Proofreading Secrets

Here are some excerpts from my book Proofreading Secrets of Best-Selling Authors.

1. Restrictive vs. Nonrestrictive Clauses. The Chicago Manual of Style says, “A word or phrase that restates a noun or pronoun in different words is set off by commas.” In the sentence, “My husband, Richard, took me to dinner last night,” either “my husband” or “Richard” could be eliminated without changing the meaning.

“If, however, the word or phrase has a restrictive function (identifies the noun more specifically), it is not set off by commas.” So I wouldn’t put commas around the name if I wrote, “My son Michael is younger than his brother.” Since I obviously have more than one son, “Michael” identifies which of my sons is referred to in this sentence.

2. Serial commas. When you have a series of three or more elements, and a conjunction joins the last two, do you put a comma before the conjunction or not? Well, that depends. If you’re writing a newspaper or magazine article, you go by the Associated Press style guide, which omits the comma (unless such omission could cause confusion). But if you’re writing a book, you go by The Chicago Manual of Style, which states that the comma should always be used.

An example I like to cite is one my fifth-grade teacher taught me. Consider this sentence: “The inheritance will be divided equally between Tom, Dick and Harry.” Technically, without the comma there, Tom would receive half of the estate, and Dick and Harry would split the other half. (Incidentally, the word between makes a big difference in this example too. Between is used when referring to two people; among is used for three or more.)

3. Capitalization of family terms. When do you capitalize terms indicating a family relationship? Lowercase when it is used generically or when it is preceded by a modifier. (Examples: “my dad” or “the youngest mother in the group.”) Capitalize when it is used as the person’s name. (“I know that Mother’s middle name is Jeanne.” or “Will Aunt Becky be singing?” or “Hey, Dad, are we going fishing today?”)


1. affect/effect

Affect (always a verb, except for one use as a noun in psychology) means “to influence” or “to cause a response.” (“This article will affect my thinking.”)

Affect (verb) can also mean “to assume,” “to be given to,” or “to pretend.” (“Deborah affected a silly manner of speaking.”)

Effect (noun) means “result” or “accomplishment.” (“What was the effect of this appeal for money?”)

Effect (verb) means “to cause” or “to bring about.” (“The new manager will effect major changes in our sales methods.”)

Effects (plural noun) means “goods” or “property.” (“The deceased man’s effects were willed to charity.”)

2. any more/anymore

Any more (adjective) means “any additional.” (“I don’t want to hear any more backtalk.)

(adverb) means “any longer” (“I don’t want to listen to you anymore.”) or “at the present time” (“No one looks up spellings anymore.“)

3. a while/awhile

A while (noun) means “a period of time.” (“Marilynn spent a while editing her manuscript.”)

Awhile (adverb) means “for a period of time.” The for is part of the meaning, so you wouldn’t write, “I rested for awhile.” (“Allison asked me to stay awhile.“)

4. blond/blonde

blond (noun) means “a person having blond hair—spelled blond when used of a boy or man” (“Sven, a muscular blond, strode the beach like he owned it.”)

(adjective) means “of a flaxen, golden, light auburn, or pale yellowish brown color” or “having blond hair” when used of a boy or man. (“Terry shook the water out of his thick mane of blond hair.”)  (“Terry was a blond man.”)

the feminine version of blond for both noun and adjective. (“Ursula loved being a platinum blonde.”) (“Virginia dried her long blonde hair with a sandy beach towel.”)

5. every day/everyday

Every day is a combination of an adjective and a noun, synonymous with “each day.” (“Connie wrote 2,000 words every day.”)

is an adjective, which means it describes a noun. (“For Debbie, writing was an everyday activity.”)

6. its/it’s

Its is possessive (“Susette knew the manuscript had its faults, but she didn’t know how to fix them.”)

It’s is the contraction of “it is” or “it has.” (“It’s clear to me now how it’s become such a common mistake.”)

7. on to/onto

On to: On is an adverb; to is a preposition. (“We moved on to the next building.”) On modifies the verb moved—”on” is how we moved. To is the beginning of the prepositional phrase, “to the next building.”

Onto (preposition) means “to a position on.” It indicates that the subject is moving from one thing to the top of something else. (“He helped her step onto the high platform.” or “The dog jumped onto the table.”)


1. each other vs. one another

Use each other when referring to two. (“Aisha and Ruth discussed the book with each other.“)

Use one another when referring to more than two. (“The critique group discussed their manuscripts with one another.”)

2. lay vs. lie

Lay means “to set down” or “to put or place someone or something in a horizontal position.” It is a transitive verb requiring a direct object that receives the action of the verb.

Present Tense:
I lay, he lays (“He lays the rug on the floor.”)
Past Tense: laid (“Donita laid her 500-page manuscript on the dining room table.”)
Perfect Form: I have laid, he has laid (“The storm had laid the grain flat.”)
Participle: I am laying, he is laying (“Laying wallpaper is difficult work.”)

means “to rest or recline” or “to be in a prostrate position.” It is intransitive, and takes no object.

Present Tense: lie, lies (“Candy’s dog lies on the guest bed every night.”)
Past Tense: lay (“I lay down yesterday.”)
Perfect Form: has/have lain (“I have lain down every day this week.”)
Participle: is/am lying (“The pen is lying on the desk.”)

3. that vs. which

That is used to introduce “restrictive clauses,” phrases that introduce information necessary for understanding. (“The garage that my uncle built is falling apart.”) The phrase “that my uncle built” is necessary for the listener to know which garage is falling apart. Or, “The lawn mower that is in the garage needs repairs.” We have more than one lawn mower. The one in the garage is the one that needs repairs.

Which is used to introduce “nonrestrictive clauses,” phrases that introduce nonessential information. (“The garage, which my uncle built, is falling apart,” Jeanette said. Jeanette would most likely say this while standing in front of the garage. The which clause introduces additional information about the garage, but the listener can already tell which garage is falling apart. Or, “The lawn mower, which is in the garage, needs repairs.” Our lawn mower needs repairs. It’s in the garage.)

NOTE: A which clause should be preceded by a comma, parenthesis, or dash; that clauses should not.

4. that vs. who

That refers to animals and things. Who refers to people.

Don’t write, “The man that bought Pamela flowers was handsome.”

5. Dangling Modifiers

When you start a sentence with a modifying word or phrase, the next thing in the sentence is what must be modified by that word or phrase. A “dangling modifier” is a phrase that does not clearly and sensibly modify the appropriate word.

Slamming on the brakes, the car swerved off the road.”

Unless you’re Stephen King, the car in your story probably didn’t slam on its own brakes.
So rewrite to: “Dianne slammed on the brakes, and the car swerved off the road.”
Or: “When Dianne slammed on the brakes, the car swerved off the road.”


all right For most publishers, this is the only way to spell the word. While some dictionaries list alright as a legitimate word, it is not acceptable in standard written usage. The Chicago Manual of Style encourages avoidance of the spelling alright.

backseat (one word when used as a noun)
back-seat (hyphenated when used as an adjective)

backyard (one word, whether used as a noun or adjective)

coworker (The Chicago Manual of Style suggests the hyphenated co-worker; however, Webster’s Collegiate lists it without the hyphen.)

good night (two words, no hyphen)

online (no hyphen)

oohing and aahing (notice the double-a)

Smithsonian Institution (Not Smithsonian Institute)

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