Tag Archives: grammar

How reading stuff I wrote as a kid has helped me break bad writing habits

I’ve been writing everything from non-fiction essays to poems since I could string a sentence together. I was a prolific writer as a kid: little me would scribble notes and the beginnings of many (many) novels on scraps of paper, napkins… anything I could get words onto.

A few years ago I convinced my Mum to whittle down her enormous box of my ramblings and I took away a small folder of some of the best* things I’d written. Reading them was very revealing, and it highlighted some of the bad writing habits I’d managed to nurture and grow over the years.

Seeing my bad habits in black and white really helped me squash them.

*Read: funniest

Bad planning.

CaterpillarPlanning is a really important part of the writing process. Knowing where you’re going with an article, story, report, book or poem helps you structure it properly, providing the best possible support for elegant, well thought-out writing. Skip the planning process and you risk your work caving in on itself.

The little version of me didn’t know this. Take my caterpillar “poem” for example. (Come on, it’s not really a poem, is it?) I had one side of A4, minus some pretty generous margins, to work with. I knew this; I’d drawn and decorated the margins myself. What I should have done was draft the “poem” somewhere else first, then work out if it needed to be shortened.

I didn’t do that.

What I did was this: I saw a glorious blank page and started filling it with whatever spilled out of my head. It was going (relatively) well until I saw the end of the box and panicked, shutting the whole thing down abruptly (see the next bad habit).

Reading my caterpillar story made me laugh, but it also put a spotlight on my problem. Of course, I’m not restricted to pencils and paper these days, and typing makes it much easier to play with words on a page. But I really had to force myself to focus on planning.

Now when I start working on something, I begin with a skeleton structure: a word or two to represent what each paragraph or section would contain. Having a skeleton helps me organise notes – I can cut and paste them into the relevant section – and then all I need to do is add flesh to the bones. Planning in this way means I know how many words I have to play with in each part of a piece of writing, and it means I don’t have to cut the work from the bottom.

Abrupt endings.

At the end of the bridgeAs you can see from my amazing caterpillar masterpiece, I had a big problem with endings. This was partly because I would get really excited about every book I was writing, only for my excitement to dissipate by mid-way through chapter two (confession: this still happens, I have countless partly written novels floating around). One of my biggest issues was finishing everything I wrote far too abruptly.

The ending of a piece of writing is really important. Sure, not everyone will make it to the end of an article, but those who do will remember the last few sentences they read better than the rest.

Again, little me didn’t know that. Take “At the end of the bridge” for example. Even the title suggests that something brilliant is awaiting the protagonist at the other side of the bridge. But when she gets there she is “amazed”. I don’t go into detail, despite there being plenty of space in which to do so.

“The girl that traveld [sic]” ends rather cryptically too: suddenly, in the final sentence, the girl can talk to the animals. Nothing like an unexplained revelation to end a story.

The girl that traveldOk, so I’m not that bad any more, but endings weren’t my strong point for years. Reading these stories, I was so disappointed when I reached the end that I realised how my readers must have felt in the past, albeit less obviously. I now include my endings in the planning process, making sure they reflect and build on the introductions, and leave the reader with something to think about.


JohnI love exclamation marks! Really, I’m pretty sure you can find one in just about everything I’ve written. I tend to over-use them – and superlatives – in emails to this day, but it’s only because I write the way I speak. And I speak enthusiastically.

In the lovely (untitled) story about John, little me got over-enthusiastic without getting creative, and emboldened the word “very” a couple of times. Over the years, my vocabulary improved, and with it my enthusiasm became more colourful. Things were “really brilliant”, “totally awesome” and “completely amazing”. Add a sprinkling of exclamation marks and you get an out-of-breath reader.

In my head I was just excited and optimistic; on paper, I looked like a lunatic. Reading John’s story reminded me how important it is to check the tone of what I write. These days I write however I feel like it at the time, then make a point of checking for tone when I run back through what I’ve written. If I seem a bit nutty, I cut adjectives and exclamation marks.

Not editing.

Cats 1Actually, my over-enthusiasm was part of a bigger problem in my writing: I wasn’t editing my own work properly. This was probably the toughest habit I had to break.

Check out my treatment on “Cat’s”: a little intro, a song, a poem and a couple of cartoons. Cat’s what? Cat’s disappointed that I used several grocer’s apostrophe’s (that one was on purpose). Even as a kid, I knew how to punctuate and spell properly. Reading this it was obvious to me: I was being lazy.

Editing a piece of writing is almost as important as doing the writing in the first place; it can make the difference between an ok article riddled with mistakes and a compelling article that’s polished and professional.

Of course I want the latter, so now I make sure I factor editing rounds into my writing process. If it’s possible within the deadline, I schedule time to sleep on a piece of writing (figuratively speaking) so I can attack it with fresh eyes the next day. It’s definitely improved my work, and I’m happy to say those painful apostrophes don’t litter my writing any more.


What terrible writing habits did you develop as a kid? How have you tackled them? Share your stories in the comments!


5 top tips for good #hashtag grammar

A hashtag isn’t a free pass for bad grammar.

We see hashtags everywhere these days – I even caught myself using one on a network that doesn’t support them yesterday (come on, WeWork, get with it). They’re useful, effective and funny. But they also make people careless. Here are my top 5 tips for how to use hashtags the right way, avoiding #LazyGrammar.

Designer Chris Messina is credited with the first use of a hashtag on Twitter – in 2007 he asked his followers: “how do you feel about using # (pound) for groups. As in #barcamp [msg]?”

Screen Shot 2015-04-11 at 10.23.52

(As an aside, what a shame that Messina didn’t put a couple more seconds into writing this Tweet. It’s been retweeted 815 times, and by now has reached potentially millions of people.)


