Quiz Bowl: Author-Editor Relationship

There have been some famous, even notorious, author-editor relationships: Charles Dickens and Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, Raymond Carver and Gordon Lish. This month’s quiz takes us on a tour of some of these fruitful and fractious relationships as a means of exploring effective ways for editors to handle issues with authors. The following is an example from this month’s quiz.

Vladimir Nabokov, author of Lolita, notoriously and wittily disdained editors. In a 1967 interview in The Paris Review, he said, “By ‘editor’ I suppose you mean proofreader. Among these I have known limpid creatures of limitless tact and tenderness who would discuss with me a semicolon as if it were a point of honor—which, indeed, a point of art often is. But I have also come across a few pompous avuncular brutes who would attempt to “make suggestions” which I countered with a thunderous ‘stet!’”1

What is the best way for editors to communicate with authors who balk at the suggestions made to improve the manuscript?

a. E-mail the author to tell him/her that all the edits are based on the AMA Manual of Style and therefore not subject to change.

b. Telephone the author to discuss the edits, iterating the rationale and providing resource support for the changes.

c. Do not respond to the author.

d. Eliminate all the edits and publish the paper as the author originally submitted it.

What would you do? Here’s our advice (use your mouse to highlight the text box):

Telephone the author to discuss the edits, iterating the rationale and providing resource support for the changes.

Usually, an author’s insistence to overrule all editorial changes is a knee-jerk reaction to extensive editing. Most authors are aware of the editing process, although some need to be guided gently through it. Communicating with the author and explaining the reason for the changes (as well as providing resource support when necessary) can often defuse a volatile situation.—Laura King, MA, ELS


  1. Gold H, interviewer. Vladimir Nabokov, The Art of Fiction No. 40. The Paris Review. http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/4310/the-art-of-fiction-no-40-vladimir-nabokov. Accessed February 8, 2013.

Quiz Bowl: Creating Tables and Figures

Have you ever been editing and suddenly experienced déjà-vu? You know, that feeling that you’ve read the material before. And I don’t mean several weeks or even days ago. I mean really recently. Don’t worry. You’re probably not suffering from posttraumatic editing syndrome. Often authors duplicate material by presenting it in both table and text forms. This is a no-no. As the AMA Manual of Style states, “The same data usually should not be duplicated in a table and a figure or in the text” (§4, Visual Presentation of Data, p 81 in print). Of course, some overlap is to be expected, but extensive duplication of data in tables and text is a waste of space and the reader’s time.

This month’s style quiz on creating tables and figures asks the user to create a figure and a table from text. There are only 2 exercises, so I’m not going to give 1 away here. Instead, here’s a bonus exercise for you to try.

Directions: Use the information in the following paragraph to create a table that can replace the text. Refer to section 4.1 of the AMA Manual of Style.

In a multivariable model of communication attributes associated with parental peace of mind (controlled for diagnostic category, time since diagnosis, child’s age, parent’s education, parent’s race/ethnicity, physician-rated prognosis, and degree of discrepancy between parent-rated and physician-rated prognosis; adjusted for clustering by physician), the odds ratios (95% confidence intervals) were as follows: 2.05 (1.14-3.70) for parent recalled receiving more extensive prognostic disclosure, 2.54 (1.11-5.79) for parent rated information received as high quality, and 6.65 (1.47-30.02) for parent had a greater sense of trust in physician.

Now, of course, there are several ways to reformat this sentence into a table, but here’s what we published (it was table 4 in this article). (Click for bigness.)


If you want more experience reformatting text into tables or figures, take this month’s quiz at www.amamanualofstyle.comLaura King, MA, ELS

Quiz Bowl: Intellectual Property

Whenever I see the words intellectual property, I think of David Letterman. Remember when he left NBC for CBS, thus inciting an intellectual property firestorm? NBC claimed intellectual property rights on much of Letterman’s material, including Stupid Pet Tricks and the Top 10 List. The controversy even caused the fictional demise of Larry “Bud” Melman (also considered the intellectual property of NBC), although the actor who played the character of Larry “Bud” Melman (Calvert DeForest) continued with Letterman at CBS until he retired in 2002. Much comic fodder was made of this intellectual property brouhaha, mostly by Letterman himself. However, in publishing circles, intellectual property is serious business.

