Sins of Writers: Editors Should Save the Latter from the Former

By Jack Limpert

I’m reading away at a good novel, One Man’s Flag, by David Downing. He’s a terrific writer—his earlier novels (Zoo Station and others) were set mostly in Berlin before and during World War Two. This one is set in Germany, England, Ireland, and India as World War One is looming and some Irish and Indians would like to see those damn English lose.

Then I hit this sentence: “She bought newspapers for the train and a copy of the popular Woman’s Weekly. She was done with the former by the time they reached Hitchin.”

She was done with the former? I’ll stop reading and look back to see what that was.

Downing did it again later with a “former” and “latter.” The reader has to stop and figure out what was former and what was latter.

Where was the editor? All that had to be done in the first instance was change “the former” to “the newspapers.”

While editing the Washingtonian, I think I edited out every former and latter that came through. Those words are stop signs for the reader, and it’s the editor’s job to keep the reader reading.


  1. Paul Chernoff says

    My least favorite word is “impact.” It is supposed to sound neutral and scientific but is almost negative. What is the matter with the words “harm” and “benefits”?

  2. John Corcoran says

    Heaven knows you saved my bacon innumerable times, for which I am extremely grateful. It’s one of the reasons why you are my favorite, er, former editor.

  3. Thank you for being proactive on this issue. An analogous headline from the NY Times website May 29 evening (a tragic topic, though): “MORE THAN 700 MIGRANTS DIE IN 3 SHIPWRECKS IN AS MANY DAYS”

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