16 August 2017

Tips for new writers Part Three - Rules, by Wendy Janes #AuthorToolboxBlogHop #writing

The odd thing about grammar and punctuation rules is that they are a bit of a moveable feast. Some change depending on whether you’re using US or UK English and others are flexible depending on context, style and genre. Sounds like a can of worms, if you ask me. But let’s dive in and try and make some sense of it all.

First, I’d like to select the three rules that I see authors breaking most often. These ones are non-negotiable.

Use of it’s and its
it’s = it is (It’s raining)
its = belonging to (The creature protected its young)
The easy way to remember correct use of it’s and its is to say ‘it is’ whenever you come across either version. If the sentence makes sense when you say ‘it is’ then the correct term is it’s.

Use of initial capital when referring to parents
There’s no need for the capital when you’re referring to ‘my mum’ or ‘your dad’. Usually if you can substitute the name for the word ‘mum’ or ‘dad’ then you need a capital letter.
I asked Mum to dinner (I asked Jean to dinner would work fine)
I asked my mum to dinner (I asked my Jean to dinner is not right)

Use of lie/lay/laid
I have a crib sheet, in fact I have more than one crib sheet, to remind me how this works. Here’s one of them:

Present tense: I lie down on the grass and look up at the trees. 
Past tense: Yesterday, I lay down on the grass and looked up at the trees.
Past perfect: Years later I recalled how I had lain down on the grass and looked up at the trees.

Present tense: As I look up at the trees, I lay my book to one side.
Past tense: As I looked up at the trees, I laid my book to one side.
Past perfect: Years later I recalled how I had laid my book to one side.

So, the above are non-negotiable. Now let’s have a look at some of the ones that I think are negotiable.

When I was taught English grammar at school back in the 1970s, the rule was that a hyphen was required in ‘the nineteenth-century monument’, but not in ‘the monument dated from the nineteenth century’. These days, if the meaning is clear and the piece of writing isn’t formal, omitting the hyphen isn’t the sin it once was. However, please note, a hyphen isn’t needed in phrases that contain adverbs that end ‘-ly’. For example, ‘a happily married couple’ and ‘newly made road’.

Some people get very hot under the collar about the comma splice. The rule is that a comma by itself shouldn’t be used to join two main clauses. For example, ‘I enjoy reading, I always have my nose in a book.’ This can be corrected by splitting it into two sentences or by adding a conjunction such as ‘and’ or ‘so’. The comma splice is something I’m actually quite partial to. I rather like the rhythm it can give to a sentence.

If you’re not sure whether to use ‘that’ or ‘which’ in a sentence, the basic rule is as follows: ‘that’ is used when a clause is integral to the sentence, and ‘which’ is used when the sentence would still make sense without the clause.

The teacher always gave gold stars to stories that showed imagination. (Note: no comma before ‘that’.)

The pupil’s latest story, which the teacher had awarded a gold star, was her favourite. (Note: comma before ‘which’.)

However, there is wiggle room, especially when you’re writing in an informal style and when writing dialogue. The same goes for ‘who’ and ‘whom’. I cringe a little when I hear characters say ‘whom’ in everyday speech.

The basic rule is that you use ‘who’ when you’re referring to the subject of a sentence and ‘whom’ when referring to the object.

Test 1
Who is your teacher?
Whom is your teacher?

The correct answer for Test 1 is ‘who’ because the teacher is the subject of the sentence.

Test 2
Who did the teacher praise?
Whom did the teacher praise?

The correct answer for Test 2 is ‘whom’ because the teacher is doing the praising, so the ‘whom’ is referring to the object in that sentence.

I love the substitution test that many people refer to, which runs: if the answer to the question is ‘he’ then you use ‘who’ and if the answer is ‘him’ then you use ‘whom’. So in Test 1, the answer would be, ‘He is my teacher’ and in Test 2, you’d answer, ‘The teacher praised him.’ A quick way to remember the substitution rule is that ‘him’ and ‘whom’ both end with ‘m’.

If all that has whetted your appetite, and you don’t yet have a copy of a style guide, I suggest The Chicago Manual of Style for US English, and the New Oxford Style Manual for UK English.

I recommend that authors learn the rules of punctuation and grammar and then choose to break them if and when they want or need to. If you have a logical or creative reason then I see no problem in breaking a rule or two. However, I think it’s important you have the confidence and professionalism to assure readers that you’re doing it on purpose and not in error.

Wendy Janes 
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About the Author

Wendy Janes is a freelance proofreader for a number of publishers and many individual authors. She is also a caseworker for The National Autistic Society’s Education Rights Service. Author of the novel, What Jennifer Knows and a collection of short stories, What Tim Knows, and other stories, she loves to take real life and turn it into fiction. She lives in London with her husband and youngest son. You can connect with Wendy online and discover more about her via her Facebook author page, her website, Amazon author pages (UK/US) and Twitter @wendyproof.

Do you have some great writing tips you would like to share?
Please feel free to comment

The #AuthorToolboxBlogHop is a monthly event on the topic of resources and learning for authors. Feel free to hop around to the various blogs and see what you learn! The rules and sign-up form are below the list of hop participants. All authors at all stages of their careers are welcome to join in.


  1. Thank you, Wendy! I still trip up on 'that' and 'which' from time to time. If I read my writing aloud, it helps (sometimes!).

    1. You're welcome, Martha. Yes, reading aloud can be a great help.

  2. Great post, Wendy. Clear and concise with some excellent ways to remember the rules. I'm going to print it out and keep it to hand when I'm editing. I'm also going to share it with some of the less experienced writers I work with.
    Thank you.

    1. Thanks, Christine. Great to hear you're going to share this with other writers too. I recently read about a great way to remember practice (noun)/practise (verb) when using UK English. If you can substitute the word preparation in the sentence you're writing, you need the noun (practice), and if you can substitute the word prepare, you need the verb (practise).

  3. Grammar and punctuation was never my thing. Neither was spelling to tell the truth. I blamed it on my creative mind. Thanks for trying to help. :-)

    Anna from elements of emaginette

  4. Great tips. I tend to break the who/whom rule in dialogue. I think it's sounds realistic as most people don't speak with whom anymore.

    1. Thanks, Kristina. Yes, dialogue can sound so forced if rules are applied too rigorously.

  5. I was recently told off by my creative writing professor for including a coma splice in the biography at the back of my book of poetry (an arduous assignment). It was used in humour to prevent a dry bio (it was not an academic text, after all) so I thought it would be okay. Wrong! I'm glad you also like them :)

    1. Good to meet someone else who doesn't throw up their hands in horror at the comma splice, Shah. Sorry to hear of your telling off, though.

  6. Without fail, anytime I'm confused about who/whom, I google it. I can never remember this rule. :)

    1. Funny how some rules stick in our minds and others we have to look up every time. Whether I'm writing, editing or proofreading, I often have to double-check things. Hooray for Google. :)

  7. Great tips!

    I also cringe if someone says "whom" in everyday speech. It sounds pretentious. For the same reason, I'm not fussed if a character says who instead of whom - it makes them sound natural.

    Great tips!

    1. Thanks, Iola. Reading your comment has me wondering whether other languages do the who/whom thing. I might have to investigate...

  8. Great for new writers and old ones with bad habits. Thanks Wendy.. and have put in the blogger daily this evening.

    1. Thanks for that lovely comment, and for including the post in your daily round-up, Sally.

  9. Fantastic breakdown Wendy. :)


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