grammar check - not so easy on an old typewriter

In my first job editing a magazine and aged 21, I “corrected”  its to the “possessive” it’s through the entire magazine. I was mortified to receive a letter some weeks later from a reader pointing out that the copy editor was illiterate; didn’t the editor know that it’s is short for it is, and is not the possessive?

That was quite a long time ago and I have become a lot better at editing, especially as the same mistakes keep coming up again and again, including the it’s/its one. Here are a list of the most common mistakes I see.


It’s vs its

Usually the apostrophe before an ‘s’ suggests possession, but not here. It’s is short for it is, and its indicates possession. You probably know that, but the young me didn’t.

Misuse in “multiple’s” (sic)

This is a common one, especially amongst younger writers. For example:

  • The dog’s are barking
  • The dogs are barking

Sic is latin for ‘thus it was written’, ie, this is as it was written, and not my mistake!

Quotation marks (inverted commas)

This can be complicated because not only are  the American and British rules different according to some style guides, but there is also a difference between fiction and non-fiction writing. However, usage is more telling and while some sites will tell you that it is British style to use single quotes for speech, you only need  visit  The Guardian, Financial Times or Economist websites to see that this is not true.

However, British do differ to the Americans on where punctuation is placed with regard to quotation marks, and I go with the British on this.

For speech

British use: Punctuation goes inside the quotation marks when you are quoting direct speech, but if you are reporting just a phrase or a couple of words that someone has said, then just those words go in the quotation marks, and you punctuate the rest of the sentence as normal. If you are introducing speech, put a comma or colon before the speech.

  • The man shouted: “Elvis is king,” before disappearing into the crowd.
  • Where can I find the man who said: “Elvis is king”?
  • Where can I find the man who asked: “Is Elvis king?”?
  • The man I am looking for described Elvis as “king”.

Single quotation marks do get used for text quoted within quotation marks, in headlines where their use is considered ugly

Misuse or overuse of quotation marks to highlight unusual usage, special meaning

A writer should be sparing when using quotation marks to highlight words that are being used in an unusual way for several reasons:

  • Double quotation marks around a word or phrase often suggests irony (scare quotes), so quotation marks could cause confusion to the reader:
    • The “intelligence” services arrested the wrong man. (clearly ironic)
    • The Fed will begin “tapering” at its next meeting in September. (Ironic or not? )

Tapering means to thin out, but took on a special meaning when Federal Reserve Chairman Bernanke used it to describe his plans to reduce the Fed’s bond buying programme. In effect, you are quoting Bernanke when you use this expression in this context in quotation marks.

Since then, the word has started to appear in text with quotation marks, indicating its special meaning. However, people are now asking whether it will it happen at all, and to what degree? The word  might then be used ironically. In which case, confusion reigns.

It has become fashionable to overuse quotation marks in this way and style guides, such as that of The Guardian advise their writers to  use quotation marks only when the words are truly exceptional:

“Benítez said he was “angry” that Liverpool were being written out of the title race. Yes, maybe, quotation marks if he was “incandescent”, or “spitting with rage” – but it is completely unnecessary to use quotation marks for mundane words and unexceptional quotes.”

I go with this advice, and therefore would not use quotation marks around “tapering” unless I did mean it ironically.


Hyphens and dashes

The difference between hyphens and dashes

A hyphen (-) joins things together.

An en or ‘N’ dash (–) is the width of the letter ‘N’ in that particular typeface, and is used to indicate a range, eg, 1920–1921.

An em or ‘M’ dash (—)  is the width of the letter ‘M’ and is used to separate out information from a sentence, rather like brackets/parentheses. You can consider it a heavy-duty comma, eg, We’re going on a journey — something that we’ve looked forward to for a long time — and it should really help us relax and get to know each other better.

That’s the simple explanation because of course there is a difference between American and British usage, and some people think the em dash too long and ugly, so prefer to use an en dash….

Hyphens in adjectives

The use of hyphens in compound (more than one word) adjectives seems to cause more confusion than the admittedly odd occasion where their absence would cause confusion in meaning. But for my English-trained mind (there’s a hyphen in a compound adjective right there), their omission jumps out and is just WRONG, however Americans are more lenient on the use and only use the hyphen when it definitely causes confusion to leave it out.

The cold hearted teddy vs the cold-hearted teddy

  • The cold hearted teddy suggests that we are talking about a cold teddy that has one or more hearts.
  • The hyphen helps us understand that it is the heart that is cold, not the teddy.

other examples:

  • all-day watchmen vs all day watchmen – in the first case the watchmen work all day, in the second all the watchmen work during the day.
  • closed-door meeting vs closed door meeting –  in the first case the meeting is behind a closed door, in the second the meeting is a closed meeting about doors, perhaps.
  • long-term lease vs long term lease – in the first case the lease is for a long time, in the second the lease is long, and also a term kind of lease.
  • fat-free yoghurt vs fat free yoghurt – in the first case the yoghurt is free of fat, in the second yoghurt is free, and fat.
  • 24-hour breakfasts vs 24 hour breakfast– in the first case the breakfast is available 24-hours, in the second there are 24 breakfasts, and we presume they are an hour long.
  • three-year-old boy vs three year old boys – in the first case the boy is three years old, in the second there are three boys who may be a year old, or might be old boys who are also year boys, total confusion!

If you are not sure consider  dropping one of the descriptive words and if it still describes the object accurately if not completely, then there is no need for the hyphen, eg, the yoghurt is fat, and it is also free = no hyphen.

NOTE: Some adjectives are also nouns and are not hyphenated when used in that way, eg, our long-term plan is to move to Spain, but in the long term this might not work out.

Wrongly used words

Which vs that

The official explanation of when to use one and not the other includes phrases like “restrictive clause”, which for most people is just another thing to look up. Here is my quick way of telling the difference:

THAT is strong and defines the item in question, assuming that there is more than one to choose from.

WHICH is Weaker (remember the alliteration) and  provides a description that simply provides additional information for the reader. The ‘which’ is usually preceded by a comma and Word helpfully puts it in, thereby giving you another clue.

For example:

  1. Do not pick the mushrooms that are poisonous – tells us we should not pick the poisonous mushrooms, suggesting that we should be picking the none-poisonous ones.
  2. Do not pick the mushrooms which are poisonous – tells us that all mushrooms are poisonous. Do not pick them.

Some grammarians say that, as with most finer points in grammar, usages change and which can be used instead of that so long as the meaning is clear. If this is so, and people are using which when they mean that, option 2 could have two meanings and creates confusion. By placing a comma before the which, things become super clear.

  1. Do not pick the mushrooms, which are poisonous.

I prefer not to leave such things to chance.

Please note that which and that are used in other ways in sentences; this is just a discussion of which vs that.