An American Editor

October 29, 2010

The Missing Ingredient: Grammar Skills

Over the past several weeks, I have had opportunities to speak with the heads of production at several of my clients. After our direct business discussion, we sort of wandered off topic to discuss the current state of copyediting and copyeditors.

What I found interesting was that each of the persons I spoke with had the same lament: There is a dearth of copyeditors with good grammar skills. What they have noticed is the wide gap in skill level between those who are nearing retirement (high on the skill scale) and those now entering the field or who have been in the field for only a few years (low on the skill scale).

Grammar and spelling skills appear to be declining among editors, or so I was told. These clients believe that editors increasingly are relying on software programs to tell them when there is a grammar or spelling error, and taking the software’s suggested correction without exercising the independent judgement that is required to determine whether or not the software is correct.

What brought this up was my mentioning that I occasionally speak at gatherings of freelancers about the business of freelance editing. In each instance, the client suggested that it would be significantly more beneficial — for both the client and the copyeditors seeking business — if grammar was addressed. One client said that of 100 editing tests administered, they were lucky if 1 got a passing grade and that it was rare for testees to get very high passing grades.

Another problem they all cited was the obvious reliance on spell-checker. One client wondered if the editors even owned printed dictionaries and usage guides, or if they did, if the editor knew how to use them. Two examples were cited: The first was there and their. The client remarked that it was not unusual, anymore, to receive a copyedited manuscript with the incorrect term left as presented by the author. The second was that and who. Apparently people have become objects and many copyeditors do not correct a sentence such as “The students and teachers that became…” or “The patients that were tested….” Other examples given were that and which and since and because.

I don’t know if the full cause of the problem can be laid at the feet of the education system, but certainly a significant portion of it can. I know that when my children were in school, grammar was barely touched on as a subject. I also know that when I look at the writing of many educators, there is a clear lack of facility with grammar. This is not to say that the best of us don’t make grammar mistakes; rather the problem is that what was once occasional error has become commonplace.

Yet, the question is this: How many copyeditors recognize that their grammar skills are less than stellar and would be willing to pay to attend a conference devoted to improving grammar skills? I suspect, based on conversations that I have had with colleagues, that most think the problem is not their problem but is that of someone else. It is the state of humanness that lets us readily perceive the faults of others but not our own.

I expect the problem to get worse long before it gets better. Unless how teachers are taught/educated undergoes significant reform and a new emphasis is placed on communication skills that include grammar, spelling, and writing, I do not think improvement will occur. As the transmitters of knowledge, teachers have to be the first to gain it.

It also may symptomatic of today’s culture. In my youth, one way grammar skills were picked up was by osmosis — reading well-edited books, magazines, and newspapers could only lead to absorption of some of the “rules.” But today, reading overall is in decline. Interestingly, what is on the incline are those tasks that reward brevity and substitution — all that matters is that the general message be sent and understood, the twittering of grammar.

It doesn’t help that we are in an age of anyone who wants can publish. It means that a lot of grammatically and spelling-poor material is available for reading, which only acts to reinforce poor habits. Is there an easy solution? No. But based on the discussions I had with clients, there is a definite need for copyeditors to recognize their limitations and voluntarily undertake the effort to improve their skills.

What do you think? Would you pay for grammar-focused class or do you think you already have a high skill level?



  1. I think there has always been a “wide gap in skill level between those who are nearing retirement (high on the skill scale) and those now entering the field or who have been in the field for only a few years (low on the skill scale).”

    English grammar is not like mathematics: once you’ve passed the test you can integrate with the best of them. English grammar, in my opinion, takes a lifetime of learning to conquer. And the rules do change occasionally. So a person who has been studying grammar a long time is better at it than someone who hasn’t.

    Copyeditors are like doctors, they need to keep honing.


    Comment by Sue Lange — October 29, 2010 @ 7:33 am | Reply

  2. I agree with Sue (above) that practice and experience make for at least something nearing perfection.

    You’ve been in at the sharp end now for twenty-six years. I can add nearly twenty to that. And I know I’m more skilled and accurate now than I was ten, twenty, thirty, forty years ago (and without resort to software).

    I think, though, that you make a valid but disturbing point when you say that raw-copy ‘publication’ of free and self-published books these days lowers the general acceptability level when it comes to spelling and grammar — not to mention other vital facets of word presentation. And this will not encourage young editors to develop as we did. In fact, it may even lead to a wholesale dumbing-down of written and spoken language. If the ‘qualified’ gatekeepers themselves lower standards, English is on a slippery slope.

