Three Grammar Rules That No Longer Apply

Believe it or not, there are times when being grammatically correct isn’t the way to go. Those who know me will be shocked if they knew I felt this way. At times, grammar can interrupt the flow and possibly even cause misunderstandings among your readers. Increasingly, previously iron-clad rules are being dropped, and top editors are now embracing new grammatical rules.

The language is constantly evolving and grammar needs to evolve too, to fit with the language and the way people speak. Changes to the language are often greeted with horror at first, but then they’re accepted and the previous rules forgotten. Who remembers that ‘plane was once spelt with an apostrophe? Here are three grammatical sacred cows that have been slaughtered in recent years.

The slaughtering of grammar's sacred cows
The slaughtering of grammar’s sacred cows


The Government Have Spoken

Technically, a government or any other large institution or company is one entity, even though many people are involved in it. This is why it’s grammatically correct to say, “the government has spoken.” In reality, this sounds quite stilted, and may even cause confusion, particularly if the speaker then goes on to refer to the government as it. These days, it’s acceptable to refer to a large institution as “they” and to say “the government have spoken,” particularly if it’s clear that you’re referring to a group of people within government.

Marley and Me

This cutesy film title isn’t as grammatically incorrect as you might think. It was always drummed into us that when referring to yourself and one other person, you always used “Marley and I” not “Marley and Me.” This has now been dropped, possibly due to a recognition that it’s not possible to stop people using “Marley and Me” or “Myself and Marley.” It’s another one that takes the stodge out of the language.

She Closely Supervised the Team  

Previously, the wisdom was always that an adverb was only ever to be used after a verb and at the end of a sentence. Now it can be inserted anywhere in a sentence, which can be useful, because leaving it until the end can feel a bit contrived, and again, contrary to how people speak. In this sentence, it’s much clearer that the words closely and supervised are linked, so the sentence actually flows better.

What grammar rules have you seen change/ Do you think it’s a good idea for grammar to adapt to changes in the language, or should it remain an anchor in a storm of change?


What grammatical rules have you seen disappear? Do you think dropping certain grammatical rules is a good idea, if it ultimately increases understanding and improves communication?

Three Great Reference Books for Writers and Editors

There are plenty of books and Internet tools to help you improve your creative writing techniques, but what if you just want to figure out where to insert an apostrophe, or what’s the right way to spell Gorbachev. The trouble is that the Internet will drown you with conflicting information, leaving you more confused than when you began. That’s why there’s nothing to beat a good, chunky reference book. The information in it stands still long enough for you to absorb it, and is carefully researched by experts.

reference books

Here are three that help get me through my writing day.

Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors

This is the definitive style guide for writers and editors. It gives you advice on how to spell commonly confused words or how to correctly spell the names of historical and current political figures. It also tells you whether a word should be capitalised or not and whether a word is a verb or a noun. For example, it will inform you that when you want to talk about the practice of law, you spell practice with a c, but when you talk about practising law, you spell it with an s.

New Hart’s Rules

This book covers all aspects of grammar and punctuation, and it’s useful for editors because it describes how books should be laid out. American and UK English are commonly confused and this book has a whole chapter dedicated to helping you make the distinction. The book also helps you achieve consistency in your writing and editing, as it tells you the best way to write numbers, dates etc, so that they’ll look the same throughout the manuscript you’re working on.

Collins Concise English Dictionary

No writer or editor’s shelf is complete without a dictionary. There are a million words in the English language and the average person knows 10,000-12,000 of them, so no matter how good we think our vocabulary is, we’ll have to reach for the dictionary at some point. We often think we know what a word means, but the dictionary tells a different story. Every writer or editor will swear by the dictionary they use. Mine is the Collins, and it’s not as concise as the title suggests. In fact, it’s the size of a small child.

What grammars, dictionaries and style guides do you use to bring polish to your writing?

What Is A Big Picture Edit?

Last week, I did what I call a big picture edit for a client who wanted two short stories evaluated. Big picture edit is the writerly term that I like to put on it, but officially this kind of editing is called developmental editing. Developmental editors differ from proofreaders and copy editors because rather than zero in on spelling, grammar and other details, they look at the whole story. They give in-depth evaluations of the overall story, the bits that work and the bits that don’t. Authors can then use their feedback to drive the story forward.

Developmental editors will help you develop your story.
Developmental editors will help you develop your story.

What aspects of a story do developmental editors look at?

Storytelling Techniques: Developmental editors focus on authors use the building blocks of story: character and how they interact, settling and plot. They will tell you whether the point of view you have used for your story is convincing, whether your dialogue sounds natural and what you can do to give your story momentum. For example, I may tell an author that there needs to be more conflict in their character interactions, or that the story needs a defining event to make it more interesting for readers.

Technical Points: When I do a developmental edit, I don’t correct spelling, grammar or sentence structure, but I do highlight consistent errors that need to be corrected. They will also advise on layout issues, such as the correct way to lay out dialogue. I will comment on how effectively the author uses language overall and flag up instances where authors over-rely on certain words, or choose words that aren’t appropriate to the context of the sentence.

When should I go for a developmental edit?

