Bryan Garner on Words

Eye for Errors: Test your skills at editorial triage

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Photo illustration by Brenan Sharp

Every editor must engage in triage: sorting the most urgently needed edits from minor ones that, although desirable, aren’t absolutely necessary. If instead you treat all edits as if they were equally serious—covering the page in red ink—the writer may feel hopelessly inundated and just reject them all.

If you approach editing sensibly, the extensiveness of your edits to someone else’s work will also depend on your seniority (will your marks be taken as orders?), your skill (do you really know what you’re doing?), and your judgment about how amenable your colleagues will be to your changes (are they secure enough to understand that editing is an act of friendship?).

For now, let’s assume that you’re a junior person in the office. Your colleagues have middling writing skills, but they don’t understand the finer points of style. In short, you’re in a very typical situation here. You’ve been asked to review three briefs before they get filed tomorrow, and your seniors want you to be sure that there aren’t any typos or similar gaffes. Assume that they’re addicted to prior to (for before) and pursuant to (for under), and they won’t take kindly to your editing for mere questions of style.

Give these briefs a minimalist edit—confining yourself to outright errors. In each sentence that follows, find one or more glaring errors and one or more venial errors. The glaring errors (wrong word, poor grammar, misspelling, etc.) must be fixed: They would be regarded as blunders by any informed reader. The venial errors (a finer point of punctuation or word choice) might slide: They won’t tarnish the firm’s image too much because they’re so common. Purely discretionary matters of improvable style (passive voice, wordiness, legalese, etc.) are off-limits here.

Take the Editor’s Quiz

See whether you can spot the glaring errors and the venial errors in the sentences that follow. Circle the errors and mark them G for glaring or V for venial. Find the answers on the next page.

  1. The statute of limitations do not affect the Defendant’s right to pursue their cause of action against the third parties for contribution and/or indemnity.
  2. Since mere need or desire, or a unilateral expectation, are not sufficient to create a right, your review and guidance is hereby requested.
  3. The City of Poughkeepsie is a party to the proceeding and as such has a right to notice; such right having a foundation in APRTA as well as the state and federal Constitutions.
  4. The Plaintiffs’ are attempting to use this Court for political purposes related to the City’s new airport site selection controversy.
  5. The timing and expense of the judicial process is also unknown but could be significant if the process was made more complex by interveners, lienholders, or upon objection by the property owner.
  6. Although there is no California case clearly on point, authority from California and federal courts indicate that Anderson may pursue it’s claim for contribution against Callycal should it elect to do such.
  7. Neither the defendants nor the Court have cited a case in which the opinion or conclusion of an agent has been imputed to his principle.
  8. The burden is on the prosecution to show the validity not only of the confession but also the arrest as well.
  9. If either the debtor or the creditor want an extention of the stay, they should make the appropriate application to the Bankruptcy Court under the auspices of §105.
  10. The yardstick by which district court’s measure the admissibility of expert testimony may have now grown another foot or two—at least in the Fifth Circuit, if not a full yard.

Fun, wasn’t it? I cut the quiz short, knowing that you probably spend much of your day consuming such fare. But you can see how important an eagle-eyed editor is for identifying and fixing errors in any draft.

Below are the answers keyed to three authorities on grammar and usage. But let me urge you to review your work one more time before glancing over the answers. Six of the professional legal editors at LawProse Inc. have agreed on what qualifies as a glaring error as opposed to a venial error. We hope you’re in step.


CMS = Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed. 2010)

GMEU = Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed. 2016)

RB = The Redbook: A Manual on Legal Style (3d ed. 2013)

1. Glaring: (1) statute of limitations should take a singular verb: does not affect. GMEU at 866-68; RB at 192-94. (2) If there’s one corporate defendant, the pronoun reference should be its. If it’s a person whose gender is known, it should be his or her. CMS at 213-16; GMEU at 195-96, 534-35; RB at 179, 181-82. Venial: and/or would be better as and. CMS at 266; GMEU at 50; RB at 251.

2. Glaring: (1) There’s an agreement error: The first verb should be is, not are. CMS at 238; GMEU at 195, 866-68; RB at 192-94, 197. (2) Oops, there’s another: review and guidance are different things, so the verb should be are, not is. GMEU at 195; RB at 192-94. Venial: hereby is unnecessary.

