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Grammar refresher for copy editors


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Title: Grammar refresher for copy editors

Grammar refresher for copy editors
  • Knight Summer Institute
  • Pam Nelson
  • July 10, 2006

What well cover
  • Best practices.
  • Grammar myths.
  • Tricky issues.
  • Subject-verb agreement.
  • Pronouns
  • Who and whom
  • Antecedents.
  • Hodgepodge of grammar and usage points
  • Sources for grammar knowledge

First rule of grammar for copy editors
  • Do not distract the reader.

Best practices
  • Be sure you know what you think you know.
  • Keep your knowledge fresh.
  • Consult your best references.
  • Stand your ground when its important.
  • Bend when you find a good reason.

Grammar myths
  • We dont even need to talk about these
  • Splitting infinitives.
  • Putting adverbs between parts of a verb.
  • Ending a sentence with a preposition.
  • Using incomplete sentences.
  • Starting a sentence with and, but or any
    other coordinating conjunction.

Coordinating conjunctions
  • For
  • And
  • Nor
  • But
  • Or
  • Yet
  • So

Tricky rules of agreement
  • Subject-verb

Rules of agreement
  • If the subject consists of two or more singular
    words connected by or, either … or, neither … nor
    or not only … but also, use a singular verb.
  • Either Shana or Joanne is going with John to the
  • Not only a movie review but also a record review
    needs to be copy-edited for AE.

Rules of agreement
  • If the subject consists of two or more plural
    words connected by or, either … or, neither … nor
    or not only … but also, use a plural verb.
  • Neither the boys nor the girls have any idea what
    to do at the cotillion.
  • Not only the book reviews but also the record
    reviews are missing for Sundays paper.

Rules of agreement
  • If the subject is made up of singular and plural
    words joined by or, either … or, neither … nor or
    not only … but also, the verb should agree with
    the nearer subject.
  • Either Joey or his sisters have taken care of
    their mother day to day.
  • The Johnsons or their older son drives to the
    airport to pick up the out-of-town wedding

Rules of agreement
  • If one subject is singular and the other is
    plural, the sentence sounds better if you put the
    plural subject nearer the verb.
  • Either the Johnsons older son or his parents
    drive to the airport to pick up the out-of-town
    wedding guests.

Two words but one concept
  • If two words joined by and represent one concept
    or one action, use a singular verb.
  • Jerry Smiths pride and joy is his shiny 1965
    Mustang convertible.
  • The size and scope of the flooding after Katrina
    continues to overwhelm Americans.
  • The care and maintenance of an antique auto takes
    many hours of the hobbyists time.

Intervening words
  • Look for the true subject of the verb. Dont be
    led astray by phrases and clauses that appear
    between the subject and the verb.
  • The budget for bonuses has been depleted.
  • The dinosaur skeleton, in addition to other
    fossils, has been moved to a new room.
  • The study, along with many others, has led the
    government to restrict the drugs use.

Intervening phrases Common ones that dont affect
the number of the subject
  • Along with
  • Together with
  • And not
  • As well as
  • In addition to
  • Accompanied by
  • Plus
  • Besides
  • Including
  • Except
  • Rather than
  • Not even

These phrases should be set off with commas.
One of …
  • Use a singular verb after the phrases one of or
    one of the.
  • One of my children has the flu.
  • One of the reviews for this week is missing.

One of …
  • Use a plural verb after phrases one of those who
    or one of the things that.
  • She is one of the senators who want the bill to
    pass this session. (Of the senators who want the
    bill to pass, she is one.)
  • I bought one of the copiers that were advertised
    in the flier in Sundays paper. (Several copiers
    were advertised in Sundays paper. I bought one.)

The one and only
  • Use a singular verb after a phrase that includes
    the only.
  • Adam is the only one of my children who does not
    have the flu.
  • Sara Howe acts as if she is the only copy editor
    who knows what she is doing.

Indefinite pronouns
  • Each, every, either, neither, one, another and
    much are always singular.
  • Each has been given the resources he needs to
    complete the task.
  • Neither boy wants to play on the team this year.
  • Much of what we discussed today was not helpful
    in trying to make the decision.