    Thanks for another fascinating post. Best wishes. Neil


    Comment by Neil Marr — October 29, 2010 @ 7:55 am | Reply

  3. If I had the money and the event was located within reasonable distance of my home, I would attend a class on grammar presented by an expert in the editing field; or if not by a professional editor, then at least an expert willing to address the topic in the context of the profession.

    My language skills are relatively good, but I’ve lost a lot of technical knowledge over the years and could benefit from a refresher — especially if good grammar (etc.) is coming around again to be a financial asset. My skills have sagged down with the lowering demands of my clients, allowing me to get lazy.


    Comment by Carolyn — October 29, 2010 @ 8:25 am | Reply

  4. “the client suggested that it would be significantly more beneficial – for both the client and the copyeditors seeking business – if grammar was addressed.”

    Shouldn’t that be “if grammar were addresssed”?

    I think one problem is that we have a whole generation coming along reading mostly text messages, with their own spelling and grammar rules.

    Another is that the job of copyeditor has changed so that it’s more concentrated on mechanical things like inserting codes and less on things related to grammar and meaning.

    I knew a woman who used to work for Little, Brown, and if she was copyediting a novel in which someone jumped into a blue 1928 Packard coupe, she’d check to make sure Packard made blue coupes that year, and this was before the Internet made such searches easy. She was doing fact checking as well as reading for grammar and style.

    I suspect no one would do that today, and publishers wouldn’t want to pay for the time it takes to do it.


    Comment by gretchen — October 29, 2010 @ 10:05 am | Reply

    • I was just wondering why you feel that the statement should have read “…if grammar were adressed” as opposed to “…was addressed”? Isn’t grammar a singular thing that encompasses many things? I was always taught that if you substitute “it” or “they”, then the verb should be “was” or “were,” respectively. In writing the referenced sentence, I would have used “it,” which leads to using “was.” Is this not correct?


      Comment by Angela Kay — November 6, 2010 @ 10:13 am | Reply

      • “Were” is the subjunctive. Contrary to fact. As in “If I were rich instead of eking out a living as a copy editor.”


        Comment by gretchen — November 7, 2010 @ 10:01 am | Reply

      • Thank you. This is a testament that grammar is not being taught fully in our schools. Thank goodness I am a firm believer in continual education.

        I was not as familiar with the subjunctive form, as it was barely touched upon in any of my classes (even in college). With all of the writing becoming less formal, it is easy to see why we are lacking in knowledge and understanding.

        I cannot wait until I begin the course I signed up for. I am sure that all of these little details that I am personally ignorant about will be fully illuminated.

        Thanks again.


        Comment by Angela Kay — November 8, 2010 @ 12:20 pm | Reply

      • “This is a testament that grammar is not being taught fully in our schools. ”

        Don’t adverbs come before verbs? (With the exception of “to be”, of course.) So this should be “fully taught”, not “taught fully”.


        Comment by DensityDuck — April 11, 2011 @ 12:54 pm | Reply

        • In rigid grammar, yes, adverbs come before verbs. But at least since the 1960s, it has been accepted practice in informal writing for the verb to precede the adverb as long as it is not misleading as to meaning. Both the beauty and the downfall of English, especiall American English, is its ever-evolving acceptance of colloquial speech forms as correct grammar forms.


          Comment by americaneditor — April 11, 2011 @ 1:43 pm | Reply

  5. Most of the professional copy editors I know (self included) would be all over that blue Packard!

    And most of those copy editors are over 40, if not 50. : )


    Comment by Carolyn — October 29, 2010 @ 10:09 am | Reply

  6. I agree with you completely on this issue. I am one of the older generation who has a very high level of skills in grammar, partly because of an aptitude for it (I’m not so good in the maths and sciences), partly because of interest (I actually care!) and partly because I continue to improve my skills. I have the latest issues of The Chicago Manual of Style, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, and other resource guides such as Garner’s American Usage, and I consult them all the time.

    It is a shame that some copyeditors don’t even recognize that they have a weakness in grammar, or don’t care, as this is an area where they can easily learn and improve their skills, and help their clients produce a polished, professional-looking book or document.


    Comment by Jodie Renner — October 29, 2010 @ 10:31 am | Reply

  7. I have a high skill level; I have taught grammar to academics and composed grammar tests for potential editors. I’m nearing retirement age. Young editors today think I’m an old fogy for expecting parallel structure or fixing dangling modifiers. I’ll keep on until I drop, though. Somebody has to fight off “Based on these tests, I predict…” and similar nonsense.

