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Public Editor Sylvia Stead responds to readers and gives a behind-the-scenes look

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Sylvia Stead is The Globe and Mail’s Public Editor. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
Sylvia Stead is The Globe and Mail’s Public Editor. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

Public editor: The top five grammatical mistakes Add to ...

The English language is tough to master – apparently even for those paid to write and edit it. Yes, that means newspaper pros. And readers notice when they get it wrong. They contact me about misplaced homophones, apostrophes and spelling errors.

Bad grammar, however, tops readers’ lists of pet peeves: Herewith, the five most common complaints, as seen in stories by The Globe and Mail this year.

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1. Verb tense

“I have drank alcohol in excess.” This was an admission by Rob Ford – incorrect with the word “have” (if using the past tense) or “drank” (if using the past participle). So why didn’t The Globe fix the mayoral mistake? Context is all: editors don’t fix quotes, especially those broadcast on TV or radio.

Editors do make their own Ford-worthy errors, though. For example, this sentence in an online article: “He could have ran for help.” Our subject either ran for help, or could have run for it. Alas, no editor was on hand to help him decide.

2. Incorrect pronouns

Me, make mistakes? Here’s one sentence that caught a reader’s attention: “Christmas was always an especially memorable time for Timothy … and I.” Maybe, but the correct pronoun here is “me.” “Timothy and me” are the objects of the preposition for. Another way to check the use of pronouns is to remove the first name and listen: “A memorable time for I” sounds wrong because it is wrong.

3. Redundancies

“Your editors, if not all writers and reporters,” a reader noted, “ought to be alerted to the absurdity of pleonasms.” Seen lately: “factual reality,” “rational sense,” “verbal conversation,” and this reader’s favourite, “the patients’ past history.” Indeed. If an adjective adds nothing, don’t use it.

4. Abbreviations

U.S.A. U.K. I.D.K. Each letter means something in these abbreviations. Unfortunately, editors and writers don’t always remember this: Many times in the past year, I have seen references to the HIV virus and the NDP Party.

A reader also sent a note about last weekend’s excellent series on the North, noting that Inuit people is a redundancy; Inuit means “people.”

5. Dangling participles

“Caught between two Koreas, anxiety mounts on tiny island,” read one headline last year.

Did you catch the dangling participle?

What is the subject of the sentence? In this construction, it is anxiety – so anxiety is caught between two Koreas. How abstract.

We all make mistakes. But the Globe’s Style Book, by former editors J.A. (Sandy) McFarlane and Warren Clements, gets at the unique challenge for journalists: articles must be presented “clearly, accurately and concisely,” it reads. “This in language that also delights the reader raises journalism from a craft to an art, but the craft comes first.”

I would love to hear from you about your own pet peeves. You can reach me at publiceditor@globeandmail.com.

 

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