grama rulz OK, innit!

Grammar - Giving your work the final hose down

Warning: You enter this grammar post at your own risk.

Once you’ve had your feedback and have chopped, pruned, rewritten and reshaped your work, you’re ready to go, right? Wrong. Next, you need to don your pernickety gloves and work on grammar, spelling and punctuation.

This type of revision is called a proofread and it is separate from the critique your friends gave re characters, story, POV, tone and structure. A proofread regards layout and correct use of language. A proofread is the final polish.

Never hand in a submission blighted by incorrect or inconsistent punctuation, bad grammar and misspelled words – thinking the story will shine through. They (the slush pile readers) will be turned off by your sloppy copy and will probably never read on into your story, so it won’t get that chance to shine through. If you’ve spent a year writing a novel, respect your work enough to spend another couple of weeks proofreading. It’s only common sense.

As you’ve probably read your own work countless times, you may be blind to copy mistakes. A keen eyed friend is invaluable here. Also you could cut a sentence sized gap in a blank page and place it over your text to check every sentence individually, with the rest of the text blanked out. This may sound painstaking but it is a very good focusing tool.

Many emerging writers are concerned about grammar, unsure of their own knowledge and application. I’ve been an English (as a foreign language) teacher for fifteen years and can recommend the following grammar self-study book (known in the TEFL world as ‘the grammar bible’): Raymond Murphy Grammar in Use. You’ll be able to pick up a cheap copy on Amazon. Spend a night or two doing the exercises, it’ll stand to you.

Also, I could wax lyrical about whether to use double or single quotes for dialogue (or to use any at all) and the difference between US and UK conventions regarding the same. However, I think the best is for you to take ten novels down from your shelf and see how the majority of them format dialogue and then apply the same convention to your work. Whichever you choose, ensure it is then consistent throughout your text.

Finally, here are some of the most common problems:

****Are you using the right “Its”?

“It’s” (with an apostrophe) is short for “it is”.

Its” (no apostrophe) is possessive (ie: the dog lost its bone).

NOTE: somewhat confusingly, when you want to use the possessive elsewhere, you do use an apostrophe: “Mary’s coat”, “John’s golf club”, “the dog’s bone.”

****Same sound, different spelling (homophones).

“They’re”, “Their” and “There”.

They’re (they are) sitting the car. They’re listening to their (possessive) music, they’ll be fine there (preposition of place) for a while yet.

****Using “done” instead of “did” and vice versa.

“Done” is the past participle of “do” and is normally used with the auxiliary verb “have”.  “Did” is the past simple of “do”.

(And if you have no idea what any of that means, you really do need to order that book).

So, you say either “I have done my homework” or “I did my homework” – and never “I done my homework,” or “he done his homework.”

****Saying “could of” rather than “could have” when using the second conditional tense or “could” as a modal verb in the perfect tense (yeah, see that grammar book).

“He could of gone to the shop,” is wrong.

“He could have gone to the shop,” is correct.

And please accept sincerest apologies for sending any of you off into a coma of boredom with this grammary post – believe me, it hurt me more than it hurt you.


About suehealy

From Ireland, Sue Healy is Literary Manager at the Finborough Theatre, London, a full-time Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Lincoln. Her book on theatre literary management is published by Routledge, December 2022. Sue is an award-winning writer for stage, TV, and prose writer. TV Her current project, a 6x60minute TV series, is under option. She is under commission with Lone Wolf Media, producers behind PBS’ “Mercy Street”, to co-write the pilot and treatment for a six-part TV series. Stage Her most recent stage-play, Imaginationship (2018), enjoyed a sold out, extended run at the Finborough and later showed at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough. Her previous stage productions include Cow (Etcetera Theatre, 2017) and Brazen (King’s Head Theatre, 2016), funded by Arts Council England. Sue’s short plays have been performed at the Criterion (Criterion New Writing Showcase), Arcola (The Miniaturists) and Hackney Attic (Fizzy Sherbet Shorts). Radio Her radio work includes nine plays broadcast on BBC Radio 4 (Opening Lines winner), WLRfm and KCLR96fm. Prose Sue has won The Molly Keane Award, HISSAC Prize, Escalator Award, Meridian Prize and has been published in nine literary journals and anthologies including: The Moth, Flight, Tainted Innocence, New Writer, Duality, HISSAC, New European Writers. She has been writer-in-residence on Inis Oírr, Aran Islands, and at the Heinrich Boll Cottage on Achill Island. She has also benefitted from annual artist residencies at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, and at Ginestrelle, Assisi in Italy. An academic with a PhD in modern theatre history, specifically the Royal Court Theatre, Sue has presented her research internationally. She spent eleven years in Budapest, editing Hungary A.M. She has a PhD in modern theatre history (Royal Court Theatre) and is a UEA Creative Writing MA alumnus. View all posts by suehealy

28 responses to “grama rulz OK, innit!

