Friends say I’m a grammar nerd, yet grammar plays such a minor role in editorial decisions.
By far the greatest changes a copy-editor makes to documents concern punctuation. A brief and incomplete guide to punctuation follows.
• The colon expands on the sentence that precedes it, or introduces a list that elaborates on a topic.
• Semicolons are helpful when used in a list containing commas or as a resting place between phrases and sentences that are related.
• Deciding whether the full point sits inside or outside the closing quotation mark (it’s a matter of a phrase being complete in itself or not).
• Determining when to use a hyphen (multitudinous uses from compound adjectives – man-eating crocodile, to avoiding ambiguity – re-cover/recover).
• The use of en rules (to express ranges or as a parenthetical dash).
• Deciding when to add a full point with an abbreviation and when to desist from doing so (if the word ends in the final letter of the abbreviation, a full point is unnecessary).
• The correct use of apostrophes – see http://www.foolproof-proofreading.com/contractions-and-possessives/
• The use of ellipses (they signal an omission of words or a pause in thought).
Spelling mistakes (moot misspelled as mute was a favourite from a US journal), homonyms (diffuse/defuse) and typos (these are not spelling mistakes – they are simply a slip of the finger while typing) come in second in the volume of errors that need detection and correction.
Grammatical errors come a poor third in the litany of edits. Grammar concerns the system and structural rules of languages – how words change their form and combine with other words to make sentences. There are a great many grammar rules, but by far the most common mistake writers make is in subject/verb disagreement – see http://www.vanityfair.com/news/2016/11/is-donald-trump-a-manchurian-candidate.
Then there are the errors in which a familiarity with knowledge comes in handy – see http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/29/opinion/english-for-yourself.html?_r=0.
Another useful talent is an interest in current affairs (for example, when Italy became the sixth of the Five Nations in 2000).
And finally, there are those occasions when something seems out of place: this is when the writer has lifted passages from other texts – and plagiarism is theft.