Three Words That Put a Stop Sign in a Story

By Jack Limpert

As an editor, I liked to imagine the reader out on the open road, going 70 miles an hour. An editor tries 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 an 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?

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

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:

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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