Real advice for real writers (and those who want to become one)

Grammar Matters

One of the greatest lessons I learned as an editorial assistant was that successful writing and grammatical accuracy go hand-in-hand. I remember the first time I copyedited a work for pay. I was astounded at all the grammatical errors riddled throughout the piece—a piece, mind you, which was being submitted to a scholarly journal for publication. Certainly, I thought to myself, I’m the one who’s in the wrong, here. Surely a scholar would know more about the rules of grammar than me! Alas, being the timid college freshman I was, I actually left many of the errors unmarked even though my gut told me they were wrong (pathetic, I know).

Fortunately, I worked for a superb editor who set me on the straight path right then and there. I received a pretty decent and well-deserved rebuke upon submitting the weakly-edited document, but infused in his correction was an education I’ve come to live by as a writer and editor: grammar matters…a lot. Yes, there’s a distinct difference between the writing process and the editorial process, and we mustn’t forget the value of recruiting editors. In truth, some people are better finessed to write, others to edit, and some to do both. But still...a certain amount of grammatical accountability must be left to writers, themselves.

Grammatical errors can change the meaning of a writer’s content.

A writer's purpose is to communicate, so paving the way for readers’ accurate comprehension is absolutely essential. For many writers, not knowing how to effectively implement, say, an apostrophe means not knowing how to effectively say what’s in their head. How maddening it is when we can’t say what we mean! Let’s look at the phrase, “my cats pajamas,” as an example of how easily a sentence’s meaning can evolve with the re-positioning of a single apostrophe.

“my cat’s pajamas” – a single cat owns the pajamas (possessive singular).

“my cats’ pajamas” – multiple cats own the pajamas (possessive plural).

“my cats pajamas” – I own the pajamas. The absence of an apostrophe means the word cats doesn’t express ownership, but it instead describes the pajamas. In this instance, however, I’d be more inclined to call them my cat pajamas.

See how scary-easy it is to change the meaning of a sentence with one mistake? Fortunately, this kind of error typically gets sorted out as it passes through the editorial process. More difficult for editors to discern and correct, though, are instances of grammatical ambiguity. Consider the following sentence:

“The two girls asked their parents, Bill and Sue, if they were going to the wedding.”

In this instance, the pronoun they is unclear because there is more than one noun antecedent. Who is they referring to? The two girls, Bill and Sue, or all four of them? To establish clarity, the writer should rephrase the sentence with more details so that there is less room for confusion.

Option #1: Tanya and Alisha asked their parents for permission to go to the wedding. (Indicates that the two girls are asking if they themselves can go to the wedding.)

Option #2: Tanya and Alisha asked their parents if the four of them would attend the wedding. (Indicates that the girls want to know if all four will attend.)

Option #3: Unable to miss school, Tanya and Alisha encouraged their parents to attend the wedding even though they themselves couldn’t go. (Indicates that the girls aren't going themselves.)

Grammatical errors can distract readers from seeing a piece’s true worth and intent. Mistakes happen and rules change over time, but the writer’s responsibility to communicate should never be taken for granted. That’s why we’re here to help you give your best. Follow our blog for lots of helpful grammar tips and tricks!

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