Indefinite pronouns
  • Other words that are always singular and require
    singular verbs.
  • Anybody, anything, anyone, everybody, everything,
    everyone, somebody, something, someone, nobody,
    nothing, no one.
  • Anyone who wants the Mustangs to win is going to
    be disappointed.
  • Somebody moves my chair every night.

NONE but the brave
  • None can be singular.
  • The children are old enough, but none goes to
    school. (not one)
  • None of the equipment was stolen in the break-in.
  • Or it can be plural.
  • None of the experts agree about oil prices. (no

THE number or A number
  • If the number is the subject, use a singular
    verb, regardless of the noun in the prepositional
  • The number of voters rises when parties conduct
    get-out-the-vote drives.
  • If a number is the subject, use a plural verb.
  • A number of voters find getting to the polls

Special cases
  • Money, time, organizations, food distances and
    diseases often require singular verbs.
  • In the 1960s, 3,000 was enough to live on for
  • Three months in prison is a long time. (as a
  • The United Auto Workers has decided to strike.
  • Measles spreads quickly in a dormitory.

Phrases and clauses
  • When the subject of a sentence is a phrase or a
    clause, use a singular verb almost always.
  • That the incumbent will be re-elected is far from
  • Editing entertainment calendars is tedious work.
  • Whoever wins the election is likely to face a
    tough adjustment period in the job.

Find the subject
  • In some sentences, the subject appears after the
    verb. Make sure that the agrees with the true
  • What page are the record reviews on?
  • Enclosed are two copies of the disputed memo.
  • There are three steps each person must follow.

Here, there and …
  • If a sentence begins with here or there, the
    subject is after the verb.
  • Here is the problem with teaching grammar.
  • Here is the problem with teaching grammar.
  • There are 20 students in the class.
  • There are 20 students in the class.
  • Here is 20 to pay for a haircut.
  • Here is 20 to pay for a haircut.

Plural-looking words
  • Words that are plural in form but (perhaps)
    singular in meaning.
  • Politics is a difficult business for families.
  • The fugitives whereabouts is unknown.
  • The news from the front is not good.
  • We took a course in statistics.

Plural-looking words
  • But some can be plural.
  • The politics of city government are often
    dominated by special interests. (many aspects)
  • The mechanics of English are hard to teach.
  • The species found at the arboretum include many
    non-native plants.
  • The statistics the city manager cited in her
    report were staggering.

More plural-looking words
  • Some words are plural even if they refer to a
    single thing.
  • These scissors need sharpening.
  • BUT This pair of scissors needs sharpening.
  • The odds of success are not very good.

Latin is alive!
  • Nouns with plural Latin endings take plural
  • The news media are responsible for spreading the
    false report. (singular is medium)
  • The alumni are not going to support tearing down
    the old stadium. (singular is alumnus or alumna)
  • The data have been carefully collected. (singular
    is datum)

The rise of the collective
  • Collective nouns that denote a unit take singular
  • The jury continues to deliberate.
  • The commission approves rules that will govern
    the debate.
  • But if the members of the collective body act
    individually …
  • A herd of cows meander through the canyon on
    their way to their favorite grazing ground.

Fractional thinking
  • Fractions and percentages are singular or plural
    depending on the noun or pronoun following them.
  • One-third of the book is a flashback.
  • One-third of the customers are Spanish-speaking
  • Half of the cake is gone.
  • Half of the voters fail to show up on Election

Were with the band
  • Publications may choose follow the form of a
    bands name to determine whether to use a
    singular or a plural verb.
  • Outkast performs Friday at the RBC Center.
  • The Black-Eyed Peas are moving up the chart.
  • But if we are using the word band, we consider it
  • The band plays its hit at the end of every

Be a pronoun pro
Cool things about pronouns
How they are like alligators
  • Pronouns retain the inflections that were common
    in Old English. That is, they change form to
    indicate their grammatical function.
  • So, like alligators, pronouns are evolutionary

Cool things about pronouns
  • Pronouns have gender.
  • They are masculine (he, him, himself), feminine
    (she, her, hers, herself) or neuter (it).
  • They can be classified by person.
  • First (I, we) second (you) third (he, she,

Cool things about pronouns
  • They have number.
  • They are singular (I, he, she) or plural (we,
  • They also have case.
  • They are nominative (also referred to as
    subjective), objective or possessive.