So, what exactly is intellectual property? The AMA Manual of Style writes,

Intellectual property is a legal term for that which results from the creative efforts of the mind (intellectual) and that which can be owned, possessed, and subject to competing claims (property). Three legal doctrines governing intellectual property are relevant for authors, editors, and publishers in biomedical publishing: copyright (the law protecting authorship and publication), patent (the law protecting invention and technology), and trademark (the law protecting words and symbols used to identify goods and services in the marketplace).

This month’s AMA Manual of Style quiz offers multiple-choice questions on intellectual property. Test your knowledge by responding to the following question from this month’s quiz:

A scientist develops data while working at Harvard University. He then moves to Stanford University, where he publishes an article using the original data in JAMA. Who owns the data?

  1. Harvard University
  2. Stanford University
  3. Scientist
  4. JAMA

What do you think? Do the data belong to the scientist, one of the academic institutions, or the publishing journal? Use your mouse to highlight the text box for the answer:

Harvard University

In scientific research, 3 primary arenas exist for ownership of data: the government, the commercial sector, and academic or private institutions or foundations. Although an infrequent occurrence, when data are developed by a scientist without a relationship to a government agency, a commercial entity, or an academic institution, the data are owned by that scientist. Any information produced by an office or employee of the a government agency in the course of his or her employment is owned by the government. Data produced by employees in the commercial sector (eg, a pharmaceutical, device, or biotechnology company, health insurance company, or for-profit hospital or managed care organization) are most often governed by the legal relationship between the employee and the commercial employer, granting all rights of data ownership and control to the employer. According to guidelines established by Harvard University in 1988 and subsequently adopted by other US academic institutions, data developed by employees of academic institutions are owned by the institutions (§5.6.1, Ownership and Control of Data, pp 179-183 in print).

So, when Letterman packed his bags and moved to CBS, he was legally required to leave some of his property behind because it was owned by NBC. Similarly, when authors leave their academic institutions, they are usually required to relinquish the results of the work they performed during their employment.—Laura King, MA, ELS

Top 10 Mistakes Authors Make

Publishing a style manual, particularly a lengthy, detailed manual that covers a ridiculous amount of technical material (Hello, AMA Manual of Style!), is a grueling process. In our case, it involved 10 people meeting for at least an hour every week for more than a year, where we tried not to get into arguments about grammar, usage, and the presentation of scientific data. After the meetings there would usually be flurries of e-mails about grammar, usage, and the presentation of scientific data. Then we’d all go home and dream about grammar, usage, and the presentation of scientific data. You get the picture.

My point is that the writers of style manuals are often a little, shall we say, too close to the material. In the case of the AMA Manual of Style, we are all editors as well—and it can be hard for us not to roll our eyes when we run into the same problems on manuscript after manuscript. Come on, authors: there’s a whole book on this stuff!

Which, of course, is precisely the problem. There is a whole THOUSAND-PAGE book that tries to encompass all aspects of medical editing. It’s impossible to expect authors to absorb all the information–they’re just trying to get published, and it’s our job to help them. Here, in classic top-10-list reverse order, are the top 10 editorial problems we see in our submitted and accepted manuscripts, compiled by committee and editorialized upon by me. If any authors happen to read this, maybe it will help them avoid the most common errors; if any journal website–design people read it, maybe they can grab some ideas for more explicit user interface; and if any copy editors read it, maybe they can enjoy shaking their heads in wry commiseration.

10. Missing or incomplete author forms. Most journals require authors to fill out some forms, usually involving things like copyright transfer, an assertion of responsibility for authorship, and so on. These forms are often filled out incorrectly or incompletely. Following a form’s instructions as to signatures and boxes to check can save significant amounts of time in the publication process.