    Even Publishers Weekly has fallen into the abyss of spell-checking instead of editing. Last week’s issue included “Scottish thrown [throne]” and “set sale [sail]” on a single spread. Automation FAIL! (to use a trendy Twitterism)


    Comment by The Book Doctor — October 29, 2010 @ 11:34 am | Reply

  8. Sorry to bob in off topic. I’ve been following this excellent blog for some months now and only today discovered the comments that follow each post. I simply want to register my appreciation and thanks. It’s good to see a vital and interested community here. Best wishes. Neil


    Comment by Neil Marr — October 29, 2010 @ 11:38 am | Reply

  9. Strange. How did these people get copyediting jobs in the first place if their grammar skills were so low? Whoever told them they were good at this? What experiences did they have in school that made them think editing would be a good career for them?

    I am truly flabbergasted.


    Comment by Benjamin Lukoff — October 29, 2010 @ 11:51 am | Reply

    • I think kids are taught today that it’s more important to “express themselves” than to worry about trifles like grammar; teachers have actually told me that they don’t correct student errors even if they see them. And most young teachers come from the lowest academic strata in colleges, so they may not know what good grammar and correct usage are.

      We elders were more likely to be taught by masters of the language. Their highly educated female counterparts now work in better paid professions. We get what we pay for.

      Some young editors get hired by middle-aged editors who need warm bodies and are not allowed to pay for experts. Publishers tell me I’m too expensive, so they hire the best of the cheap youngsters and close their eyes to their failings. So I work for individual authors who recognize the value of editing.


      Comment by The Book Doctor — October 29, 2010 @ 12:35 pm | Reply

  10. My own wee house has four editors (three fiction, one poetry): combined age is 263, combined professional experience is 140 years. One or more of us is more than likely to start winding down soon, and I’m now faced with the prospect of having to pull in a newcomer. S/he’ll be young and cheap (we’re a tiny operation). But the time it will take to unteach all the bad advice that’s been drilled into her or him and to instill all the good advice that hasn’t will be long, and it will also be a tedious and frustrating job. For two years or more we’ll have to re-edit everything handled by the new kid on the block and explain every change down to the dot and comma. I guess there’s no way to buy a young editor off-the-peg. Best wishes. Neil


    Comment by Neil Marr — October 29, 2010 @ 12:58 pm | Reply

  11. As a retired teacher of English, and now a freelance copy-editor, I quite agree with the sentiments expressed in today’s post and in the comments. In fact, my own blog post (alas, the only one)is on this very topic – ‘Why Spellcheck is just not enough’. Obviously, I enjoy editing more than writing a blog. Yes, I know there’s a wavy red line under ‘Spellcheck’. No, I don’t mind. There’s one under ‘testee’ as well (para 4, last line). ;o) It’s ok. We’re ahead of the free Spell Checker. Both the red-underlined words will appear in future dictionaries as perfectly respectable nouns, if they haven’t done so already.


    Comment by Zarine Arya — October 29, 2010 @ 3:16 pm | Reply

    • ….and now a freelance copy-editor..
      Is copy-editor hyphenated? As I know it’s copy editor (open, BrE, but copy-editing), copyeditor (closed, AmE).


      Comment by Rao HD — November 6, 2010 @ 8:08 pm | Reply

  12. I suppose I am a contributor to the problem because I self-publish, and I am certain that without a copy editor, my novels are full of errors. I would give anything to be able to afford a copy editor.

    It is truly disturbing to learn that copy editors are declining in grammar skills like the rest of humanity. My daughter never had a grammar lesson in her life except for the few times I tried to teach her how to diagram sentences. She never “got” it because she didn’t think it mattered whether the subject and verb agreed or whether there were dangling participles. (What’s a participle?) I edited every paper she ever wrote, with gritted teeth at the very idea that she was passing much less getting A’s and B’s with her horrible grammar and spelling.

    In my day job, I frequently encounter written communications from college educated people that is utterly incomprehensible.

    Clarity of expression is important. Good grammar helps to ensure clarity.

    I suppose that when the primary means of communication is via text messaging, Twitter, and writing on Facebook walls, clarity is not as important as brevity.


    Thank you for your wonderful blog.


    Comment by Meredith — October 29, 2010 @ 6:24 pm | Reply

  13. While I agree that youngsters’ grammatical knowledge is patchy and can be improved upon, it is also true that many of the things railed against by the older generation aren’t in fact errors at all. For example, ‘that’ for people has been in the language from the beginning, and if it’s good enough for Shakespeare and the KJB, it’s good enough for me. There are many 18th-century Latinist stylistic obsessions that we could do well to shed, and concentrate effort onto things that actually matter.

    We all need to learn, oldies as well as newbies. New recruits need to learn the nuts and bolts (technical terms, syntax, confusable spellings); seasoned old dogs need to question and research their prejudices, especially if what they consider an error occurs far more frequently than the ‘correct’ version.