3. Glaring: The semicolon is wrong. The language after it amounts to a subordinate clause. Either change the semicolon to a comma or change having to has to make an independent clause. CMS at 325; RB at 213. Venial: (1) For parallelism, most editors would want to add in after as well as. CMS at 213; GMEU at 670-71; RB at 211, 214. (2) Constitutions probably shouldn’t be capitalized. RB at 61.

4. Glaring: The plural subject needs no apostrophe: It’s just wrong. CMS at 207, 342; GMEU at 745; RB at 57, 135. Venial: Most professional editors would want to hyphenate the phrasal adjective: airport-site-selection controversy (no hyphen before the noun controversy). CMS at 227-28; GMEU at 751; RB at 44-47.

5. Glaring: (1) There’s a problem in subject-verb agreement: is should be are in the first clause. CMS at 238; GMEU at 195; RB at 192-94, 197. (2) The hypothetical if-clause calls for a subjunctive verb: if the process were, not was. CMS at 236; GMEU at 869-70. (3) The sentence ends with an unparallel listing: It should be by interveners or lienholders, or the property owner (if that’s the meaning). CMS at 259-60; GMEU at 670-71; RB at 214. Venial: significant appears here in the extended sense of “having an important effect or influence,” as opposed to its more traditional sense of “having meaning.” GMEU at 830.

6. Glaring: (1) There’s problem in subject-verb agreement: authority takes indicates, not indicate. Perhaps make it Although there is no California authority clearly on point, federal and California cases suggest … . CMS at 238; GMEU at 195; RB at 192-93. (2) it’s should be its (the correct possessive form). CMS at 217, 287; GMEU at 534-35. Venial: elect to do such would be better as elect to do so. CMS at 297; RB at 311.

7. Glaring: (1) There’s a problem in subject-verb agreement. With a neither … nor construction, the verb must agree with the second element: hence has, not have. CMS at 239, 255; GMEU at 623-24; RB at 214. (2) Principle (rule or standard) has been misused for principal (employer of an agent). GMEU at 729; RB at 302. Venial: It’s better to call defendants by name (e.g., the Wilsons). RB at 72.

8. Glaring: (1) There’s a problem in grammatical parallelism: of could be moved after validity, or another of could be added after also. CMS at 259-60; GMEU at 670-71; RB at 214. (2) not only can take as its completer either but also or but … as well, but it can’t take both without serious redundancy. CMS at 255; GMEU at 634; RB at 214. Venial: No venial “errors,” but the sentence could be tightened: The prosecution must show the validity of both the confession and the arrest.

9. Glaring: (1) Subject-verb agreement: want should be wants. CMS at 238; GMEU at 195; RB at 192-93. (2) they, strictly speaking, shouldn’t be singular: it would be better if corporate litigants are involved. CMS at 215-16; GMEU at 907; RB at 182. (3) Extention is a misspelling of extension. GMEU at 370. (4) auspices means “sponsorship” and should be deleted: Write under § 105. GMEU at 84. Venial: Lots of wordiness, but that’s not quite classifiable as an error. GMEU at 776-77.

10. Glaring: (1) Use district courts as a simple plural with no apostrophe. CMS at 207, 342; RB at 56-58. (2) The dash construction amounts to mispunctuation: perhaps either another foot or two, if not a full yard, in the Fifth Circuit or another foot or two—at least in the Fifth Circuit—if not a full yard. CMS at 333-34; GMEU at 750-51; RB at 40-42. Venial: The “yardstick” metaphor doesn’t work well.


In print and initial online versions of “An Eye for Errors,” October, answer No. 6 omits a word. The third line should read: Perhaps make it Although there is no California authority … .

The Journal regrets the error.

Bryan A. Garner, the president of LawProse Inc., is editor-in-chief of Black’s Law Dictionary. His most recent book is Guidelines for Drafting and Editing Legislation. Follow on Twitter @bryanagarner.

This article appeared in the October 2017 issue of the
ABA Journal with the headline “An Eye for Errors: Test your skills at editorial triage with 10 sentences"

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