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Grammar Mistakes Even The Best Magazine Writers Make

After working as a copyeditor for a regional magazine for the past several years, I've seen a wide variety of content come across my desk. Some of it has been a breath of fresh air—a writer that was as meticulous with grammar as he or she was spellbinding with word choice. Some of it was several notches below this category, with content that would have been appealing if it hadn't included multiple clichés and grammar mistakes.

One would assume that freelance writers who have been chosen to write content for a magazine would be above such mistakes in their writing. This is far from the truth, as many magazines invite local bankers, real estate agents, mayors and celebrities to submit articles for a certain section, regardless of the level of their writing skills. Then, there are the freelance writers who, by some small miracle, write a piece about something interesting and catch the editor's eye. These writers might be published once but as soon as the copyeditor complains about the lack of professionalism and grammar skills, it is doubtful that the editor will invite another piece from the author.

The easiest way to avoid seeming unprofessional in your craft is to hire a copyeditor or proofreader to ensure that your piece contains flawless grammar before you submit it to an editor for review. Polishing up a piece on the front-end is a lot better than being embarrassed about obvious grammar mistakes that are put into print and could have been avoided—or attempting to salvage your career after being labeled as an unprofessional writer.

Therefore, if you are attempting to break into the world of freelance journalism by writing for magazines, here are a few simple grammar mistakes that even the best writers make sometimes, but should be avoided, when possible.

Who vs. Whom

At the risk of sounding like an overzealous grammar teacher, this is a pet peeve of many copyeditors that can be easily avoided. If you want the technical explanation, "who" is a subjective or nominative pronoun that goes into the same category as "he," "she," "it," "we" and "they." This means that it is used as the subject of the clause or to replace one of the aforementioned pronouns. "Whom," on the other hand, is an objective pronoun, fitting into the same category as "him," "her," "it," "us" and "them." When a pronoun is the object of a clause, "whom" is the correct choice.

But what if you never did well in English grammar and get confused when terms like "objective" and "nominative" are thrown at you? Don't worry—there's an easy way to know for sure if you're using "who" and "whom" correctly. Look at the following sentence:

Who/whom will I ask to the dance?

Since the "who/whom" choice is at the beginning of the sentence, your first impulse might be to use "who," right? Well… don't. Whether it's at the beginning, middle or end of the sentence makes little difference. The real questions you should be asking yourself are:

  1. How can I rephrase this question?
  2. Did I use a nominative pronoun (he/she) or objective pronoun (him/her) when I rephrased the question?

The answer to question 1 is:

Will I ask her to the dance?

The answer to question 2 is:

I used an objective pronoun (her); therefore, "whom" is the correct choice here.

That vs. Which

This mistake permeates writing on multiple levels, from amateur to graduate-level writing and beyond. However, there's a simple way to ascertain which to use, and it all boils down to one question:

Is the clause that follows necessary for the meaning of the sentence?

If the answer is yes, then use "that." If the answer is no, then use a comma, followed by "which."

Consider the following sentence:

I only eat meat products that are free-range and hormone-free.

If we take away the clause following "that", namely "that are free-range and hormone-free," would the meaning of the sentence change drastically?

I only eat meat products.

The answer is yes, it would change. There is a lot of difference between the meaning of the first example and the second example. Therefore, "that" was the correct choice here.

Now, consider the following sentence:

I only eat vegetarian, which is a lifestyle I enjoy.

If we take away the clause following "which," namely "which is a lifestyle I enjoy," would the meaning of the sentence change drastically?

I only eat vegetarian.

The answer is no, it wouldn't change. The information that followed the comma and "which" was additional information but the meaning of the sentence stays the same: this person only eats vegetarian. Therefore, "which" was the correct choice here.

Affect vs. Effect

The easiest way to avoid this grammar mistake is to look at how the word is used in the sentence. If the word is used as a verb, it is almost always "affect." If the word is used as a noun, it is almost always "effect."

Consider the following sentences:

I was affected by the words you used today.
Those words had an effect on me.

Its vs. It's

I've seen many editors make this mistake; it's that common. However, the explanation for which to use is a simple one:

Use its when you are showing possession. For example:

The dog bit at its collar all day.

Use it's when you are showing the contraction of "it is." For example:

It's a sad day when we can't even stand for the national anthem.

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