Lessons from Boot Camp: Look Out for Grammar Traps

editing-boot-campLast weekend, I ventured to D.C. for the American Copy Editors Society (ACES) regional Editing Boot Camp, meeting fellow Dragonfly editors and tempting fate as Superstorm Sandy loomed large. The one-day refresher course included a session on grammar, presented by ACES secretary David Sullivan. A longtime managing editor for the Philadelphia Inquirer, David kept us laughing with tales of fielding complaints from grammar-conscious, angry readers.

“I’ve never heard of a reader saying, ‘I hate your paper; that story was written in passive voice,’” David concluded. “But readers do obsess about what they know to be right.”

That includes pronoun agreement, placement of punctuation marks, misplaced modifiers, and use of quotations.

Seems straightforward, right? Yet even in a room full of grammar pros, we found plenty to disagree on: Can commas be added to a sentence as needed for clarity, or must they only appear when grammar rules dictate? Is it okay to substitute “who” for “whom” in less formal contexts? Editors—and style guides—disagree. I’ve never seen people more fired up about comma use.

Every editor has personal pet peeves, as well as things that don’t bug them at all. But ultimately, as someone pointed out, our role isn’t to always be “right.” Rather, it’s recognizing a grammar trap—such as a misplaced modifier—when you see one, and knowing how to use trusted resources to find your way out.

That’s one rule we can all agree on.


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