No writer is purrfect all the thyme

Lori Borgman |June 17, 2024

You may not remember William Safire, but I lived in fear of him. He was a nationally syndicated columnist who wrote about other writers’ writing gaffes. Every Sunday, I would rip open the paper, read his column and exhale to find I had lived to see another misplaced modifier—as if Safire ever read family humor.

That was the effect the man had on me. Or maybe it was affect. Probably both.

Scribe Safire, who loved alliteration, died in 2009 but his spirit lives.

Several readers let me know I committed some flagrant fouls recently. Not wanting to accelerate the ongoing deconstruction of the English language, I would like to own my mistakes. You just heard the creak of the door to the confessional.

Forgive me Safire, for I have sinned.


After my column on Memorial Day ran, a veteran wrote to inform me that taps is not “played.” Taps is also never “performed.” Play and perform indicate entertainment and a bugle call is never for entertainment. Taps is “sounded.”

He was right. The Associated Press Stylebook and Pentagon back him up. “Sounded” is the correct verb to use with taps. Sounded may not sound right, but it is.

The thing that bothers me most is that taps is not capitalized.

After a column that referenced golf was published, a reader wrote to inform me that one does not “golf”—one “plays golf.”

Runners run, swimmers swim and skiers ski, but golfers do not golf—they play golf. Nor do they “go golfing.” At least not the serious-minded ones.

Both readers who emailed corrections were pleasant in tone. Whether the matter under discussion is writing, plumbing, cooking or learning computer code, correction is always easier to receive when it comes with a measure of kindness as opposed to a hard smack.

I think fast, write fast and edit fast. It is the last one that nips at my heels.

I learned early in my career that a good copy editor is a writer’s best friend, because a good copy editor makes you look smarter than you really are.

In a college news writing class, we were advised to “write short.” I am 5’ 2” so it has worked out well. Sorry. I couldn’t help myself. Truthfully, I think we were admonished to write short because it minimizes opportunities for errors.

I’m reading “The Unexpected Abigail Adams,” a book that heavily excerpts from the 2,000 letters she wrote. Her letters are sprinkled with randomly capitalized words, creative spelling, contractions without apostrophes and a heavy smattering of semi-colons and commas used to create run-on sentences.

If you spot any errors in this column, no need to email me – just imagine that I am channeling Abigail Adams.

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