9. Not explaining “behind the scenes” stuff. Values in a table don’t add up—oh, it’s because of rounding. The curve in this figure doesn’t connect the values listed in the “Results” section—oh, we used data smoothing. This kind of thing can be easily explained in a footnote, but many authors forget to do so because it seems so obvious to them.

8. Making life difficult for the copy editor. Authors and editors have the same goal: a polished, published, accurate manuscript. Sure-fire ways authors can ruin what should be a pleasant working relationship are to suggest that the copy editor is making changes in the manuscript for no reason; calling the copy editor to discuss changes without having read the edited manuscript first (this wastes oodles of time); and not reading the cover letter that comes with the edited manuscript. This last is particularly charming when the author then calls the copy editor to ask all the questions that are very nicely answered in said cover letter.

7. Common punctuation and style mistakes (not an exhaustive list). Most frequently we see authors fail to expand abbreviations; use different abbreviations for the same term throughout a manuscript; use commas like seasoning instead of like punctuation marks with actual rules of deployment; and overuse the em dash. However, I’d like to tell any authors reading this not to fret, because that’s the kind of stuff we’re paid to fix. Plus I can’t really throw stones—being a fan of the em dash myself.

6. Errors of grandiosity. Sometimes a perfectly nice and valid study will go hog-wild in the conclusion, claiming to be changing the future of scientific inquiry or heralding a sea-change in the treatment of patients everywhere. Or authors will selectively interpret results, focusing on the positive and ignoring the negative or neutral. It’s natural to want to write an elegant conclusion—it’s one of the few places in a scientific manuscript where one can really let loose with the prose—but it’s always better to err on the side of caution.

5. Wacky references. All journals have a reference citation policy, and across scientific journals it is fairly standard to give reference numbers at the point of citation, cite references in numerical order in the text (as opposed to only in tables or figures), and retain a unique number for each reference no matter how many times it’s cited. However, we still get papers with references handled in all kinds of odd ways (alphabetical, chronological, or seemingly inspired by the full moon). References that include URLs can mean big problems. Often the URL doesn’t work or the site is password-protected, subscription-only, or otherwise useless to the reader. Also aggravating: references that are just the result of the search string for the article and not the URL for the article itself.

4. Duplicate submission. In scientific publication, it is not acceptable to submit a report of original research to multiple journals at the same time. Journal editors are likely to be more disturbed by this if it looks deliberate rather than like a simple mistake (not realizing that a foreign-language journal “counts,” for example) or if the case is debatable (a small section of results was published in another paper, but the new paper adds tons of new material). Remember those forms from the 10th most common mistake? One of them asks about previous submission or publication. We need authors to be up-front about any other articles in the pipeline, even if (especially if) they’re not sure if they might constitute duplicate publication.

3. Failing to protect patient identity. Yup, there’s a form for this too! Any time a patient is identifiable, in a photograph or even in text (as in a case report), authors must have the patient’s consent. (Contrary to popular belief, the gossip-mag-style “black bars” over the eyes are not sufficient to conceal identity.) Usually we hear complaints about this, because studies are written long after patients are treated and it can be hard to track people down, but them’s the breaks. If it’s really impossible to obtain after-the-fact patient consent, editors will work with authors to crop photos, take out details, or whatever it takes to “de-identify” patients.

2. Not matching up all the data “bits.” In the abstract, 76 patients were randomized to receive the intervention, but it’s 77 in Table 1. There was a 44.5% reduction in symptoms in the medicated group in the text, but later it’s 44.7%. Sometimes this is because the abstract is written first from the overall results, while the data in a table are more precisely calculated by a statistician; or maybe the number of patients changed along the way and no one went back to revise the earlier data. Either way, it drives copy editors crazy.

