Friday, 21 March 2014

Editorial skills kit – part 5: Grammar

Editorial skills kit

Not a day goes by that I can't be found scrutinising sentences and debating with colleagues over correct hyphen usage. Considering I work for the most mind-blowing place in the world (Great Ormond Street Hospital), I often feel a little in the shadows. After all, I'm hardly saving babies' lives, but I like to think that every role is valuable, and if I can rescue the world from enduring another misplaced apostrophe (shudder), well that's a bonus in my eyes. What I love about being an editor is that my job goes so far beyond commas, clauses and compound modifiers. It's about feature writing, image sourcing, content brainstorms, interviewing, proofreading and plagiarism (talking of which, everyone should use Grammarly's plagiarism detect feature - create, don't imitate!) It's a fascinating environment to be in and I love it.

And this got me thinking. The latest instalment of my editorial skills kit is probably a year overdue. Oh dear. But better late than never I hope. So far I’ve covered respecting people’s intellectual property online, writing for the web and planning, writing and structuring a blog post. Today is all about grammar. Yippee! Try to stay awake.

But first, I'm not going to sit here talking about nouns, adverbs or sentence structure (much). I don't think it would be particularly relevant or useful. Instead, I'm going to focus on some of the common grammar mistakes I see time and time again, and hopefully give you some tips on how to avoid them.

Possessives and contractions
So what are they? Well, you use them all the time. Contractions have an apostrophe to show that a letter or letters are missing:
  • you're (you are)
  • it's (it is)
But the key here is not to confuse them with possessives:

It's [contraction] a winter coat. I love its [possessive] patterned lining
Your [possessive] hair looks gorgeous. You're [contraction] really lucky. 

Confusing me and I
Here's another mistake that crops up a lot. When talking about yourself and others in a sentence, and you're not sure whether to use 'me' or 'I', simply remove the other person or thing and see if it works. For example:

Me and Sarah are going for a walk. 

Remove Sarah from the equation and you get 'me am going for a walk', which is clearly wrong. So you know it should be 'Sarah and I are going for a walk', because if you remove Sarah again, 'I am going for a walk' is right. Some more examples:

Wrong: Me and Laura went out for dinner
Right: Laura and I went out for dinner

Wrong: Can you explain that to James and I?
Right: Can you explain that to James and me?


Verb and noun spellings
This one is very easy to overlook, especially as our friends over the pond (in the US) do things a little differently. Take the word 'practice'. If you are using this word as a verb (a doing word), then you actually spell it 'practise' in UK English. But if it's a noun (a thing), you spell it 'practice'. So for example:

The doctors practise medicine at the medical practice.

The same goes for advice/advise:

Can I have some advice? (noun)
Can you advise me on what to do? (verb)

Another common mistake is affect/effect, where 'affect' is the verb and 'effect' is the noun:

The effect was positive.
It affected me positively.

Passive and active voice
When using the active voice, the subject (ie the word, phrase or expression) of a sentence performs the action of the verb:

Jenna [subject] is raising [verb] money [object].

In the passive voice, the subject receives the action of the verb (ie it is being acted upon by the object):

Money [subject] is raised [verb] by Jenna [object].

In general the active voice is better because it's:
  • clearer
  • more interesting
  • more impactful
  • more concise. 
On the contrary, the passive voice can be:
  • indirect
  • vague
  • non-specific
  • wordy
  • ambiguous
A couple of examples:

Active: Liz emailed me about meeting up for dinner
Passive: I was emailed about meeting up for dinner by Liz

Active: On Saturday I ran 10k
Passive: 10k was run on Saturday by me. 

You can see that the active voice is punchier and feels more exciting.

There are oodles more topics I could talk about, which would probably take all day, so if you have any specific questions, pop them in the comments and I'll do my best to answer them. I hope you found this useful!


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  1. Well said! (or written, really!)
    I know the rules, but I do sometimes write in passive when I'm doing reviews, which is daft as I guess people will switch off more easily. The whole you're/your it/it's thing is so simple, I don't comprehend why people can get it so wrong! Spelling etc I can forgive. Well, ish, people should use spell check for blog posts but I reckon if you are dyslexic it is harder to know which option is right, if you weren't sure in the first place! Sam is dyslexic and it used to really annoy me when he spelt something wrong in a facebook status that I was tagged in or similar, but i've got over it and he now checks a lot more when he's writing things. That has no relevance to your post whatsoever, sorry!

  2. Very well said! There's far too many people out there (and companies) letting standards slip. Although I probably should be careful; I'm sure I'm not perfect!
    The one thing I know I do on my blog is say "me and xxx" rather than I, my reasoning comes from seeing Lynne Truss live at the Bath Lit Fest a few years ago. Lynne (who gave a fab talk, she's well worth seeing live!) told everyone it was absolutely fine to use "me and xxx" in an informal context, as when you're writing something as if you're talking, you wouldn't necessarily say "xxx and I" out loud.
    So yep, I know it's technically wrong but (hopefully) it's my one and only grammatical vice! :-) x