How to Write Like You Know What You’re Doing, Volume III

I have been a copy editor for nearly 23 years, since before there was Google. (Note: It’s a lot easier to be a copy editor with Google than it was without. Once I had to call a racetrack to make sure a racing term was correct.)

I spend a lot of my time making sure words are spelled right for the sentence they’re in. Is it an everyday occurrence or an every day one? Are those peanuts complimentary or complementary?

When I’m searching for the answer, nothing makes me zone out like a long grammar lesson that uses words like dangling or modifier or nominative or past imperfect. Even as someone who majored in English and messes with grammar and spelling 40 hours a week, I find those answers convoluted. My theory is you might too.

What I want is a fast answer, or, even better, a little trick I can play to remember which word to use next time without looking it up. And that’s why I present Volume III of How to Write Like You Know What You’re Doing.

Chomp at the bit/champ at the bit

We use this phrase to indicate impatience. “I’m champing at the bit to tell you which word to use.” I know it makes sense to think it’s “chomp,” but the correct phrase is “champ at the bit.” When a horse has a bit in its mouth, it often chews at it restlessly, and this action is called champing, not chomping, at the bit. (This is not the reason I had to call the racetrack, by the way.) The best way to remember this is to be a champ: Use the right word.

Comprise/compose

This one is my Achilles’ heel. The explanation that I always see for these words (one means “to include” and the other means “to be a part of”) does not help me one iota. The explanations sound so similar. But here’s what helps me: It is never, ever correct to say, “is comprised of.” Saying “It is comprised of” is like saying, “It is consisted of,” which makes no sense. So keep that rule in mind. You get no prize for saying “is comprised of.”

Trooper/trouper

Someone once gleefully pointed out that I had used the wrong form of this in my writing. (Being a copy editor comes with its own set of pressures.) If you’ve powered through something, you are a trouper, not a trooper. “She went to work even though she hadn’t slept. What a trouper.” There is a whole explanation about where each form of the word came from, but the trick to remembering is a trouper is uncomplaining.

I hope these were useful. As always, email me at karen.sommerfeld@paceco.com if there’s a word or phrase that vexes you. I’ll try to help!

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