  • Gillian Colbert

    Excellent tips. This is a very big weakness of mine! Thank you. Your blog has become an invaluable reference. Happy holidays.

  • tmso

    Ha! Didn’t hurt – at all. Thanks for the reminders and the book recommendation.

  • jamieahughes

    As a copy and content editor, I cannot tell you what a difference great grammar and formatting does for a manuscript. I can do a better job with what folks give me if the basics are handled! Also, it frees readers up to really enjoy the neat things you’ve created if there’s nothing hindering comprehension. I tell those I write with that we should treat our writing like our children; that means we dress them up in their best outfits and parade them in front of our families! 🙂

    • Poems That Dance

      That’s a nice way of looking at it. I know how hard it is to proofread my own work, especially when it’s a novel. I finished writing my novel and proof read it over and over again about at least 10 times. I was ready to publish but I was unsure about the layout and I haven’t touched it since. That was over a month ago. Now time to get back to it. Perhaps I need an editor.. do you know how much this would cost?

  • elizabethannewrites

    This is excellent – and it’s (it is!) so good to have that book recommendation.

    Thank you!

  • petedenton

    Great post. I think it’s always good to have Grammar reminders. The more you think about this the more it becomes second nature.

  • sueannbowlingauthor

    Exceptions: if you are using (deliberately) a narrator or dialogue of a person who uses poor grammar where the poor grammar is a part of the characterization. (Think Huckleberry Finn.) But you have to know good grammar to do this.

    • suehealy

      True, Sue Ann, thanks for pointing this out. Within dialogue or when using the ‘voice’ of a poorly educated character – it is OK to use ‘their’ grammar. Alice Walker’s The Color Purple is a good example too. However, as you say, your own grammar must be impecable to pull this off –

  • Th3 Scribbl3r

    Thanks Sue, this is actually one of the things an editor friend of mine really helped with. Grammar is more important than many people would like to think and many judges and editors will dismiss a great work of fiction offhand if there is one grammatical error on the first page. So listen to the woman who has been published and won several contests this year, check your excitement to share your work for a bit and take the time to polish the manuscript first.

  • jmmcdowell

    This is where I’m fortunate to know a professional editor who can be that “fresh eye” near the end of the tunnel. Even though my job has always included a significant amount of editing, we are often blind to our own mistakes. Her freelance rate is well worth the investment.

  • Susannah Bianchi

    Never apologize. It’s generous of you to take the time.


  • gillswriting

    Brilliant and much needed post!! Thanks, keep them coming Gill

  • Eva Said

    I just wanted to let you know that I nominated you for the Liebster Blog. I don’t know how it works but your blog came to mind. Keep up the great work 🙂

  • 1heartle

    Grammar rules are like traffic rules. If everyone follows the rules, traffic flows freely (except in Manhattan). When writers consistently apply grammar rules, the reader doesn’t end up stuck in literary gridlock.

    One of my pet peeves is creatively formatted dialogue. It’s such a pain to wade through that I give up in disgust, even if the writer is a Nobel Prize winner for literature.

  • Paul Kater

    Unfortunately many people need that book.

  • elainecougler

    It didn’t hurt me at all; in fact, I was delighted to see someone else to whom these things actually matter. I, too, did a grammar post a few months ago. Here is the link, in case you’re anxious for one more kick at the can.

  • From The Pews

    LOVED IT!!

    Anything to clean up my act is always welcome!!

    Funny thing is, many times I’m in a rush to post, I skim.

    IF, I ever re-visit the Post, I wind up not just correcting Grammar, but I re-word chunks!!

    Ah, proofreading…a job NEVER Done ♥

  • redjim99

    I think I was robbed at school. Grammar is a great weakness of mine, one I try to improve on, yet seem to constantly search for answers.

    I will try that book, do we mention you when buying? Are you on commission? 🙂


  • scillagrace

    It hurts that educators in the US have abandoned teaching these basics in favor of “whole language skills”. I am forever grateful to my High School freshman English teacher who made us copy out a notebook full of punctuation and grammar rules. As a substitute teacher, I’d pepper the Daily Oral Language exercises I did with some of these rules. The students’ only answer for “why did you put a comma there?” was always “because I pause there when I read it”. No understanding at all. A pity.

  • adalamar

    I Nominated you for the Versatile Blogger Award. Merry Christmas! 🙂

  • Kimby

    Sue, you didn’t induce a coma — I thought this was fascinating! (But then, some of my best friends are reference books…) Thanks for taking us back to the basics. It’s necessary and you did it with aplomb.

  • Diego Serrano

    So basic, yet so necessary. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve checked out after seeing multiple grammar errors on someone’s post.
    Ever read the book “Eats shoots and leaves?” I highly recommend it to your followers given the educational nature of your posts.
    All the best.

  • cafegirlchronicles

    I have three words: Strunk and White.

    I read and reread The Elements of Style at least three times a year.

  • cafegirlchronicles

    Great resolution! I’m sure you’ll make it – it’s such a quick and easy read.

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