one are you talking about? The red one or the blue one? You don't think they're both pretty? I spent hours looking for two tops I thought you would like, and you can't even bother to have a kind word for both of them, you son of a ..."

Oh, wait, sorry, back to grammar. So you see, Paul's declaration that my new top was pretty was ambiguous because I hadn't bought just one top. So I calmly ask Paul which one he's referring to, and he says, "Sorry, I should have been clear. Your new top that's blue is pretty. The red one's ugly as sin." Since the color blue was necessary for me to know which blouse he liked, the information was not set off by commas and the word "that" was used.

And now I'm off to therapy since I can't even have a happy marriage with an imaginary husband.


  1. Good one, Barb! But I’m sorry to hear that your real life is Rudderless....

  2. Entertaining as always, and so helpful. I owe you for six minutes of editing time.

    1. Counting time in six-minute increments--no! Law firm flashback! And thanks, Mark.

  3. Informative AND witty. A perfect post.

  4. The French rule of relationships, in the 17th-18th centuries, was to marry for family and love for pleasure. That way everyone always knew who one's husband was. Using your lover, however, in a sentence, would always require a comma.
    Love the post.

  5. Great post!! Especially those first two examples--wonderful explanation of WHY those commas are (and are not) needed.

  6. I can’t stand the sight of a comma inside quotation marks and will do anything to avoid. It just looks WRONG because it’s not part of the text within the quotes. I add extra words to avoid it — ex: My new story is published in Crime Travel. The title is.... But I don’t like the look of periods inside quotation marks either. So I would go for “Blah Blah” is the title.

    I hope you and Mark will be very happy together.

  7. I sometimes have a real problem with commas multiplying like viruses. This helped a lot. Thanks!

  8. Very good, although my first-grade teacher, Mrs. Dahl, (who I always suspected of being a Gestapo reject because of her excessive cruelty), would go bonkers over leaving off the commas. Conversely, she drove into us never to use commas before an 'and'.

    You always make me laugh out loud! Your poor husband, Paul.(Did I do that right?)
    I still rag my own husband about the call he made to his then-boss's home. When his wife answered the phone and he had finished with the pleasantries, he asked, "Is your husband Tom at home?" She and I had a good laugh about it later on,as did Tom.

  9. Thanks, everyone, for your kind words and for stopping by!

    Eve, French lovers always required a comma? Does that mean that no one ever had more than one lover at a time?

    Sandy, Mark? Who is Mark? A future third imaginary husband? Do tell!

    Tonette, Mrs. Dahl clearly didn't know about appositives. And that story with your husband is funny indeed. How many husbands did his boss's wife have?

  10. You are hilarious! I actually knew those rules but a reminder never hurts.

  11. LOVED this, Barb. You should write a grammar book in this style.

  12. More than copyediting, why shouldn’t it be (copy)editting? We don’t say “Hiting the books.”

    While we’re on the topic, what’s the difference between line editing and copyediting? And why isn’t it lineediting? Enquiring minds want to know.

    Barb, I manage which/that pretty well, but not your earlier examples. Your explanation really helped… and did so hilariously.

  13. That's what I'm missing! An imaginary husband! Barb, you can't keep them all to yourself...(great post!)

  14. That which you post is illuminating.

  15. Fun and informative post. When I was in grad school, I swear I had to memorize the 17 uses of a comma for one of my classes (history). 17! I still use lots of commas in my academic writing, but in my novels they are all removed by the copy editor. Half the tim I don't know why, but I don't really care. (I bet I've misused all the commas in this post too!) :-)

  16. Thanks, Edith, Marilyn, Leigh, and Mel. I love making people smile.

    Leigh, your spelling of editing (I can't even bring myself to spell it your way) is all kinds of wrong. Shiver. As to the difference between line and copyediting, I don't think there's a universal opinion on that. If you really want to know how I define the difference (the services I offer for line editing versus copyediting, we can talk privately sometime).

    Mel, you let me know which imaginary husband you want, and I'm sure we can come to some arrangement. For the right price, of course.

    Rita and Susie, I yearn to be illuminating. And Susie, your comma usage here was perfect. On behalf of copyeditors everywhere, I salute you!


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