    If I may quote the great Bill Walsh: ‘Master the basics before attempting to cultivate pet peeves.’


    Comment by Steve — November 2, 2010 @ 6:47 am | Reply

  14. I tend to agree with Steve’s point that there are a lot of grammatical shibboleths which have no real basis in English grammar or even good English usage. Two examples listed above are good illustrations of this (both, I think, are from Strunk & White); both are wrong. The first example concerns misusing “which” and “that” – presumably on the basis that it is improper to use “which” in an integrated relative clause. But this is not true; the best writers do this today and have done so for centuries. Notwithstanding Messrs. Strunk and White. (You shouldn’t, of course, use “that” in a supplementary relative clause…but I don’t think that’s too common anyway.)

    The second example, involving “because” and “since” is even more stupid, with the idea being that it’s improper to use “since” to mean “because;” it should only be used for time. In other words, the claim is that it’s improper to say “Since you’re here, we should go to the store.” The idea being that “since” expresses time and the sentence should begin with “Because.” But that’s just ludicrously wrong – “since” and “because” both mean the same thing; some dictionaries will even use the words to define each other.

    Now of course you do want to avoid a situation where “since”‘s additional meaning relating to time can cause confusion; i.e., if you mean to say “I’ve been unhappy because you left,” it’s best not to say “I’ve been unhappy since you left.” But other than those easily avoided situations, “since” and “because” are basically interchangeable.


    Comment by PeterW — November 3, 2010 @ 11:38 pm | Reply

  15. By the way, folks, some of you may not yet have seen this little internet ditty about spell checkers.


    The Spell Checker

    Eye halve a spelling chequer;
    It came with my pea sea.
    It plainly marques four my revue
    Miss steaks eye can knot sea.

    Eye strike a key and type a whirred
    And weight four it two say
    Weather eye am wrung or write.
    It shows me strait a weigh.

    As soon as a mist ache is maid,
    It nose bee fore two long;
    An dye can put the era rite.
    Its rare lea ever wrong.

    Eye have run this poem threw.
    I’m sheer your pleased two no
    Its letter perfect awl the weigh;
    My chequer tolled me sew.


    Half a loaf lee weak. Kneel Mar


    Comment by Neil Marr — November 7, 2010 @ 9:34 am | Reply

  16. […] read a lot of books. These differences have been discussed in prior articles; see, for example, The Missing Ingredient: Grammar Skills; Finding a Professional Editor: The Needle in the Haystack Problem; In the Face: eBook Errors; I […]


    Pingback by Symbiosis: The Authorial and Editorial Process « An American Editor — March 23, 2011 @ 6:14 am | Reply

  17. On the one hand, we have people insisting that you’re an idiot if you terminate comma-delimited lists with a “comma and” rather than simply “and”, or double-space after a period.

    On the other hand, we still have people who can’t get “breathe” and “breath” straight, so there we are.


    Comment by DensityDuck — April 11, 2011 @ 1:02 pm | Reply

  18. “In rigid grammar, yes, adverbs come before verbs.” Perhaps that needs to be qualified. Would it be correct to say ‘He well sang that night, but she even better sang and won the contest. She always beautifully sings when challenged’?


    Comment by Zarine Arya — April 12, 2011 @ 9:04 am | Reply

    • No, it would not be correct to say “He well sang that night, but she even better sang and won the contest. She always beautifully sings when challenged.” No rule is hard and fast — or at least no rule should be.


      Comment by americaneditor — April 12, 2011 @ 9:21 am | Reply

      • Thanks :o) Now can a linguistics specialist explain this? I’m sure there’s a reason or some abstruse grammar rule that applies. Most of us just use the language instinctively.


        Comment by Zarine Arya — April 12, 2011 @ 4:25 pm | Reply

  19. I agree with almost everything here (I admit that I scanned the comments) and just have one comment to add: I’m pretty sure it was on the BBC that I heard that *more* people are reading books since the advent of ebooks and ereaders. So the problem is partially with the books being published (and not edited or poorly edited) and partially with English grammar education.

    In American English: we don’t have a “central authority” as they do in Britain. Other languages (romance language, etc.) have central authorities that dictate what words are acceptable (“OK” was *not* accepted by the Real Academia Española), correct and inflexible forms of grammar, etc.

    This results in much confusion, not only on the part of native English speakers and writers, but especially for non-native English speakers and writers. One of the positive aspects of this, and I never forget it — is the variety of creativity and invention permitted by English (there are many examples in 20th and 21st century American novels), much moreso than with other languages. This is something to be considered.


    Comment by lauriepriceediting — April 19, 2012 @ 10:50 am | Reply

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: