Editing Course: Good Grammarian I

Before I get started on this topic I must admit that this area of writing is my weakness, especially passive writing (which isn’t covered here but will be covered later in the course). Yesterday I wrote a short post on Editor and Proofreader’s Tools but I strongly believe one item is missing from that list. Every writer and editor should have a really good (localised) grammar reference book. This is something I don’t have (oh, I have books on the topic but nothing localised) and I need to rectify this oversight. Can anyone recommend an Australian grammar reference book please?

8: Good Grammarian I

No matter why you write — author, journalist, business person, student — and no matter why you may be checking another person’s writing — editor, copyeditor, proofreader — you need to understand grammar.

Grammar is language, it’s words and how they are used, it’s sentences and how they are arranged. As a writer or editor you need good grammar skills.

A Person or People

A person can’t help their birth.

-William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair (1848)

Apparently, over the years there’s been a lot of debate about how this one sentence should have been worded.

Some say he should have written:

A person cannot help his or her birth.

Others say:

People cannot help their birth.

Since the twelfth century dozens of famous authors have chosen use words such as “them”, “theirs” and “they” as single, gender-unspecific words. However from a grammar point of view all these are wrong. The correct useage are those in bold above.

I or Me

Often people use “me” when the correct grammar requires the word “I”. The best way to check which word should be used is to remove the other person.

Example: Me and my friend watched a movie.

When we take out the other person we get:

Me watched a movie.

Obviously this is incorrect so the correct word to use is “I”.

I and my friend watched a movie.

As awkward as this sounds, it is correct grammar, but it sounds better to put the friend first.

My friend and I watched a movie.

Can a thing “see”?

It has become a trend to have non-living things “see”.

Example: The company will see a change of policy next year.

However, the company is not a person and cannot see so the sentence is incorrect. The only way to correct the sentence is to reword it.

The company will have a change of policy next year.


Now this is a difficult one!

An “infinitive” is regarded as a single word.

Example: to go

A split-infinitive is when an adverb is added which separates the infinitive.

Example: to quickly go

From a grammarian’s point of view “to quickly go” is incorrect. However, writers steadfastly claim that split-infinitives are rhetorical faults that can effect writing styles.

There is no actual rule on this one.

Most people have heard of the following:

To boldly go where no man has gone before.

To write this same sentence and have it grammatically correct, it would read:

To go boldly where no man has gone before.

Incorrect or not, the first sentence is the much better choice as it has much more punch.

From an editing point of view, split-infinitives are wrong but an editor should never override the author. The best policy is to avoid them (split-infinitives, not authors) as much as possible, but if it is the clearest and best way to go, use it.

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