Editing the editors

Elena Popina, a frequent (though usually anonymous) contributor to this blog, e-mailed me the other day:

“Below are some  excerpts from the WSJ and Bloomberg which made me wonder why the author chose to write this way and not the other.”

Actually, Lena, you mean . . . WSJ and Bloomberg that made me wonder  . . . or . . . WSJ and Bloomberg, which made me wonder  . . . Clearly it’s time to review That?  Which? WHAT?!?!? (Oct. 3, 2012). Decide if your subordinate clause is essential or nonessential, and render accordingly.  Just remember: if you choose which because the clause is nonessential, you need a comma.

But I digress. Here are the passages she actually asked about, and her questions.


Mr. Snowden told four former U.S. government agents-turned-whistleblowers, who traveled to Moscow to give him an award, that he was settling into his new life in Russia and was happy to have avoided the fate experienced by others who have exposed government secrets.

“Do we really need a comma before who? Isn’t he talking about the exact people who traveled to Moscow? Isn’t there a rule that you don’t need a comma in this case?”

This question goes back to essential versus nonessential. Here’s the test: would the sentence still make sense if you lifted the first who clause right out of it? Then it’s nonessential and requires commas. If the clause defines what it modifies, it’s essential and takes no commas. This particular sentence could actually go either way; the writer, or more likely the copy editor, decided the clause was nonessential — or simply decided the reader needed a breather in a long, complex sentence (45 words, four clauses). Remember that commas often travel in pairs, so you need one after award, too.


The dinner Wednesday evening marked Mr. Snowden’s first public appearance since being granted temporary political asylum in Russia on Aug. 1, as he fled from prosecutors in the U.S. who have charged him under the Espionage Act.

“Does under mean in compliance with here? Is it OK not to specify what Snowden had been charged with?”

Under as used here is, I believe, short for under the terms of, but yesit also implies in compliance. The Espionage Act implies he’s been charged with spying, so it’s probably fine to omit the exact charges.  If they’re very different from spying, however, they should be specified, here or elsewhere.

By the way, I’d lose that comma after Aug. 1. When since, as or for  as a conjunction — a word that joins two clauses — is preceded by a comma, it means because. Here as means when.



The government has been been partially shut down since Oct. 1 after Congress failed to pass a spending authorization bill for the financial year.

“Why is it failed and not had failed? Congress failed to pass a spending authorization deal, and only then the government shut down.”

Excellent question, and it shows you’ve paid attention to how I’ve described the past perfect tense: a past before another past. In this case, however, the main verb of the sentence — has been been partially shut down — is in present perfect, indicating an action that is still in progress. So Congress failed is correctly simple past. The clues are since Oct. 1, after — all words that suggest a particular point in the past.


“If there is that degree of disruption, that lack of certainty, that lack of trust in the U.S. signature, it would mean massive disruption the world over,” Lagarde said in an interview on NBC.

“Is the world over the same as all over the world? Can I used this expression in my stories to save a word?

Yes. It’s an idiom meaning exactly that.


Obama has insisted that he won’t negotiate any conditions to ending the 11-day-old shutdown or extending U.S. borrowing authority past Oct. 17.

“Why is it not to end or to extend?”

Either would have been fine.  Obama could negotiate conditions (in order) to end the shutdown, or he could negotiate to(ward) ending it. Since extend is parallel to end in the sentence, the two need to be the same form.


Always remember that in English, there’s more than one way to say just about anything. Writing and editing involve making choices, and when more than one form works in the sentence, it’s the writer or editor’s choice.

Thanks, Lena, for this week’s post.







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