Myths of editing: on the other hand

cupped hands in blue and red lighting

Being an editor is fun. If you’re like me, you love catching and fixing mistakes.

But sometimes, we fix things that don’t need fixing, following rules that aren’t really rules.

Here’s one of those “non-rules” that you can stop following.

The myth

If you use on the other hand in a piece of writing, it must be paired with the parallel phrase on the one hand.

  • Sample sentence: These Doc Martens are a great bargain. On the other hand, do I really need another pair of shoes?
  • Knee-jerk editorial fix: On the one hand, these Doc Martens are a great bargain. On the other hand, do I really need another pair of shoes?

The reality

You can use on the other hand anytime you want, all by itself.

Here’s what Garner’s Modern American Usage says: “It is pure pedantry to insist that this contrastive phrase must always be paired with on the one hand. In fact, to do so in most cases would be verbose. On the other hand has been in common use without a preceding on the one hand since the 17th century.”

Here’s an example of this usage from a much more modern source: the book Readings: Essays and Literary Entertainments, by Pulitzer Prize-winner Michael Dirda:

The next day we go booking. At a local used-book warehouse I seize upon a lovely copy of the English edition of John Collier’s His Monkey Wife, a fizzily satirical jeu d’esprit about a man who     marries a chimp. Alas, it’s the second printing. On the other hand, it’s only $7, and I daydream about rereading this witty novel, turning its slightly stiff, creamy pages while sipping gin and tonic.

And here’s an example from an even more modern source: the September 4, 2017, edition of the New York Times. This snippet is from the Times‘ coverage of the U.S. Open.

Jennifer Brady, 22 … fizzled in the fourth round with a 6-1, 6-0 loss to Karolina Pliskova at Arthur Ashe Stadium.

The match took only 46 minutes, and Brady won a total of 22 points.

“It’s a bit overwhelming, going out there for the time, playing on Ashe, playing the No. 1 player in the world,” said Brady, who also made a fourth-round appearance at the Australian Open this year. “But I think it’s a good learning experience for me. I’ll just take the positives away from it.”

Pliskova, on the other hand, was thrilled that she made little more than a cameo Monday after her second- and third-round matches each went three sets.

The takeaway

Allow the use of on the other hand without its sister phrase, on the one hand. To do otherwise would be “pure pedantry.”

This post was written by Sam Enslen, president of Dragonfly Editorial.

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