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.



Check out the new Grammar Guide quiz

I’ve posted a new quiz (No. 75) that has six multiple-choice questions and four fill-in-the-blank questions with images. All have to do with word choice. Give the quiz a try and leave feedback in the comments or send me email.

Keep an eye out for “double-take words”

A former colleague who writes for a newspaper recently posted on Facebook about a reader’s harsh voice mail message pointing out a typo in one of his features. The reader objected to “signer [instead of singer] Delbert McClinton.” As another former colleague commented, that typo isn’t going to be picked up by running an ordinary spellchecker. Almost every comment in the thread expressed disbelief that a reader would take time to call and berate the writer over such a minor typo, but as one who took such calls, I can attest that readers can be cranky to the point of becoming unhinged over typos.

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We have standards and we enforce them

Being a copy editor is like working for the Standards and Practices department of a broadcast network. We know the guidelines for what should be published, and we sound the alarm when we see that acceptable practices have not been followed or when we spot something that should not be published.

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You don’t know what you don’t know

Copy editors learn early that, despite diligence and best intentions, writers sometimes get facts wrong. The writers don’t mean to, but they do slip up. They may have their eyes on the big picture and the overall truth but lose sight of small details. Also, writers (and all of us) don’t know what they don’t know, so a thorough reading by someone else, especially someone who might know different things, is essential. A copy editor who has read widely and well for a number of years might have just the knowledge to spot problems, but even more important is that copy editors are trained to check. Copy editors can help writers by verifying the facts, checking the spelling of names, looking up words in the dictionary, locating places on a map, and just generally being skeptical and maybe even anxious about overlooking a error. Copy editors keep their eyes on the little things.

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