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Editing Tips

Mary Embree, SPAWN's Founder, is a writer, editor, and publishing consultant.

Your computer’s spell-check is helpful but has its limitations. Beware of the words it will not pick up, such as using their (possessive case of they) when it should be there (in or at that place) and emigrate (to leave a country to live elsewhere) when you mean immigrate (to enter a country to live there). Here are some other words that I’ve often seen used incorrectly:

accept to receive; to answer affirmatively

except to leave out, with the exclusion of

affect to influence, to pretend

effect a result, an influence, an impression

born brought forth by birth

bornepast participle of the verb bear: to hold up or support

braketo reduce speed

breakto separate, to destroy

capital a city that is a seat of government; money; uppercase letter

capitol the building in which a legislature meets

compare to examine differences and similarities

contrast to examine differences

flair skill, talent

flare a bright light, an outburst

gorilla an ape

guerrilla a member of an irregular military force engaged in guerrilla warfare

illegible impossible to read

unreadable not interesting; not worth reading

ingenious brilliant, clever

ingenuous simple, naive

its belonging to it

it’s it is

lay to put, to set down

lie to rest in a horizontal position (lay is its past tense); to make an un- true statement

liable responsible; likely

libel a defamatory statement

notable worthy, impressive

notorious widely known and ill- regarded

principal main (adjective); the person in charge (noun)

principle a moral rule; a law

retch to make efforts to vomit

wretch a deplorably unfortunate or

unhappy person

whose possessive case of which or who

who’s who is

your belonging to you

you’re you are

Here’s a misusage that I see constantly and it bothers me every time. It is “very unique” or “totally unique.” Unique is an absolute, like complete, equal, perfect, dead and pregnant. You can’t be a little or a lot of any of those; you either are or you aren’t. Unique means existing as the only one or as the sole example.

Okay, I’ll admit that when I looked unique up in the dictionary, I saw that it has undergone semantic development and that the stupid usage I pointed out above has become standard in all varieties of speech and writing. But I don’t care what anyone says; I still think it’s wrong and if I see it on your manuscript, I intend to circle it in red.

Mary can be reached at



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