Pronoun problems
  • Case
  • This is the who-whom-whose deal.
  • Who is nominative (used as the subject).
  • Whom is objective (used as the object).
  • Whose is possessive (used as, uh, the
  • Antecedent
  • This is a number failure.
  • We use a plural pronoun to refer to a singular
  • Or a clarity failure.
  • Its just unclear what the pronoun refers to.

Pronoun problems
  • Punctuation
  • The dreadful apostrophe mistake!
  • Its is the possessive form of it.
  • Its is the contraction for it is.
  • Whose is the possessive form of who.
  • Whos is the contraction for who is.
  • -Self abuse
  • This is the irritating misuse of the reflexive
    form myself, himself, themselves, etc.

Who or whom?
  • Who/whoever is the subject of a clause.
  • Who is responsible for making English so
  • Please tell whoever needs to know that I have
    updated the file.

Who or whom?
  • Whom/whomever is the object of a verb or a
    preposition or the subject of an infinitive.
  • To whom do you wish to speak?
  • We are interested to see whom the voters choose
    Nov. 2.
  • We didnt know whom to call when we found the
    dead cat lying in the middle of our cul-de-sac.

  • If the pronoun is the subject of the infinitive
    to be, the choice is trickier.
  • Who does the rock star want to be when he takes
    the stage? (The rock star wants to be who.)
  • Who was the intruder thought to be? (The intruder
    was thought to be who.)
  • Think of the pronoun as a subject complement and
    use the nominative.

The -m trick
  • If you can substitute the pronoun him or them
    in the construction, use whom.
  • Or you can turn the sentence structure around to
    find the right case.
  • You wish to speak to HIM use whom.
  • The voters choose HIM use whom.
  • We could not persuade THEM use whom.

And another thing …
  • People are who, not that, most of the time.
  • The pollsters try to find voters who are
  • But if the person is part of a class of people,
    you can use that.
  • She is the kind of reporter that always
    pencil-checks copy carefully.

Figuring it out
  • Isolate the phrase or clause.
  • Rearrange the words.
  • Substitute he/him or they/them.
  • Figure out how the phrase or clause is
    functioning in the sentence.

Up the antecedent
  • Make sure that the pronoun agrees in number,
    person and gender with the noun or pronoun that
    it refers to.
  • The sophomore class elects its officers today.
  • The couple left their troubles behind and flew to
  • The teacher asked everyone to get out his or her
    pencil for the test.

Up the antecedent
  • Make sure that the pronouns antecedent is clear.
  • When Gloria set the pitcher on the glass-topped
    table, it broke. (what broke?)
  • The pitcher broke when Gloria set it on the
    glass-topped table.

Up the antecedent
  • Make sure that the pronoun HAS an antecedent.
  • After braiding Anns hair, Sue decorated them
    with ribbons. (What is the antecedent of them?)
  • After braiding Anns hair, Sue decorated the
    braids with ribbons.

Up the antecedent
  • Watch out for a pronoun that appears to have a
    possessive noun for an antecedent.
  • Lottie Maes mother died when she was 30. (Who
    was 30?)
  • When Lottie Mae was 30, her mother died.
  • OR
  • Lottie Maes mother died at 30.

Indefinite problems
  • Sometimes, the number of indefinite pronouns
    confuses us
  • These are singular anybody, anyone, anything,
    each, either, everybody, everyone, everything,
    neither, nobody, no one, somebody, someone,
  • These are plural all (mostly), both, few, most,
    several, some.

Gerund weirdness
  • Use the possessive form of a pronoun before a
    gerund (a verbal that ends in ing and acts as a
  • The mayor couldnt understand why his taking a
    vacation with a city contractor was a problem.
  • The chance of your being hit by a rock is very
    slim, but wear a hard hat anyway.

Hodgepodge Issues that only copy editors care
At our discretion (matters of style)
  • Since when we mean because.
  • Between, instead of among, for more than two.
  • While when we mean although.
  • There at the beginning of a sentence.

