Editing for Grammarphobes 2.0: Part 3 of Avoiding Sticky Situations with Words that Begin with 'S'


Every Wednesday, Editing for Grammarphobes 2.0 features handy tips to enhance all of our writing, from daily emails to articles to books. After all, everyone needs to write, right?

Photo courtesy of NPR

Do you know how to pluralize syllabus? I don't know. Syllabi?

Every year, I stumble over it when discussing the new school year with my kids.

Well, my friends, today that mystery is solved. And while we’re at it, let’s wrap up our three-part series on sticky situations that begin with the letter s.

State, state names

Lowercase the word state in all “state of” constructions, such as the state of Maine, the state of California.

Four states, according to the Associated Press Stylebook (AP), are legally commonwealths and not technically states. They are Kentucky, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. However, this distinction usually is only used in formal circumstances, like when referring to court documents. For geographical references, using the word state is fine.

AP recommends not capitalizing state when it specifies a level of jurisdiction, such as in the phrases state representative Bill Foster, or the state Department of Transportation. This principle can also be applied to phrases including the city of Chicago and the town of Mason.

AP also mandates spelling out the name of a state in full when you’re using it in the body of a story, whether standing alone or in conjunction with a city, town, village, or military base.

Sometimes states are abbreviated in datelines, lists and other tabular materials, and in short-form listings of party affiliation, such as D-Ill, R-Ala. Watch out if you’re using AP style, though, because dateline abbreviations are not the same as postal abbreviations. You will definitely need to look them up.

Don’t forget to use New York state to distinguish from New York City and the state of Washington from the District of Columbia.

Lastly, put a comma between the city and the state name, and another after the state name to properly punctuate.


She drove from Chicago, Illinois, to Portland, Maine.

Straight-laced, strait-laced

The term, straight-laced, refers to someone with strict behavior or moral views. Strait-laced should be used to connote the notion of confinement, as in a corset, according to AP.

Strategy, tactics

Although sometimes used as synonyms, these two words do mean different things. According to the Chicago Manual of Style (CMS), a strategy is a long-term plan for achieving a goal. Tactics are shorter-term plans for achieving an immediate, but limited success. CMS goes on to offer that a strategy might involve several tactics.

Suit, suite

AP makes the distinction between these two words this way. “You may have a suit of clothes, a suit of cards, or be faced with a lawsuit. There are suites of music, rooms, and furniture.” Makes sense, right?


Don’t forget the e at the end of sunbathe. I’m not sure I’d want to take a sunbath. It would probably be awfully hot.


CMS states supersede is derived from sedeo, the Latin word for “to sit, to be established,” not cedo, meaning “to yield.” Hence, it’s not supercede. How many times have you seen that mistake? Plenty, I’m sure.


So, how does one pluralize syllabus? Syllabuses. I will now commit it to memory to avoid further verbal buffoonery.

Sympathy, empathy

Sympathy is the compassion and sorrow one can feel for someone, while empathy means to put oneself in someone else’s shoes to understand that person’s situation, according to CMS.

Systematic, systemic

Systematic means “according to a plan or system, methodical, or arranged in a system,” CMS states. Systemic means “limited in use to physiological systems, or, by extension, other systems that may be likened to the body.”


We will systematically eliminate all problems with this software.

Cancer can be a systemic disease, which can affect many organs.

Earlier this year, we learned there are major systemic problems at Uber.


Swag is defined by AP as “sometimes used to describe the free stuff at gift suites and in gift bags given to presenters and other award-show participants.” However, AP forgets it is also the term for a decoration hanging in a curve between two points or a suspended cluster of evergreen branches.

EFG Digest

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These five books are on my desk at all times. Maybe they'll help you as well.

The Associated Press Stylebook, 2016 edition
The Chicago Manual of Style
Strunk and White's The Elements of Style
Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edition
The Bugaboo Review: A lighthearted guide to exterminating confusion about words, spelling, and grammar


A professional writer/editor for almost 30 years, Karen Wojcik Berner's wide and varied experience includes such topics as grammar, blog content, book reviews, corporate communications, the arts, paint and coatings, real estate, the fire service, writing and literature, research, and publishing. An award-winning journalist, her work has appeared in several magazines, newspapers, and blogs, including the Chicago Tribune, Writer Unboxed, Women's Fiction Writers, Naperville Magazine, and Fresh Fiction. She also is the author of three contemporary women's fiction novels and is a member of the Chicago Writers’ Association. For more information on Karen, please visit www.karenberner.com.


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