1. Not reading a journal’s Instructions for Authors. These days almost all scientific journals have online submission, and almost always there is a link to something called “Information for Authors,” “Guidelines for Manuscript Submission,” or something similar. Judging by the kinds of questions editorial offices receive almost daily, authors rarely read these—but the publication process would often go so much more smoothly if they would.

We are proud of our style manual, although we realize it isn’t the last word in scientific style and format. There can never really be a “last word” because some editor will always want to have it! Anyway, without authors there wouldn’t be anything to edit, so we would never hold any “mistakes” against them. No matter how grievous a manuscript’s misstep, an editor will be there to correct it, because it’s our job. (But mostly because we can’t stop ourselves.)—Brenda Gregoline, ELS


A Peek at a Trio of Homophones to Pique Your Interest and Provide Peak Enjoyment

Grammarians who pen English usage guides do not seem piqued at the misuse of the words peek, peak, and pique. Theodore M. Bernstein notes only that piqued “takes [the] preposition at or by.” Even college-level writers’ guides make little fuss. Flipping to the usage sections of several writers’ guides, one finds a no-show for the peeks. Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, however, writes that “[t]hese homophones have a way of being muddled by nodding writers.” Relying on former newspaper columnist and grammarian James J. Kilpatrick, who had caught misuses among the peaks in various news publications, the entry notes that peak most frequently edged out its competitors and inappropriately made its way into print. The entry ends by warning writers “to keep the meaning in mind and match it to the correct spelling.”

English usage of peek is traced to 1374 and stems from the Middle English piken, which some sources speculate comes from the Middle Dutch kieken. Peek means “to glance at quickly, or to peer at furtively, as from a place of concealment.” As a verb, it means that something is “only partially visible…[t]iny crocuses peeked through the snow.” The expression peek-a-boo is “attested from 1599,” according to the Random House Dictionary.

Peak is traced to 1520-1530, perhaps from the Middle Low German words pick and pike, according to Random House. As a noun it has several meanings, some of which point to the top of a mountain, ridge, or summit. It can also be used to describe a “projecting part of a garment,” as in the bill of a hat. Nautically, it means the “upper most corner of a fore-and-aft sail” or the “narrow part of a ship’s bow.” As an intransitive verb, it means reaching “maximum capacity, value, or activity,” as in “My running pace peaked at 10 minutes per mile.” Similarly, as an adjective, reaching peak levels demonstrates that one has maxed out.

In a less common usage, those who grow sick or thin are sometimes spoken of as having peaked or “dwindled away” or, as an adjective, being peaked (2 syllables), “being pale and wan or emaciated: sickly.”

Emotion rules pique. It stems from the Vulgar Latin verb piccare, “to pick,” and its usage in English is traced to 1525-1535. It is menacingly linked with pickax and pike. As a noun, it is defined as “a transient feeling of wounded vanity.” Or, as one might say of a woman scorned, “She’s in a fit of pique.” But a woman moves quickly on, pique being a transient emotion. As a verb it means that someone has been “aroused” to “anger or resentment.” Or, as I like to use it, aroused to the state of curiosity.

Although they sound alike and to an extent they look alike, the piques are as different as … Has your interest peaked? (Begs for a pun, doesn’t it?)—Beverly Stewart, MSJ

Citing Electronic Editions: or, Getting on the Same Page

Copyediting.com recently posted a tip on how to cite a book read on a Kindle or other similar e-reader,1 noting that with the lack of page numbers in such electronic editions this was a “peculiarity” that editors could use guidance on. They provided the guidance offered by the Chicago Manual of Style and the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association. They noted that the AMA Manual of Style was “quiet on the subject.”

Not liking to remain quiet for long, Stacy Christiansen, our manual’s “Tweeter,” sent a tweet2 using the same example used in the Copyediting.com tip. To wit:

Barr C; senior editors at Yahoo. Shape your text for online reading. In: The Yahoo Style Guide. Kindle ed. New York, NY: St Martins Griffin; 2010.

