And my bleary commute was well worth it, as Frances Peck of the Editors' Association of Canada gave an informative and engaging rundown of the most common grammatical boo-boos she encounters in her work:
- Agreement (pronoun-antecedent, subject-verb)
- Pronoun Case (esp. the use and misuse of myself)
- Dangling modifiers (which she considers the most common blunder)
- And more commas
One example from a press release I recently got: "The keynote presenter is a high energy particle theorist." Ah, the possibilities:
- a high energy-particle theorist (i.e., a physicist gone to pot?)
- a high-energy particle theorist (i.e., an over-caffeinated scientist?)
- a high-energy-particle theorist OR high-energy-particle-theorist (more correct perhaps, but starting to look like one of those block-long, throat-stopping German proper nouns)
- or, as it was, a high energy particle theorist (leave it hyphen-free and trust readers to figure it out from the context)
Frances admitted to suffering the same fondness for em-dashes, but told us that after her first draft, she goes back in and removes about 75% of them, especially those that don't convey an abrupt transition or strong emphasis. Good advice.
She also offered a pair of useful online grammatical resources:
I can always tell which of my own students really care about the hard-learned craft of writing (and which simply have airy fantasies of being a capital-W Writer) by how much they care about the comma and other essential grammatical minutiae. And, yes, how seriously they take the hyphen--even if it might drive them mad.