The Great Copy Editing Cheat Sheet

We’ve all been there: we’re reading someone’s Facebook post when we’re confronted with that most annoying of offenses: someone who uses your when they meant you’re. “I’d never do that!” you think, reveling in the self-righteous glory that comes from someone who knows a possessive from a contraction. You may be right; you’re probably the sort of person who double checks your texts to make sure that they don’t autocorrect to the wrong their/there/they’re, and you might even know your who from your whom. But even the most seasoned grammarian has a weak spot; the following are a list of common words that might make you think twice, even if you’d rather not admit it. Remember: there’s no honor lost in having to pull out your dictionary to double check a phrase once in awhile, especially if you edit a lot. Editing tends to loosen our moorings. When we see something wrong on the page enough times, it starts to look right after awhile. Even if you aren’t an editor by trade, there are some words or phrases that may just have an evil hold on you (in the interest of full disclosure: I still question how to spell privilege each and every day). Check this out and see if there’s something on this list that you struggle with, too:

lay vs. lie

Perhaps the most complicated pair on the list (at least for me!), lay and lie are deceptive in that they are easy to understand at first. They are both verbs. Lay means to place an object down. Lie mean to recline or to be placed.


Lay the hat on the table.

Lie down on the bed.

It becomes confusing when you consider the past tenses. The past tense of lay is laid. The past tense of lie is lay.


The hat was laid on the table yesterday.

You lay in bed last night.

The past participle of lie is lain. The past participle of lay is laid.


They have laid many hats on this table before.

You could have lain in bed for days.

Layed is a common misspelling and does not exist. Use laid.

may vs. can

These two words may take you back to your childhood. May simply refers to a possibility and can to an ability. In speech, there is a somewhat formal-sounding tone to ask “may”, and many people forgo it for the less-formal can, (similar to the way should has replaced shall) however, there is still a place for may. When we consider the question “May I go to the bathroom?” vs. “Can I go to the bathroom?” the questioner is asking permission, but in using can it sounds as if he is asking if he is able to go instead of if he is allowed to go. Thus, may still retains value and should be considered.

may vs. might

Many people use these two words interchangeably, but there are two important distinctions between the two. Let’s tackle the first thing you need to know. May refers to situations that are factual and possible, whereas might is used when the possibility is less remote or hypothetical.


I may go to the movies later.

I might buy a boat if I win the lottery.

May gives a sense that things could happen, and might is for more speculative situations.

The second thing to know about these words is that might is the past tense of may. The only time when one would use may have would be when one is asking for permission, as in the previous section (May I have another slice of cake?). Otherwise, it would only makes sense to write might have.

Ex.: I might have driven around the accident if I had known about it.

One would never have an occasion to write may have, since may is the present tense.

further vs. farther

This is pretty easy. Further refers to anything metaphysical and farther to strictly distance. Thus, I wish to take my career further, and I will be willing to drive farther to do so. While this rule of grammar has fallen out of favor somewhat in recent years and it is more permissible to use these terms interchangeably, it is still good to know the difference and to apply them when possible.

issue vs. problem

The rampant misuse of these terms have become a widespread problem in recent years. We don’t tend to see people writing much formally about the words problems and issues, but it is spoken about and thus it crops up in informal writing, such as texts and in emails. Many people are not aware that there is a difference in the terms, and they use the word issue to mean problem, believing it to have a less … problematic sounding tone. Perhaps it sounds more official. Whatever the recent shift to issue, this is an incorrect word to substitute when one really means problem. A problem is something with a solution. An issue is a debatable topic. Examples of problems would include broken computers, a hardware malfunction, a measles outbreak, “Houston, we have a” … any number of things that trouble us because they are pressing matters and they have gone wrong and need fixing. Examples of issues are political debates such as Roe vs. Wade, gun rights, civil liberties, etc. Issues may also be problems, but problems are not usually issues.

i.e. vs. e.g.

These Latin abbreviations are often misused. It isn’t much of a problem, since the point of language is for us to understand each other and communicate our intentions. As long as we all understand each other, that’s what matters. Still, you’ll impress others if you are in the minority of people who know difference between these abbreviations and how to apply each of them correctly!

i.e. stands for id est and means “that is” or “in other words.” It is often used erroneously to list things out. The correct use for this is when you need to clarify something, use a metaphor or restate it more simply.

e.g. stands for exempli gratia and means “for example.” This is when a list can and should be used.

wherein vs. whereby

Wherein means “in which” and whereby means “by which.”

was vs. were

Was and were are both used in the past tense. Was is used in the first and third person singular past, and were is used in the second person singular and plural and first and third person plural. Was is used for statements of fact only. Were is used in the subjunctive mood to indicate unreal or hypothetical statements (The words if and wish usually indicate the subjunctive mood.)


When I was a child, I was very short.

If I were rich, I’d buy a mansion.

Hopefully, you’ll find some of these distinctions useful. If you’re like me, you’ll have to keep looking up one or two even after many years. Good luck, and happy editing!

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