Eye for Errors: Test your skills at editorial triage

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Bryan Garner on Words

eyeball with type over it

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.

Read more …


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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