Ask a Copy Editor

Last week, we asked you to submit questions to our awesome cohort of copy editors. And you guys totally did! So let’s get to it! 

Dear Copy Editor, tell me what you think about the singular possessive for a noun ending in s? Is it James’ or James’s? Does it really matter anyway? Oh, and I really hate it when people pluralize abbreviations and acronyms with an apostrophe (CD’s, ATM’s) but I see it in legitimate news sources all the time! Should I be forgiving, or continue on hating? (Asked by thirteenstiel

Here at Newsweek, the rule is to hang an apostrophe and S at the end of every singular noun that ends with S, per Strunk and White. The problem comes when you have pseudo-singular nouns: the United States, General Motors, the New York Knicks. Are they one thing—a country, a company, a team—or several things?  These we deal with on a case-by-case basis, so: the United Nations’, The New York Times's. But if it actually is a bunch of things grouped together (U.S., U.N), we try to recognize that with the apostrophe-only approach.

I agree on the second point, but it’s often a necessary evil with dealing with all-caps copy, as we often do here at Newsweek.

Is it ‘lead’ or ‘lede’ paragraph? Can people ever be evacuated? What does TK stand for? (Asked by lazenby

"Lead" and the journalism slang word "lede" both can be used to refer to that first paragraph.

Yes, people can be evacuated. At Newsweek and The Daily Beast, we use Webster’s New World College Dictionary, which defines “evacuate” as “to remove (inhabitants, etc.) from (a place or area), as for protective purposes,” among other things. “Evacuate” also means “to withdraw.” Therefore, people can be evacuated, and they also can evacuate.

TK is not exactly an acronym, but means “to come.”

How do you fix dangling modifiers? (Asked by michaelbrownart

A dangling modifier can be fixed by rewriting the sentence. Precisely how to do so will vary on a case-by-case basis. Here’s an example: “After working a long day, the dinner was exactly what was needed.” In this sentence, the dinner worked a long day. It could be rewritten as “After a long day of work, the dinner was exactly what was needed” or “After he worked a long day, the dinner was exactly what he needed.”

Is it “spelled” or “spelt”? (Asked my lovetherainmost

It’s “spelled” in America and “spelt” in Britain, unless you’re shopping in a health-food store. The U.S./U.K. divide is also seen in burned/burnt and pleaded/pled, but the rule is not universal. No one ever claims, “George Washington sleeped here.”

What’s with em dashes? Only journalists seem to use them. When is it preferred over two dashes or even a pair of offsetting commas? (Asked by dannygronerportfolio)

A Slate article that went viral among copy editors last year addresses the overuse of and lack of rules for em dashes.

When using software with the capabilities to make em dashes, they are preferred to two hyphens to mean the same thing. As for using them instead of offsetting commas or parentheses, em dashes can be effective for emphasis and clarity, especially when what is being set off is a series of items or contains some punctuation. Here is an example from last week’s Daily Beast article by Chris Lee on Jennifer Lawrence’s fame: On Late Show with David Letterman Monday, the 21-year-old actress remarked on how much Hunger Games fans—zealots who scream, cry, nearly faint, and show up decked out in the survivalist garb of her character Katniss Everdeen—basically creep her out.

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