How knowing grammar can help copy editors

This headline in my community newspaper made me think twice: Growing area not in DOT plan.


Nothing is wrong in this head. It’s perfectly accurate and correct. The confusion was in my own interpretation. At first, I read “growing” as the subject of the sentence with the understood verb “is,” but then I quickly questioned why the Department of Transportation would be trying to grow an area. I realized then that “growing” was a modifier for “area.”

To explain my misreading of the headline, I rely on terms that we learned in schoolroom grammar. (If I were educated in linguistics, I’d have a better explanation, but, alas, I am a mere copy editor and one of those oft-pitied English majors.)

At first glance, I saw “growing” as a gerund—a verbal formed with a verb and ending in -ing that functions as a noun. Gerunds, just like nouns, can be subjects of verbs, objects of verbs or prepositions, or subject complements. However, in this headline, “growing” is a present participle (also formed with a verb and -ing) being used as an adjective to describe or modify the noun “area.”

Knowing these terms allows me to explain how I read or misread this headline. If I need to tell a writer why I think a sentence should be edited to make misreading less of a possibility, I can draw on schoolroom grammar terms to make my case. This knowledge gives my suggestion some authority and makes me seem less arbitrary. I am not using it as a bludgeon to beat a writer into submission, but rather as a bridge to guide the writer to another way of thinking.

Copy editors often are criticized for clinging to usage shibboleths that we learned in high school or in our first editing jobs, and indeed, we should examine our long-held beliefs and discard those that don’t do anything to make writing clearer or more readable. But grammar we learned in school is still useful and helpful. I keep grammar, usage, and style references nearby to check and refresh my knowledge as needed.



2 Responses to “How knowing grammar can help copy editors”

  1. Susan Oglesby

    Hi Pam! I love this—the way you broke down the gerund/participle use. I try to teach this where I work, but it is not encouraged. I have read, though, that sentence-combining activities do increase reading, writing, and thinking skills so I feel vindicated by your commentary! Have a Happy New Year!

    • Pam Nelson

      Thanks, Susan! Keep fighting the good fight in the classroom!