Tweets don’t allow much space to delve into the finer points, such as how multiple specific citations in this book could be referenced in a single manuscript, which would also help readers who are not seeking the citation on a Kindle find the specific citation. Here is a little more information for a more specific citation, indicating not only the chapter name but also the paragraph number within the chapter:

Barr C; senior editors at Yahoo. Shape your text for online reading. In: The Yahoo Style Guide. Kindle ed. New York, NY: St Martins Griffin; 2010:¶1.

An article in the New York Times3 indicated that this question is of interest to more than manuscript editors—for example, to members of a book group, some of whom read the book under discussion in print and others of whom read it on an electronic reader, but all of whom want to be able to be “on the same page” when they are discussing the book. Furthermore, this desire has been taken seriously by Amazon, which markets the Kindle. The article noted that the Kindle “will now supplement its ‘location numbers’ with page numbers that correspond to physical books.”

Bravo, we might say. The author of the article, however, offers a different perspective by saying that the attempt to “incorporate cues to keep people grounded in what has come before [eg, the page number] or scrap convention completely” is a dilemma for designers of these new technologies. So, as we leap to the future, some of us still find it useful to keep one foot in the not-so-distant past. And there’s a word for that (also noted in the article): skeuomorphs. Long may we live and long may we leap (with glee but caution).—Cheryl Iverson, MA

1. Nichols W. Copyediting Tip of the Week: Citing electronic editions. Copyediting blog. Posted January 18, 2011. http://www.copyediting.com/copyediting-tip-week-citing-electronic-editions. Accessed May 7, 2012.

2. To cite an e-reader. http://twitter.com/AMAManual/status/32154562768928768. Posted January 31, 2011. Accessed May 7, 2012.

3. Brustein J. Why innovation doffs an old hat: Breakthroughs like the Kindle and the iPad retain cues to keep users grounded in what came before. New York Times. February 13, 2011;Week in Review:2.

The “Asterisk Solution,” or Group Authorship Is Still Authorship

Authors may come alone or in pairs or trios. Or more. Today, more and more frequently, they come as part of a group. There is nothing wrong with group authorship—groups can accomplish great things. But if a group is named in the byline as sole author or in addition to individually named authors, all members of the group are still being presented as authors and all must meet authorship requirements.

This is a point of contention or difficulty for some authors (or some groups), who wish to have only the name of the group in the byline even if only a small number of the members of the group (eg, the Writing Committee) meet the standards of authorship set forth by the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) and outlined on the authorship forms required by our journals.

What to do? The AMA Manual of Style lists an option to address both concerns: (1) authors who want only a group name to appear in the byline, even if all members of the group do not meet authorship criteria, and (2) journals that want to adhere to the criteria for authorship outlined by the ICMJE. Let’s call this the “asterisk solution.” An asterisk is placed after the group name in the byline, and this links to an asterisked footnote that indicates which members of the group met authorship criteria.

The asterisk solution often is a happy one for both authors and journal editors (and it allows readers to see who the true authors are). But sometimes even the asterisk is objected to. The editors of 3 ophthalmology journals (Archives of Ophthalmology, American Journal of Ophthalmology, and Ophthalmology) found strength in numbers. In August 2010, the 3 editors published a jointly written editorial in each of their journals, outlining the “asterisk solution” policy from the AMA Manual of Style and announcing that they planned to hold firm to this policy in their journals.

Being an author is a form of recognition and can add to one’s reputation. It also represents a responsibility. The asterisk solution bestows recognition and responsibility with a single character.—Cheryl Iverson, MA

Quiz Bowl: Publishing Terms

Imagine your first day of work as a new editor at a large association. Seasoned professionals are bandying around words such as blueline, bleed, and boilerplate. When they use the word dummy you think they’re talking about you. Before you pack your blue pencil and head for the door, take a deep breath and dive into this month’s AMA Manual of Style quiz on publishing terms at http://www.amamanualofstyle.com. Here is an example of what you can learn:

Which of the following terms means a drawing showing a conception of the finished product that includes sizing and positioning of the elements?
color proof
galley proof

And the answer is (use your mouse to highlight the text box):


According to the AMA Manual of Style, layout is “a drawing showing a conception of the finished product that includes sizing and positioning of the elements.” A blueline is “the proof sheet(s) of a book or magazine printed in blue ink that shows exactly how the pages will look when they are printed.” A color proof is “photomechanical or digital presentations of color.” A galley proof is “a proof of typeset text copy run 1 column wide before being made into a page.”