Due to/Because of
  • Due to is used in this construction
  • The flood was due to a break in the dam. (Due
    to is adjectival use it as a subject
  • Because of is used in this construction.
  • The town was flooded because of a break in the
    dam. (Because of is adverbial and tells why.)
  • See Malcolm Gibsons explanation at

  • Writers have used hopefully as a sentence
    adverb for years, but the word fell into disfavor
    in the 1960s.
  • Purists insist that the word means in a hopeful
    manner, not it is to be hoped.
  • Best advice Avoid this word and change it when
    you see it, just to head off the purists wrath.

  • Writers sometimes use ironic or ironically to
    describe something that is merely an odd
    juxtaposition or a coincidence.
  • Ironically, the sisters funeral was in the same
    chapel where they were baptized five years
    before. (Is it truly an outcome that might be
    different from what is expected?)

There, you go
  • Sentences that begin with there can often be
    changed, but you dont have to change every one.
  • There is a tide in the affairs of men that taken
    at the flood …

Each other/one another
  • The Associated Press Stylebook doesnt allow much
    leeway on this. It is not a matter of grammar as
    much as a matter of style.
  • Use each other for two people or things one
    another for three or more. But use either for
    indefinite number.

  • May and might express different degrees of
  • I may go to the party suggests that I probably
    will go.
  • I might go to the party suggests that I am less
  • I might have to go to the party if I am unable to
    come up with a good excuse suggests a

May or Can?
  • The rule we learned in third grade still applies.
  • May implies permission.
  • Can implies ability.
  • The junior may take the 500 level course.
  • The junior can pass the 500 level course.

  • Like is a preposition. Use it before a noun or
  • We should hire another copy editor like Caroline.
  • Use as or as if before a clause.
  • As I told you earlier, we should hire another
    copy editor.
  • The editor looked at me as if I had two heads.

  • Compound verbs can be hyphenated or solid.
  • Air-condition, home-school.
  • Downshift, downsize, hitchhike.
  • The only advice is to check the Associated Press
    Style or a dictionary and hyphenate if the word
    is not listed.

  • Verb-preposition combinations are not hyphenated.
  • Break up, cross over, drive in, make up, mix up,
    push up.
  • But the corresponding nouns often are not
  • Breakup, crossover, drive-in, makeup, mixup,

  • Compound modifiers used in front of a noun are
  • Well-known people seek privacy at the isolated
  • Sherry applied for a full-time job.

  • Compound modifiers used after the noun are
    hyphenated if they are a subject complement with
    the verb to be.
  • People who are well-known seek privacy at the
    isolated lodge.

Other land mines in copy
  • Homonym confusion principal-principle,
    peak-peek, hoard-horde, etc.
  • Wrong word choice enormity to mean big.
  • Misplaced modifiers Walking through the windy
    city, my hat flew off and into the gutter.

What grammar book addiction looks like
  • The Gregg Reference Manual by William A. Sabin,
    McGraw-Hill/Irwin, Tenth edition, 2004.
  • Garners Modern American Usage by Bryan A.
    Garner. Oxford University Press, 2003.

  • Paul Brians Common Errors in English,
  • Common Errors in English Usage by Paul Brians,
    William, James Co., 2003

  • Words on Words by John Bremner, Columbia
    University Press, 1980.
  • The Careful Writer by Theodore M. Bernstein,
    Atheneum, 1983 (also Free Press, 1995)

  • Working With Words, A Handbook for Media Writers
    and Editors by Brian S. Brooks, James L. Pinson
    and Jean Gaddy Wilson, Fifth edition, Bedford/St.
    Martins, 2003.

  • Writers Digest Grammar Desk Reference by Gary
    Lutz and Diane Stevenson, FW Publications, 2005.
  • Rules for Writers by Diana Hacker, Bedford/St.
    Martins, 2004.

  • Capital Community Colleges Guide to Grammar and
    Writing, http//
  • Jack Lynchs Guide to Grammar and Writing

  • The Online Writing Lab at Purdue University,
  • Grammar Handbook at the Writers' Workshop,
    University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign,
  • The Tongue Untied, A guide to grammar,
    punctuation and style for journalists,

  • Malcolm Gibsons Wonderful World of Editing,
  • Daily Grammar,
  • WebGrammars list of common mistakes,
  • Dr. Grammar,

  • Columbia Guide to Standard American English,
  • American Heritage Book of English Usage,
  • The Kings English by H.W. Fowler,
  • Towson University Online Writing Support,