Barbara Wallraff

What They Don’t Know Can Hurt Them

Blog Post created by Barbara Wallraff Expert on Jan 19, 2018


For 30-some years I’ve worked as a line editor of newspaper, magazine, and journal articles and professional reports. Much of what I edit is also reviewed by a professional fact checker, or else I check it as I go along. So, I get to see what’s incorrect in final drafts as well as what’s ungrammatical or infelicitous. The authors of virtually everything I work on have bachelor’s degrees, master’s degrees, and often even Ph.D.’s, yet everyone goofs up in their writing sometimes. Allow me to share some common kinds of goofs. When I see them, it lowers my opinion of the writer. Hopefully we can motivate students by reminding them that these goofs reflect poorly on them in the eyes of prospective employers and other readers.


  • Professional fact checkers, in particular, know that writers are not always careful with factual details—that’s why checkers have jobs. Working alongside them, I’ve occasionally found startling differences between the manuscript the writer turned in and the galleys once the checkers have done their work. The memorable “oldest human settlement in North America,” for example, might become a ho-hum “long-inhabited place.” Often, a writer’s most compelling assertions are what need to be toned down. It is much easier to overstate one’s case than to present a nuanced truth that will lead readers to a similar conclusion. But if the truth is nuanced, so must be the writing about it.


  • Carelessness is also endemic in footnotes and endnotes, by the way. I’ve hardly ever fact-checked a piece with notes in which they all were accurate and consistently formatted. Notes in journal articles and reports that have multiple authors tend to be especially haphazard. Collaborators should agree in advance about what format to use, or assign one person at the editing stage to make the formats consistent, or both.


  • Inexperienced writers are prone to overcapitalizing. For instance, according to a graduate student’s self-description, he had worked at “a Startup that uses Artificial Intelligence.” The temptation to overcapitalize is especially strong with phrases that are often turned into acronyms—as “artificial intelligence” is with “AI.” But unless the thing is an official entity or officially designated kind of entity, there’s no reason to cap it. The NIH is the National Institutes of Health, a federal agency; a PCMH is a patient-centered medical home. The former phrase is a proper noun, while the latter is just jargon, or a so-called term of art. The reasons not to cap such things are that doing so ascribes undue importance, and in aggregate it can look forbidding and start to make English look like German.


  • My texting app is pretty good at distinguishing between “it’s” and “its”—but I can say that with confidence only because I know the difference. The more texts one writes, the more likely it becomes that one will have trouble deciding which form is correct in other writing. The English language didn’t make it any easier on us when it mandated that “the book’s cover” should have an apostrophe but “its cover” should not. All I can say is that good writers have been able to reliably distinguish between “its” and “it’s” for centuries. Its (just kidding!) not complicated.


  • Young professionals sometimes are unclear on when to hyphenate. They may hyphenate after “-ly” adverbs—as in “a strongly-voiced objection” and “a fully-fledged alternative—even though the rule against doing that would seem to be straightforward. Those phrases don’t misread without hyphens, so the hyphens serve no purpose. Young people also tend to multiply hyphens in phrases, writing things like “return-on-investment” and “an arrival on-time.” “On-time arrival” uses a hyphen so that “on-time” will be read as a unit. The need for that hyphen tempts people to write “arrival on-time”—and from there, I guess, “return-on-investment” isn’t much of a stretch. However, hyphens are much less often needed in modifiers that come after what they modify than in modifiers that come before. A “well-thought-out” argument is “well thought out.” Dictionaries, unfortunately, don’t reinforce this point. Merriam-Webster online says that “well-thought-out” is an adjective, defines it, and leaves it at that. Type “well thought out” into its search bar, and the site will hyphenate it for you and take you to that entry. As is usually the case, technological tools cannot take the place of good classroom instruction. If you don’t teach your students the difference, they may never find it out.


Some of these shortcomings have to do with fine points of writing, which won’t make or break, say, a résumé or a professional report the way sloppy thinking or shoddy research will. All the same, the problems I’ve described can for the most part be solved quickly, simply, and definitively. Getting things like these wrong signals a lack of mastery loud and clear—so it can’t hurt to teach your students to get them right.


Do you have questions about language or grammar, or are there topics you would like me to address? If so, please email me at


Barbara Wallraff is a professional writer and editor. She spent 25 years at the Atlantic Monthly, where she was the language columnist and an editor. The author of three books on language and style—the national bestseller Word Court, Your Own Words, and Word Fugitives—Wallraff has lectured at the Columbia School of Journalism, the Council of Science Editors, Microsoft, the International Education of Students organization, and the Radcliffe Publishing Program. Her writing about English usage has appeared in national publications including the American Scholar, the Wilson Quarterly, the Harvard Business Review blog, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times Magazine. She is coauthor of In Conversation: A Writer's Guidebook, which will be published in December 2017.


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