By Jaclyn Law, Freelance Writer and Editor
We know what you’re thinking: “A Hotsheet on spelling and grammar mistakes? Isn’t that what spell-checkers are for?”
Yes, but spelling and grammar checkers have limitations. For one thing, they don’t check word usage. They might not alert you if you use the wrong word but it’s correctly spelled or if you type in a homophone (a sound-alike word, such as pour instead of pore). They often fail to notice missing words and punctuation problems. Spell-checkers set to autocorrect may pick the wrong words or change correctly spelled words that they don’t recognize, such as words from other languages. Grammar checkers often misdiagnose complex sentences.
We’ll give you just one example of why proofreading is essential. This sentence got a clean bill of health from a word processor’s spell-checker: Tizzy beta too halve) gloved und list’ then”, nerve/ too half loafed aa tall. (Apologies to Alfred, Lord Tennyson.) There’s just no substitute for careful reading by human eyes.
Below is a list of errors that copy editors encounter all the time. It will help you create cleaner, clearer and more authoritative copy, whether you’re writing a magazine article, a blog post, a sales campaign or an email.
Common Copy Errors
1. its or it’s
People often mix these up. Use its to indicate possession: The shop has changed its hours. Use it’s when you mean it is: It’s nice to meet you. How to remember the difference? It’s is a contraction (two words combined in a shorter form); the apostrophe replaces the letter i in is. Try plugging it is (or it has) into your sentence. If it doesn’t sound right, use its.
2. they’re, their, there
These homophones are a triple threat, but the first two have narrow uses. They’re is a contraction of they are: They’re outside. Their is a possessive pronoun: I like their outfits.
For other situations, you likely want there.
- As an adverb or a noun, there refers to a place or position: I worked there for years or I went over there.
- As a pronoun, there introduces the subject of a sentence: There was a cat on the roof.
- As an interjection, there expresses satisfaction or sympathy: There, it’s done and There, there, don’t cry.
It may help you to remember that there contains here, and both words refer to places.
3. your or you’re
Your is a possessive pronoun: Your keys are upstairs. You’re is a contraction of you are: You’re a good listener.
4. Shifting verb tenses
In each independent clause, keep your verb tenses consistent. For example, this clause mixes present and past tenses: Ben waves and drove away. It’s better to use only one tense: Ben waves and drives away or Ben waved and drove away.
5. Lack of subject-verb agreement
Singular subjects take singular verbs: Amy is. Plural subjects take plural verbs: Amy and Alex are. You might make a mistake if you’re not sure whether the subject of a sentence is singular or plural. Which is correct: The range of colours is amazing or The range of colours are amazing? Range is the subject, and it’s singular, so the correct verb choice is is. (The word of is often a clue; look for the subject in front of it.)
If you have two singular subjects with or, neither/nor or either/or, use a singular verb. For example, this sentence uses the singular verb has: Either Jing or Shan has the book.
In a similar sentence that has both singular and plural subjects, the verb agrees with the closest subject: Neither the dresses nor the parka fits in the closet or Neither the parka nor the dresses fit in the closet. However, not every grammar authority endorses this solution. Some authorities advise writers to provide a verb for each subject: The dresses do not fit in the closet, and neither does the parka.
There are exceptions. Watch for these common ones:
- Collective nouns take a singular verb when the members of the group act as a single unit: The committee has called a meeting. Collective nouns take a plural verb when the members of the group act as individuals: The committee have been debating for hours.
- Some pronouns—some, all, more, none—take singular or plural verbs. The verb form depends on the noun that the pronoun refers to. Examples: Some of the food has spoiled and Some of the bananas are mushy.
- When treating time, distance or money as a single unit, use a singular verb: Five million dollars is a lot of money. Ten years is a long time.
- Some plural words—such as measles, physics and billiards—are treated as singular. For example: Physics is a challenging subject.
6. Joint and separate possession
Joint possession, or compound possession, means that two parties share something. Add an apostrophe and an s to the second name only: Canada and Japan’s trade agreement. Separate possession means two parties each have something, but they don’t share it. Add an apostrophe and an s to both names: Canada’s and Japan’s trade agreements.
7. Comma splices
A comma splice occurs when a comma connects two independent clauses. Sometimes we use comma splices for effect—for example, Julius Caesar’s famous words “I came, I saw, I conquered”—but in general we should avoid them.
This comma splice—I was in a hurry, I forgot my wallet—is an error. To fix it, we could create two sentences: I was in a hurry. I forgot my wallet. We could use a comma and a coordinating conjunction to make a compound sentence: I was in a hurry, and I forgot my wallet. We could replace the comma with a semicolon: I was in a hurry; I forgot my wallet.
Watch out for run-on sentences (two independent clauses with no punctuation between them): I was in a hurry I forgot my wallet.
8. Dangling modifiers
A modifier is a phrase that describes or clarifies something else. If it’s unclear what the modifier refers to, or if it appears to modify the wrong part of a sentence, the modifier is “dangling.”
The results are often confusing or funny. An example: Camping in the woods, the bear startled us. The modifier Camping in the woods is too far from the sentence’s intended subject (the campers), so it looks like the bear was camping. A possible fix: Camping in the woods, we were startled by a bear.
Another example: Born in Singapore, his novel was a bestseller. The modifier Born in Singapore mistakenly refers to his novel. The intended subject, the author, is missing, and his is insufficient. Correction: Kevin Kwan, who was born in Singapore, wrote a bestselling novel.
9. Lack of parallelism
A sentence that features parallelism repeats a grammatical form or word pattern to indicate that two or more ideas are equally important. Parallelism adds clarity and a pleasing flow to your writing.
Here’s an example of a sentence that lacks parallelism. Note how awkwardly the sentence reads: Maya loves swimming, marathons and to climb. We can improve this sentence with consistent verb forms: Maya loves swimming, running marathons and climbing or Maya loves to swim, run marathons and climb.
Here’s another example of a sentence that lacks parallelism: Adam works quickly and finished the project. It’s better if the verb tenses match: Adam worked quickly and finished the project.
Sometimes a sentence that lacks parallelism reads as an interrupted list: The house has leaky pipes, crumbling walls and the heating is faulty. Better: The house has leaky pipes, crumbling walls and faulty heating.
10. Double-spacing after a period
This punctuation habit is a holdover from the era of typewriters. Don’t double space after a period. Period.
These resources can help you learn more about grammar, punctuation and word usage:
Editing Canadian English, 3rd edition (Editors Canada)
The Canadian Press Online Stylebook (Canadian Press)
The Chicago Manual of Style Online (University of Chicago Press)
The Canadian Style (TERMIUM Plus, Government of Canada)
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