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Clean Up Your Copy: 10 Common Spelling and Grammar Errors by Jaclyn Law

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.

Resources

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)


Magazines Canada Hotsheets deliver current information on a single topic, each written by an expert in the field. Return to Magazines Canada Hotsheets.

Canada Council for the Arts / Conseil des arts du Canada Department of Canadian Heritage  Ontario Arts Council / Conseil des arts de l'Ontario Ontario Creates / Ontario Créatif

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Writing about Indigenous People and Communities: Three Tips to Get it Right by Angela Sterritt

Angela Sterritt
Angela Sterritt

By Angela Sterritt, Journalist and Writer, CBC

I often get asked, what makes an Indigenous story different? And I always say the say the same thing. Nothing.

That might seem counterintuitive when we are often reminded about the sensitivity, needed context and previous gaps in stories on Indigenous people and communities. But it’s about getting it right and that means striving to cover Indigenous stories with the same investigation, rigour, sensitivity, depth and accuracy as any other story.

The difference is the acknowledgement that as an institution, the media has not done a good job covering Indigenous stories in the past. We have left out details, such as how much a family member loves a missing or murdered love one, or been too gratuitous with other details, like spending the most time on who killed her or how she died. In many cases, we have also got facts wrong, talked to too few sources or worse, not covered a story at all.

Trust has been broken with media and now some are trying to build it back up.

I’ve been covering Indigenous stories, not exclusively, but often over the last several years and there are some tips I have picked up along the way—often from making my own mistakes.

1. Don’t rush a sensitive story

For some Indigenous people, in particular survivors of residential schools, the sixties scoop or family members of missing or murdered loved ones, this may be the first time they have shared their story because of a lack of trust in media.

Some may have witnessed or experienced a negative interview or had a story published about them or their community that was not accurate or misrepresentative.

Do let interviewees know about your deadline, the treatment of the story and your direction, but be open minded about how long it may take to gather, especially if it is a sensitive story.

I once expressed my frustration with how long an interview with a survivor was taking to set up and not only did I lose the interview and the story but the contact. It was a big reminder that some stories cannot be rushed. I now make a point of being gentle with time.

That being said, you might need to let your editor or producer know that this story might take more time in the gathering stage.

Also keep in mind this may not be true for everyone. I’ve also had many survivors feel good about sharing and want the story to go out as soon as possible. Others have worked with media before and can help turn a story around in a few hours. Keep in mind, like everyone, Indigenous people do not all have the same experience.

2. Be objective, and mindful of stereotyping

One of the main flaws of the past in writing about Indigenous communities was that they were often presented in an oversimplified way. We saw tropes of Indigenous people as only of the past, only in a cultural lens or bleakly.

We’ve left out important context that helped to understand a community or person or added context when it wasn’t needed.

For example, in an excellent news story about voting in an Indigenous community, two Indigenous youth were featured. It was compelling and powerful. But at one point the reporter questioned the youth about the type of drugs he used growing up—”oxytocin or meth”? It gave the story weight and context about the hurdles this community had overcome, but how often would we ask non-Indigenous people this same question for a story unrelated to drugs and alcohol? Many people of different races have had brushes with and even struggled with addictions but often it’s highlighted in Indigenous stories.

I also had a keen non-Indigenous student recently tell me that he was told by another student not to ask Indigenous people about their community as it may be too traumatizing for them. This is an inaccurate assumption, as for one it infers that all Indigenous people are victims, and for two it suggests we should steer away from difficult stories in Indigenous communities. We should strive for balance in our coverage of Indigenous communities and this means being brave enough to cover the hard stories and knowing the value of doing the lighter, more positive ones.

It’s a lesson about inserting our own bias about Indigenous people, intentionally or inadvertently, into our storytelling. The tip here is to think about what biases or tropes you are bringing to your stories with your own preconceptions about Indigenous people.

Here are some to avoid:

  • The victim narrative: Depicting Indigenous people or a person as collapsing under the burden of history or current realities, or overcoming tragedies that have no root cause.
  • The addict and alcoholic stereotype: Exhibiting a person’s past or current substance abuse when it is unrelated to the story.
  • The warrior trope: Rather than looking at concerns as legitimate political, environmental or socio-economic ones—painting an Indigenous person as a trouble maker, or as irrational, even violent.
  • The greedy/lazy label: Instead of telling a robust story about finances, treaties and lands in Indigenous communities, showcasing a narrow, crude or inaccurate presentation of the issues such as Indigenous people getting free stuff (education and gas are popular errors) or tax breaks.

3. Actually visit an Indigenous community

One of the things I notice more and more is that reporters end up tethered to their desks due to budget cuts or tighter deadlines, so I understand, this is a hard one.

But it’s difficult to actually understand the complexity of a community without going there, talking to people there and seeing the state of the community. For example, many reporters had covered a Stolo community close to Chilliwack, B.C. but without ever going there. Most of the reports focused on one chief who was in support of the Trans Mountain pipeline, and from one perspective. But going there showed me a diverse cross-section of the community: some who were clearly against the expansion, others who were for it, but for a vast array of reasons. Going there also showed me just how small the community was, how tight knit and how connected to other communities it was.

Being in a community can also show you the distance it is from larger centres, the challenges it may face to access education, health care and transportation.

Make sure not just to show up, ask permission from a resident (doesn’t have to be from the band leadership) and try to plan it around a community event. When I was covering stories about the oil sands in northern Alberta, we planned it around a career fair and a trapping trip.

The biggest, more important piece of advice I can offer, is start to see Indigenous people as not black-and-white caricatures who exist in homogeneous ways, but as three-dimensional, complex and diverse people, with various opinions, ways of life, experiences and values.


Magazines Canada Hotsheets deliver current information on a single topic, each written by an expert in the field. Return to Magazines Canada Hotsheets.

Canada Council for the Arts / Conseil des arts du Canada Department of Canadian Heritage  Ontario Arts Council / Conseil des arts de l'Ontario Ontario Creates / Ontario Créatif

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Webinar: Reporting in Indigenous Communities, How to Get It Right

Angela Sterritt HeadshotReporting in Indigenous communities can be tough. It’s not just navigating sensitive issues like those surrounding stories about missing and murdered Indigenous women, but covering complex terrain in stories that include the Indian Act, treaties, and land claims, to name a few. Many writers grapple with how to tell a sensitive story, and Canadian Indigenous stories are frequently left out or negatively slanted in media. Join award-winning Gitxsan journalist Angela Sterritt, who has worked with Journalists for Human Rights to facilitate the course called Reporting in Indigenous Communities, as she shares tactics and tips about how to get it right. You will learn how to get the facts right while being mindful of historical concerns such as stereotyping and under-reporting, and subsequent mistrust. You will also learn how to get the story right while being respectful to Indigenous people, communities and cultures.

Angela Sterritt is an award-winning journalist and writer from British Columbia. Angela has worked as a journalist for close to 20 years and has been with the CBC since 2003. Her reports have appeared in the Globe and MailThe NationalCBC’s The Current, and various other news programs. She currently works with CBC  Vancouver as television, radio, and online reporter and host. In the fall of 2017, Sterritt launched “Reconcile This,” a CBC column that explores the tensions between Indigenous people and institutions in British Columbia. In less than a year the column has won an international Gabriel award and an RTDNA award.  Angela is Gitxsan with the Gitanmaax band in Northwest B.C.

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