It is not a good idea to go for a developmental edit until you have at least edited your first draft yourself. Any earlier than that and the editor’s input may interfere too much with the development of the story. There are two reasons to use a developmental editor. One is if you feel you’ve done all you can with the story, but it’s still lacking, and you want to know how to take it to the next level. The other is if you want to assess whether your story is ready for publication or not.

What are the benefits of a developmental edit??

A lot of authors use a team of “beta readers,” who read the manuscript and give their feedback. This is certainly useful, but the problem is that a lot of the time, these beta readers are known to the authors. A developmental editor will give you a totally unbiased opinion. This is particularly useful if you’re not part of a writing community and the only person who’s seen the manuscript is yourself. The developmental editor will also have a lot of professional expertise which the beta reader may not have, and your story will benefit from that expertise. Using a developmental editor will ensure that your precious story is ready to go out into the world.

Have you ever used a developmental editing or critiquing service? How useful did you find it? Do you offer these services yourself? If so, how do you approach it?

How to Make Your Creative Writing Workshops More Interactive

Dave Lordan is a man on a mission. He is determined to professionalise the practice of teaching creative writing in Ireland, as it is in the UK, America and various other countries around the world. He’ll be delivering a six-week course at the Irish Writers’ Centre to help creative writing tutors improve their ability to deliver creative writing classes in school and community settings.

I attended Lordan’s one-day “crash course” on the subject back in March and it’s inspired me to change my approach, particularly when it comes to doing creative writing workshops with children. Lordan’s watchword is “interactive.” His workshops are high energy and aim to bring out the storyteller in everyone, even if they are not natural writers.

Talk out the story first

Writing is daunting for many children – and adults. Engage people’s interest and warm up their brains by talking through the story first. For example, you might want to create a lead character who’s a wizard. Ask people to give the wizard a name. Have a brainstorm about superpowers that they think are really cool and assign one to the wizard. Write down people’s ideas on a flip chart or an interactive whiteboard, and they’ll start to see the stories emerge. This approach will get people into a storytelling frame of mind, and they’ll see that they’re free to be as wacky as they want.

Interactive writing lets your imagination go wild.
Interactive writing lets your imagination go wild.

Tell stories in other ways

Not everyone is a natural writer, but everyone is a natural storyteller, so help people find other ways to tell their stories. Doing this is particularly useful for people with low levels of literacy, mixed-ability groups of children and people who are doing a creative writing workshop out of obligation rather than because they want to. Encourage people to tell stories using drawings, songs, oral storytelling and more modern mediums like blogging and video. This will tap into their own natural abilities.

Respond to your participants

Tailor your approach to the needs and interests of the group you’re teaching. If you have a group of sports mad boys, have them tell stories about soccer matches or meeting their favourite rugby player. If you have a group of older people, they may enjoy sharing memories of their local area. The group’s interests will become clear during the warm up when you’re getting to know them. Don’t be afraid to ditch your careful plans and shape your workshop according to what they tell you.

I’ve always felt my own approach to teaching creative writing has been a little on the academic side, which is fine for people with a high level of education or who are already comfortable with writing, but may be a struggle for people who aren’t naturally academic. I’m hoping that incorporating these techniques will make my workshops more fun – for me and the children.

If you’re a creative writing tutor, how do you incorporate interaction into your creative writing exercises? And if you’ve taken creative writing classes, have you ever had a tutor who took an interactive approach and how did you find it?

Three Intriguing Literary Journals

Literary journals are a great stepping stone towards a publication career for writers and continue to be valuable publication outlets for more established writers. Knowing that a discerning editor has deemed your work worthy is a great boost and writers can add them to their CVs with pride. But with a bewildering array of journals available, with varying degrees of prestige, how do you decide where to place your writing?

This can be particularly difficult for writers whose writing doesn’t fit into neat categories, or follow the conventions of their chosen writing form. Literary journals have a strict set of submission criteria and if you try to adapt your writing to meet those criteria, the integrity of your writing may be lost and you may actually damage your chance of being accepted.

Some literary journals are giving a home to writers whose work takes on unconventional forms. Here are three that I’ve come across on my travels.

Brevity Magazine

This is an American magazine devoted to very short essays of 750 words or less and publishes well known and emerging writers. The essays are short memoir pieces that crystallise life experiences. The short form forces writers to choose their words carefully for maximum emotional effect. The journal offers a small payment to authors and takes submissions via Submittable.

Vine Leaves

This journal is devoted to another short form not often seen these days: the vignette. Originally, a vignette meant something that could be written on a vine leaf, and it’s quite a unique form in various ways. First of all, it’s not a traditional story, but more of a snapshot of a person or of the world around you, so it’s a good choice for writers who have pieces that are complete, but aren’t traditional stories. The magazine has submission windows throughout the year and you can submit pieces up to 800 words. This could be one relatively long piece or three or four short ones.

Long Story, Short

By contrast, Long Story, Short (the comma is deliberate, by the way) celebrates a much longer literary form: the long short story. Stories submitted to this Irish online journal must be at least 4,000 words long. The journal is also unique in that it only publishes one story each month, so that that story will shine. The idea is that a long short story gives authors time to tell a story more fully, without the demands of a novel. The journal has one reading period only.

What literary journals have you come across that defy form and genre, but still carry literary weight?