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Grammar for mass media A quick guide by Ross Collins, Professor of Communication, North Dakota State University, Fargo.

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Presentation on theme: "Grammar for mass media A quick guide by Ross Collins, Professor of Communication, North Dakota State University, Fargo."— Presentation transcript:

1 Grammar for mass media A quick guide by Ross Collins, Professor of Communication, North Dakota State University, Fargo.

2 English complexities  English has borrowed from many languages.  We have no accent marks to guide us, and many exceptions to rules.  You can’t expect to learn English grammar in a few weeks.

3 A reminder  This lecture is designed to accompany, but not replace, Lecture Six of the online editing tutorials.  The lecture is available from the Class website linked to

4 Common pitfalls  But you can learn to catch the most common grammar and usage mistakes mass media content producers make.  How to learn?  My fifth-grade teacher made the best suggestion: “Memorization is sometimes a valuable thing.”

5 Affect and Effect  I see this as one of the half dozen most common errors in media writing.  Affect=have an influence on.  Effect=bring about, cause, result in.  Note affect is a verb. Effect is a noun.  Ask yourself: “affect/effect WHO or WHAT? If you can answer that, the word is AFFECT.  Exception: You can effect change. This is a seldom-used construction in media writing, however.

6 Between/among  Between is used for two items.  Among is used for more than two.

7 Its/It’s  Its is possessive. It’s is a contraction of it is. (Its’, by the way, doesn’t exist.)  Probably the number one mistake in English. Shakespeare actually made this mistake, so don’t feel too bad.  To choose the correct one, say it to yourself as if it’s a contraction, such as “It is (it’s) a contraction.” Does this make sense? Of course.  But if you say “My iPod won’t power up. Its battery needs charging.” It is battery? Nope. So its, possessive, is correct.

8 Other possessives/contractions  This rule also works for pairs such as your/you’re, whose/who’s and their/they’re.  Note one exception: there. There is a place, as in “Put the book there.”  I don’t see many university-level students misuse this word, however.

9 Principal/Principle  One of my “big three” most common mistakes (along with affect/effect and its/it’s).  Principal means main, or most important. It’s an adjective, always followed by a noun.  Principle IS a noun. So if you see it followed by a noun, you know it’s the wrong one, such as “His principle rule.” Bzzt.  To remember: the pal, principal, always must be followed by a noun. So it needs a PAL! No pal, use the other one.  Principal has two less common uses: head of a school, and sum of money.

10 Teams and companies  When referring to them as a whole, they take a singular verb.  Example: “The NDSU volleyball team won its [NOT their] sixth game on the road last night.”  “Home Depot posted its fourth consecutive quarter of profit.”  Ross’s memory jogger: We are a team. We work together as one! (So we are singular.)

11 Dangling modifiers  You set up a clause to modify a subject, then get the wrong subject in there. Oops.  Example: “Faced with possible arrest, the jewels were dumped into the river.”  Of course, it should be the thieves who faced arrest: “Faced with possible arrest, the thieves dumped....” etc.

12 Apostrophes  The problem with apostrophes is that English uses them for possessives as well as for contractions.  Languages such as French and Spanish don’t do this. Less confusion, but also more awkward construction, unlike that smooth apostrophe-based possessive! The most important (principal?) rule: No apostrophes for plurals:  Two books. Four students.  BUT: This book’s cover was torn. These students’ papers were lost.

13 Apostrophe  Note the placement of the apostrophe to indicate possession.  If the noun is singular (one book), the apostrophe comes before the s: The book’s cover.  If the noun is plural (four students), the apostrophe comes after the s: The students’ exams.  As a reminder, date and time expressions also can be possessive. Example: “In three years’ time I’ll be moving to Paris.” “In one hour’s time I’ll be done with my exam.”

14 To/Too  Common error, but easy to catch. To is a preposition. Too means also, or more than enough.  Example: I went to Macy’s yesterday. I bought too many cute shoes.  Ross’s memory jog: Too has too many o’s, so therefore has more than enough!

15 Hyphenated words The general rule: if two or more adjectives before a noun work together to describe it, add a hyphen.  Example: She bought a bluish-green wedding dress.  He has that know-it-all attitude. Compound words on their way to becoming one can change with the times: on line; on-line; online. Check the AP Stylebook or dictionary.

16 Who or that People are who:  The player who (not that) earns the most points will get a trophy.

17 Media and data These are plural, no matter how odd that may sound:  The media are saying you should run for mayor.  The data show a decreasing math ability in high school.

18 A lot, all right, every day  Still two words.  Exception: every day is one word when it modifies a noun: His everyday routine includes coffee at Jitters.

19 Lie or lay Lie means rest or recline:  She gets tired after a long biochemistry class so lies down for a half hour. Lay means put or place, requires a direct object:  She lays her books on the chair before relaxing. Confusion: the past tense of lie is lay:  She generally lies down for 30 minutes. But yesterday she lay down for a full hour.

20 Commas and punctuation Rules are numerous and sometimes flexible. Use punctuation in non-restrictive phrases of appositive:  The company vice president, Irving Nern, will convene the meeting. BUT:  Company vice president Irving Nern will convene the meeting.

21 Commas  Parenthetical expressions and introductory clauses need commas:  Before leaving the party, Mary thanked her host.  Forensic students leave for tournaments, generally speaking, on Thursday evenings.

22 More commas Frequent error: you need a semicolon (NOT a comma) before “however” when joining two separate sentences:  Grammar rules seem to be more flexible today; however, some rules still must be followed in professional publications. Frequent error: A comma is required after full date or place:  On Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists attacked New York’s World Trade Center.  She arrived from Billings, Mont., last night around 7 p.m.

23 Non-sexist writing Media writers today try to avoid expressions that suggest gender.  Mailman=letter carrier; stewardess=flight attendant. Try to rewrite to avoid “he,” when possible:  Any lawyer worth his salt would file a lawsuit.=  Any competent lawyer would file a lawsuit.

24 He and they It is still incorrect to use “they” to avoid “he”, such as:  If anyone thinks they can solve the problem, please email me.  Use “he or she” can solve, or rewrite: If someone can solve the problem, please email me. Often the plural works better:  While I do think everyone has the right to their own opinion, they don't have the right to their own facts. You can rewrite:  People have the right to their own opinion....

25 Evolution Language evolves, however. We build grammar rules on accepted usage. If society by custom changes that usage, so do the rules.  I expect “they” will someday be correct for “he.” “All right” will become one word. “Media” will become singular. Some grammarians also predict we’ll lose the possessive apostrophe.  And I really hope we won’t have to worry anymore about lie vs. lay!

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