By Joanie Spencer

One of an editor’s most telling traits is the meticulous eye for proper grammar. But editors can get into ruts, and it’s easy to forget the “why” behind edits. At the Kansas City chapter’s 2013 Boot Camp, I gave attendees a refresher course in my copy editing presentation “Grammar 2.0.”

Every editor knows the difference between an independent and a dependent clause, but how to treat them—and why—often gets lost in the shuffle. For starters, a common mistake is to incorrectly punctuate a complex sentence (one independent clause plus one or more dependent clauses). Here’s a hint: When the dependent clause comes first, it’s followed by a comma because it “bows” to the independent clause, which sits at the top of a sentence’s hierarchy.

In addition to sentence structure, I also reviewed parts of speech including nouns, pronouns and verbs and the properties of each.

Speaking of verbs: Editors hate passive voice—or so they think. More often, what they’re actually correcting is a weak verb. Granted, a weak verb (any form of “to be”) is part of the passive formula, but it doesn’t end there. For voice to be passive, it must also include a past participle and be followed with “by,” either actual or implied. Think of a kid telling his mom, “Mom, the window was broken … not by me, of course.”

Learning the construction for passive voice is like learning there’s no Santa Clause. Your eyes open up, and it changes how you see everything.

Another one of my favorite topics is misplaced modifiers. When I took my editing course in grad school, misplaced modifiers were my weak spot. But now that I know how to recognize them, I see misplaced modifiers everywhere. It’s like an affliction.

While I like talking about grammar, what I love most is when students change their writing habits based on what they learn in my class. I love it when full-time professors tell me they see my students’ writing improve throughout the semester. But the best is when I hear about them becoming editors themselves, especially those who hadn’t planned to become working journalists. I just heard from a former student who, as an intern, caught 12 errors in a press release that four managers had already read and approved. That’s the sweet spot for me.

At the end of the Boot Camp session, I “rewarded” attendees with grammar and editing worksheets. Now they can put their skills to the test—or even save the exercises for new hires. Click the following links to download them.


BootCamp_Pronoun test


Joanie Spencer

Joanie Spencer

Joanie Spencer is managing editor for Sosland Publishing’s Baking & Snack, a business-to-business publication for the wholesale baking industry. Spencer also serves as adjunct faculty at Rockhurst University, where she teaches upper-level reporting and editing courses. She has a BA in communication with a minor in journalism from Rockhurst University and an MA in journalism from the University of Missouri. At Mizzou, she served as graduate assistant for renowned writing and editing expert Don Ranly, whose textbook she uses in her editing courses today.