Feeling a little more armed to face that first day of work? If not, take the full Publishing Terms Quiz on the AMA Manual of Style website to master your knowledge of publishing terms.—Laura King, MA, ELS


In medical contexts, incidence is most often used in its epidemiologic sense, ie, the number of new cases of a disease occurring over a defined period among persons at risk for that disease. When thus used, incidence may be expressed as a percentage (new cases divided by number of persons at risk during the period) or as a rate (number of new cases divided by number of person-years at risk).

Reporting several incidence values in the same sentence can nearly always be accomplished using the singular form (eg, “the incidence of nonfatal myocardial infarction during follow-up was 10% at 6 months, 19% at 12 months, and 26% at 18 months” or “the incidence of clinical stroke decreased significantly, from 7.6 to 5.3 per 1000 person-years in men and from 6.2 to 5.1 per 1000 person-years in women). However, in rare instances, sentence construction may necessitate the use of the plural, which of course is… what, exactly? The understandable urge to simply add an “s” at the end of the word to form the plural results in incidences — a form not found in most dictionaries and a clunker of a word if ever there was one. Writers wishing for a more mellifluous plural sometimes use incidence rates, a valid term but one perhaps best reserved for reporting incidence values expressed as actual rates rather than simple percentages. Moreover, incidences is sometimes used when reporting values either as percentages or as rates, in the latter case missing a valuable opportunity to emphasize that rates rather than percentages are being reported.

Thus, it is perhaps best to use incidences, awkward as it may be, when reporting multiple incidence values as percentages and incidence rates when reporting such values as rates, eg, “at first follow-up, the incidences of falls resulting from frailty, neuromuscular disorders, or improper use of mobility devices were 15% (95% CI, 10%-20%), 12% (95% CI, 7%-17%), and 12% (5%-19%), respectively” or “the incidence rates for falls resulting from frailty, neuromuscular disorders, or improper use of mobility devices were 5.1, 6.3, and 4.6 per person-year, respectively.” Incidentally, these 2 examples report occurrences (falls) rather than diseases or conditions, and so represent 2 instances reporting the incidence of incidents.

To further muddy the waters, incidence is sometimes confused with prevalence, defined as the proportion of persons with a disease at any given time (ie, total number of cases divided by total population). Thus, whereas incidence describes how commonly cases are diagnosed, prevalence describes how widespread the disease already is; on a more personal level, incidence describes one’s risk of developing the disease, whereas prevalence describes the likelihood that one already has it. The confusion between the terms is perhaps attributable to the occasional use of prevalence in place of incidence in the study of rare, chronic diseases for which few newly diagnosed cases are available; however, this circumstance is unusual, and incidence and prevalence should always be distinguished from one another and used appropriately. (See also §20.9, Glossary of Statistical Terms, in the AMA Manual of Style, p 872 in print.)

Whereas prevalence is often used in general contexts to indicate predominance or general acceptance, the circumstances calling for the use of incidence in general contexts are quite few and become fewer still when one takes into account that incidence is often used when incidents (the simple plural of incident) or instance (again denoting an occurrence) would be the better choice. Perhaps incidents or instances was intended but never made it to the page — as is so often the case with homophones and near-homophones, even the careful writer who usually would not confuse incidence, incidents, and instance might one day look back over a hastily typed passage only to see that a wayward incidence has crept in; if the passage is hastily edited to boot, the error might well go unnoticed until the passage is in print and a discerning reader takes pains to point it out in a letter or e-mail. The plural form, incidences, has virtually no use outside of the epidemiologic discussed above, although it has been used to subtly disorienting effect by translators rendering the Kafkaesque works of Russian writer Daniil Kharms (1904-1942) into English, most notably when rendering the 1-word title of Incidences, Kharms’ 1934 collection of absurdist critiques on life in the Soviet Union under Stalin. However, writers who are not political dissidents aiming for absurdist effect — presumably all medical writers — would do well to proofread carefully and often. — Phil Sefton, ELS


