Eydie Cubarrubia acts as New York regional editor for Engineering News-Record, a trade publication about architecture and construction. She’s also edited for 25 years for news organizations including the Guardian News Media Group, New York Daily News and English expat magazines in China. In this interview, Cubarrubia tells us the punctuation issues she finds evading us the most, tips (and incentives) for embracing the semicolon, and how she perfected writing (and editing) as a craft.
What/which punctuation and grammar do you find most professionals using incorrectly i.e. the most common punctuation or grammar mistakes you see. And why do you think we stumble with those rules?
I see writers misusing hyphens the most. Specifically, I see writers mistakenly hyphenating an adverb and adjective. For example, “She’s a quietly-regal authority.”
I also see comma splices, whereby writers put a comma between two independent clauses when it should have a semicolon (or a period) to mark a new sentence. The sentences become too confusing, too long and eventually lose the reader.
I think some of these errors come from us writing how we might say the idea. We hyphenate an adverb and adjective because we’re linking those words together in our minds. Other errors come from habit and nobody knowing the rules or correcting us. (Most of us have committed comma splices since childhood.) If no one taught you about the semicolon, you won’t know how to prevent those confusing run-on sentences.
Many communicators I’ve encountered find the semicolon intimidating. What about this innocent punctuation do you think might spook writers? Also, sell us on why we ought to use the semicolon in business.
Often people didn’t learn how to correctly employ the semicolon. And if you’re within marketing or media, you probably heard editors speak negatively about this device; many writing professionals argue that the dash serves us better.
Semicolons help us in many ways, though, including breaking up a group of series in a list. For instance, “I had to buy Christmas gifts for many people including my coworkers Rachael, Deb and Jen; my nephews Elliott, Nick and Patrick; and my cousins Wil, Sheila and Kelly.”
The semicolon also helps distinguish cities from states and countries if you’re writing out a list of locations. For instance, “We’re expanding operations in Madison, Wisconsin; Santa Barbara, California; and Buffalo, New York.”
Semicolons help boost clarity, provide flow and help gently connect two related ideas. When using conjunctions like “however” and “but,” semicolons help us relate those complete ideas without committing the old-fashioned grammatical no-no of starting a sentence with a conjunction. “I asked my roommate to buy me gourmet cheese; however, she returned with Velveeta” is an example.
Semicolons can also help emulate how we speak naturally, which provides a tool if you want to quietly change a formal, old workplace culture. The semicolon softens your writing to sound less choppy or robotic-sounding. Those bad-mouthing the semicolon need to relax.
With more CEOs (like Goldman Sachs’ David Solomon) stating they see fewer strong writers in their talent pool, do you think we’ll see more companies hiring writing coaches? Might we see better paid jobs for writers and editors?
I worry that any company wanting strong writing won’t respect good writers and pay them what they’re worth. Some people falsely think you can teach anyone to write well in a short amount of time—yet many (otherwise smart people) write poorly, even CEOs, doctors and lawyers. Also, there’s a belief that folks can hire a writer from a content farm, pay one cent a word and receive good writing. Until more people respect writing and editing, I don’t know what the opportunities you mentioned will look like.
I’d like more companies to hire trained and excellent writers; and on the other end, for more transitioning journalists to consider a corporate or nonprofit writing job. They should know that at a former role with a California start-up, where I was the writing/editing expert among other colleagues who each had specialized talents, I felt well respected for my skills—it was so nice.
As an esteemed writer and editor, what’s helped you the most to refine your craft? What tips you can offer those feeling less talented?
From seventh grade, I knew I’d become a journalist. Since mastering the semicolon in third grade, nobody’s called me out for a comma splice. As an adult writer, I’d say editing has taught me the most about writing.
As an editor, my goal is to help writers share their ideas clearly and efficiently, and without changing their voices. By applying this idea to my own writing, I also improve. Objectively ask: How can I say this idea most concisely and easiest to understand? And remember, nobody wants to read someone’s advanced vocabulary. We want to know: “What are they trying to tell me?”
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