Why copy editors mull over sentence structure and composition
Subject, verb, object (subject + predicate) – may seem like an obvious order for many people, but recognising how words are strung together and in what order they should be placed adds depth and quality to the work of a copy editor. This post takes us back to the basics of sentence structure and also links this simple foundation to the more complex aspects of our work as copy editors.
What is a sentence?
Martin Cutts’ (2013: 146) definition of a sentence is this: ‘A statement, question, exclamation or command – usually starting with a capital letter and ending with a full stop – which is complete in itself as the expression of a thought.’
A sentence is made up of different parts which help the author to express what they want to say and help the reader to understand what is meant.
The parts of a sentence
In its simplest form, a sentence comprises a subject and a verb. Many sentences also contain an object after the verb. The predicate of a sentence is everything that follows the subject.
The basic structure of a sentence looks like this:
When simple sentences become complicated
The basic structure of a simple sentence is easy to understand but, when sentences are lengthy with a lot of detail, they can become difficult to understand and readers may lose track.
Lengthier sentences can be compound or complex depending on how they are structured. We aren’t discussing that in this post; suffice to say that long sentences need extra attention.
Let’s have a look at a simple sentence and a complex one. We can then see what a copy editor may do to make the text easier to read without losing the meaning that the author wanted to convey.
Simple: The educator (subject) mentored (verb) seven colleagues for two years (remainder of predicate).
(‘mentored seven colleagues for two years’ = predicate)
No copy-editing required!
Complex: After a light snack, the long anticipated lecture was presented by an old past professor, who had worked previously at the university for two decades in this research field, with authority, on the impact of the manufacturing of plastic tumblers on ecological sustainability, expansively but clearly. (46 words)
The copy-edited version might look like this:
After we had a light snack, a retired professor presented the long-anticipated lecture on the impact of the manufacturing of plastic tumblers on ecological sustainability. He did so expansively but clearly and with authority. He had previously worked at the university for two decades in this field of research. (25+9+15 = 49 words)
A quick analysis of this copy-edit will indicate that the copy editor restructured a long sentence into three sentences that were easier to read. The subject was brought to the start of each sentence, followed by the appropriate verb or verb phrase (predicate). The copy-edited text is easier to understand and does not lose any of its meaning.
Summing it up: why understanding sentence structure makes for better copy-editing
Word order is important for clarity on who is doing what, when or how. The copy editor can make the author’s intended meaning clear by placing the words in sentences in the correct order. This should be done without compromising the author’s style or voice.
Correct grammar and punctuation
Copy editors can correct grammatical and punctuation errors, such as dangling modifiers or missed hyphens, and ensure that verb and noun phrases, and adjectival and adverbial phrases are placed in the correct order.
Appropriate word choice
Word choice can affect the impact of text on its readers. Copy editors can highlight language that might be insensitive or inappropriate and suggest alternatives.
Judicious use of active and passive voice
Copy editors can decide whether it is more effective to use the active or passive voice to ensure that the meaning of the text is clear.
Level of intervention becomes clear
Copy-editing can be light with little intervention, or it can be heavy, which may require the restructuring of sentences. The copy editor can assess the level of copy-editing required by paying attention to sentence structure. (Note: This does not apply to examinable texts, which should only be edited lightly.)
Copy editors use their knowledge of sentence structure to make texts more accessible to and easily understood by the intended audience. Often, copy-editing makes the texts accessible to a wider range of readers too.
There is never any fault in revisiting the basics of what we do. We are surrounded by words and we all have different ways of expressing ourselves. Language changes over time and the way we and our authors express ourselves does too. When we understand the way sentences are structured, we lay the foundation for writing that sends a clear message, upholds the integrity of our authors, and satisfies readers.
Cutts, M 2013 (4th ed) Oxford Guide to Plain English. New York: OUP.
Linnegar, J & McGillivray, K 2019 Grammar, punctuation and all that jazz … Milnerton: MLA Publications.
Seely, J 2007 Oxford A-Z of Grammar & Punctuation. New York: OUP.
Steynberg, M 2018 The PEG guide to grammar and punctuation. Professional Editors’ Guild.