How much can one trust a curmudgeonly English composition teacher who terrorized his early 20th-century Cornell students? How relevant are his grammatical admonitions today? With little else to support my inclination to remove the word respective or its adverb partner respectively and unite the string of data points with what they modify, I find the barking rules of E. B. White’s college rhetoric teacher William Strunk Jr calming.

Based on White’s description of his teaching style in the introduction of Elements of Style,1 I can assert with some certainty that had Strunk found himself an adjunct English composition instructor today, “lean[ing] forward over his desk, grasp[ing] his coat lapels in his hands, and in a husky, conspiratorial voice, say[ing], ‘Rule Thirteen. Omit needless words! Omit needless words! Omit needless words!’” it might not go over so well with today’s sensitive students. The style of this widely emphatic man who barked writing rules during his lectures lasted a lifetime for White. Now about 100 years later, such barking would likely cause a rush to the dean’s office to do something about this brazen man’s approach to teaching. He would simply not be asked back the next semester because the trend today is for warm-hearted English comp teachers to create a safe environment in which students can write without becoming immobilized by gruff commands. So in as much as the style of teaching would end a career today, should one conclude that Strunk’s rules for writing have become as out of date as his approach to teaching them?

Several months ago, after reading White’s delightful 1972 homage to Strunk, I flipped through some of the commands and came upon a piece of advice that lifted me out of my self-doubt and emboldened me not to give up on eradicating the use of the word respective. Unlike the image of Strunk as confident, I am not so. I am one who will eventually cave on a rule, especially if I’m the only one defending it. For example, the use of healthful over healthy when describing behavior that leads to my good health—I have let it go. If a manuscript comes in describing eating fruit as healthy, I will let it stand and not change it to healthful.

Yet, when I see in almost every article that I edit a string of numbers followed by a list of items each number describes covered by respectively at the end of the sentence, my eyes cross. I become disheartened. As I push back my sleeves to match the experimental treatment groups with the values to describe the efficacy of a treatment, I sometimes wonder whether it is worth the effort to set up the parallel structure and the repletion of words to make the match. I sigh and do it, hoping not to offend the author.

Copyediting is a solitary experience that doesn’t often allow for consensus about the rules because, as they say, much of it is a matter of preference. But when one’s eyes land on a sure-footed confirmation about a problem that niggles and nags almost every day of my work life, I must rejoice, which is exactly what I did when my eyes fell to Strunk’s simple exhortation:

Respective, respectively. These words may usually be omitted with advantage.

My heart leaped. I am not alone! Strunk follows his simple rule with an example that justifies my applying it to scientific editing.

The mile run and the two-mile run were won by Jones and Cummings, respectively.

The mile run was won by Jones, the two-mile run by Cummings.

Look at that. The second example has fewer words.

The true purpose of writing is to be clear and not make the reader work too much. As the attention span of the reader decreases by the second, making them match numbers to words 3 lines down gives the reader little reason to continue. In light of today’s hot-footed race against time, I say Strunk is more relevant now than ever. White was right when he wrote in 1979:

“All through The Element of Style one finds evidences of the author’s deep sympathy for the reader. Will felt that the reader was in serious trouble most of the time, a man floundering in a swamp, and that it was the duty of anyone attempting to write English to drain this swamp quickly and get his man up on dry ground, or at least throw him a rope.”

Beverly Stewart, MSJ

1. Strunk W Jr, White EB. Elements of Style, 2nd ed. New York, New York: Macmillan Publishing Co; 1972.