When I served as copy editor of my school newspaper, I saw a LOT of grammar mistakes. I did love getting to know the freshman, but editing their first ever news stories was … time consuming to say the least. I constantly made notes about buried leads, improperly attributed quotes and of course, bad grammar.
As time went on and those young freshman writers advanced, I saw improvements in their story structure – but bad grammar seemed to be the hardest habit for them to kick. Even our upper level writers’ articles bled with red pen thanks to overlooked grammatical errors.
Here are three of the common grammar mistakes I frequently edited in writers’ articles as a copy editor, and some of the key advice I wrote in the margins of those articles to help student-writers break their bad grammar habits.
Switching tenses mid-paragraph (or worse – mid-sentence)
One of my biggest pet peeves is when writers switch verb tense throughout an article. Frequent tense switching is not only sloppy writing, but also contributes to confusion in news stories. Here’s one of my favorite examples of verb tense switching in sentences:
Incorrect: Who said writing is easy?
Correct: Who says writing is easy?
Correct: Who said writing was easy?
This mistake is most frequently found in longer sentences, where it feels like the writer’s train of thought changed mid sentence.
When I catch this common grammar mistake occurring multiple times in one article, I often recommend to writers, “Reread your article paragraph by paragraph and focus solely on their verbs in each sentence. Make sure your tenses used agree with one another.”
Another common grammar mistake I saw as a copy editor was excessive and unnecessary use of apostrophes. As a writer, you can use apostrophes in place of letters in contractions or to make nouns possessive. But it’s important to note that contractions are OK to use in more casual writing settings like blogs, but should not be used in news stories. I mostly saw misplaced apostrophes when writers accidentally made plural nouns possessive.
Here’s an example:
Incorrect: The bee’s need more flowers.
Correct: The bees need more flowers.
It seems elementary — especially for seasoned writers — but I saw this common grammar mistake a lot. When tempted to use apostrophes, I suggest you make a connection between the nouns in the sentence.
Using the example above, I would say to myself “Are these the bees’ flowers?” Since the answer is no, no need for an apostrophe. Also note that “bees’s” would be incorrect. Plural possessive nouns or nouns ending in “s” only need an apostrophe after the “s”.
One exception to apostrophes when possessive is “its”, as “it’s” is a contraction for “it is”. This is the most common place I see apostrophes misused. Here’s an example:
Incorrect: The bear stuck it’s nose in the honeycomb.
Correct: The bear stuck its nose in the honeycomb.
Even though the nose belongs to the bear, the apostrophe changes the meaning to “The bear stuck it is nose in the honeycomb.” Anytime I use its/it’s, I always say the sentence outloud to myself saying “it is” to make sure I am using the correct version.
Excessive use of “that”
One of my journalism professors has a list of cursed words that he doesn’t allow us to use in news stories, and “that” is number one on the list. Although his rule may be a little extreme, “that” is often overused. One rule of thumb I like to stick to when using “that” is I only use “that” when talking about things and “who” when talking about people. Here’s an example:
Incorrect: She is the one that feeds birds.
Correct: She is the one who feeds birds.
Correct (and better): She feeds birds.
If “who” doesn’t work for the sentence and I find myself using “that,” I reread the sentence without the word. Most of the time I find it unnecessary, so I delete it and am left with a tighter copy.
The best thing to do if you ever have questions about grammar or punctuation is to consult the Associated Press Stylebook first, or whatever style the publication requires . Checking yourself for accuracy will make your copy editors happy!