Editing 101: Three Words That Put Stop Signs in a Story

As an editor, I liked to imagine the reader out on the open road, going 70 miles an hour in a convertible. One job an editor has is to not let the writer put stop signs on that road.

A stop sign I encountered almost every month at the Washingtonian was the use of “former” and “latter” in a story. An example:

“Robert Samuelson and Michael Gerson are the two most interesting, least predictable columnists on the Washington Post op-ed page, but the former surprisingly attracts more reader comments than the latter.”

Just repeating the names would make it easier for the reader.

From a recent issue of the New York Times Magazine:

He claims to have debated Omar for the entirety of the day about the legitimacy of killing British civilians, until the latter eventually conceded defeat.

Why not just say Omar again?

It’s not a new problem. In some versions of the Bible:

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices–mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law–justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.”

The word “respectively” also should encourage an editor to redo the sentence. From the Washington Post this week:

The shares of Democrats agreeing that these rights—to vote, to a free press, to criticize the government—are too expansive were relatively tiny (5, 11 and 7 percent, respectively).

Again in a Washington Post story this week:

President Trump’s insults are well documented and much discussed. He’s fond of “loser,” and of course he recently labeled MSNBC hosts Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough “crazy” and “psycho,” respectively.

A little rewriting can easily replace former, latter, and respectively, three words that almost always are stop signs for the reader.

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