Since then, hashtag use has exploded. Starting on Twitter, hashtags have become familiar features of messages on most social networks, including Facebook, Instagram, Google+, Pinterest, YouTube and even Kickstarter.

What is a hashtag?

A hashtag is a word or phrase preceded by a hash (or pound) sign, which is used in a social media message to identify a topic. By using # you can make a word or phrase (with no spaces or symbols) searchable on that network, identifying your message with a certain topic and enabling people to find other messages on that topic.

Thanks to its widespread use, the word hashtag was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in June 2014, and to The Official Scrabble Players Dictionary a couple of months later. (Incidentally, the word hashtag can only refer to the sign in the context of its use in a hashtag; the # is technically called an octothorpe.)

There’s a huge amount of advice out there about what to hashtag, how to sell something by encouraging hashtag use, and the etiquette of hashtagging. All great advice, of course, but one thing that’s missing from all this is hashtag grammar.


The last rule on this infographic from Social Times is “Use proper spelling”. Always good advice, especially when using searchable hashtags. But I think the language aspect of hashtagging goes deeper than this; hashtags seem to be distracting people from what they’re writing, leading to some real howlers.

Here are my top tips for good hashtag grammar

1. #Followtherules. You can’t use spaces or symbols, but other than that it’s wide open. When you type the #, anything you type that’s attached to it will become a searchable link, until you type a symbol or space. So read carefully before you post, to make sure you’ve hashtagged what you intended to.

Bad: #I love cheese
Good: #Ilovecheese

2. #Dontpunctuate. If you want a phrase to be linked, take out the punctuation. Sure, this is painful at first, but hashtags have their own special rules.

Bad: I’m crying because #it’smyparty
Good: I’m crying because #itsmyparty

#badgrammar3. #Pluralshavenoapostrophe! Hashtags can be used within a sentence as a #wordorphrase. But, like with any normal word or phrase, you have to use them in the right context. If you want to make a hashtag plural, the linked hashtag itself will become plural. One common workaround is to use an apostrophe… DON’T DO IT! Reshuffle the sentence instead.

Bad: Discovering people on #FollowFriday’s
Good: Discovering people every #FollowFriday

4. #UseCamelCase. Capital letters can help the reader identify what you’re saying more easily, or avoid ambiguity in hashtag phrases.

Bad: Join our #Susanalbumparty
Good: Join our #SusanAlbumParty

5. #Proofbeforeyoupost. Posting online is digital publishing, so it’s a good idea to make sure you’re happy with what you’ve written before you show it to the world. Proofread before you post – check your spelling (a misspelt hashtag is useless) and if you’ve used a phrase, check that it makes sense in the context – imagine it’s there without the #.

Bad: The importance of #proofreadnig
Good: The importance of #proofreading

Now let’s laugh at the whole thing.

How to not mess up your tattoo: 7 top tips

As a big fan of tattoos (14 and counting), I always wince when I see one with a typo. It’s awful – not only does it make the person look stupid, it’s also a permanent mistake (unless you sue the tattooist for laser removal… but even that doesn’t take away the shame). Out of the hundreds of examples of bad tattoo grammar, a few common mistakes emerge. Here are my seven top tips, inspired by some of the worst offenders.

1. Your vs. you’re Do you mean ‘you are’? Then you need an apostrophe. Otherwise, you don’t. (In this guy’s defence, we can’t see his thumb, so it might not be a total disaster… there’s still room to add an apostrophe…) Your Your2

2. To vs. too If you mean ‘too much of something’ you need two ‘o’s. If you’re addressing someone it’s just one. Too Too2

3. Judgment is a tragedy This one’s interesting (and brilliantly ironic). The English language can be cruel, and although it sounds like there’s a second ‘d’ hiding in words like tragedy, there isn’t. In other cases, it’s easy to miss one that should be there. Best to check if you’re not sure.

Tragedy Judge

4. Apostrophe’s and plural’s Seriously. Making something plural does not require an apostrophe. This has got to be one of the most commonly committed crimes against grammar.

Ones Sin's

5. Then/than In a nutshell, ‘then’ indicates time (I looked at his tattoo and then shuddered), and ‘than’ is for comparison (her tattoo is worse than the others I’ve seen).

Then Then2

6. Life, live, belief, believe I have a feeling this one’s going to get more common when millions of Beliebers reach the legal age for tattooing… so listen up. Belief is important in life; you have to believe if you want to live. If there’s a ‘v’, it’s a verb. And don’t forget there’s an ‘e’ after the ‘i’ in believe and belief.

Belive Life

7. If in doubt, check it (or at least correct it) Come on, it takes one minute to Google a word.

Awsome Corrected

Got any examples of your own? Or want to check before you ink? Leave a comment!

Why you should care – part two: is your grammar fit for a king?

Ok, so admittedly this isn’t about English grammar, but it does have an important message: the general public cares about the grammar in popular songs.

Last week, with excitement and anticipation, Holland watched the coronation of Willem Alexander. It was a huge full-day event, held on Koninginnedag (Queen’s Day), on which Queen Beatrix abdicated and her eldest son took the throne, next to his new Queen Maxima.


As part of the celebration, a well-known songwriter pieced together lyric suggestions from the public to come up with a song from the Dutch people to the new King.

Then it all went a bit wrong.

The song starts off quite nicely – it’s catchy and typically Dutch, with a modern twist. Unfortunately, it was spectacularly rejected by the public, a Facebook page against it garnering tens of thousands of likes within a couple of hours of the song’s release. The writer pulled the song but was subsequently overruled by the coronation organisers, and it was performed live on the day.

Why all the fuss?

Some people say the song is a grammatical nightmare. Dutch is a complex language, and, like in English, grammar is important. When people heard the song (and read the lyrics in the video) they were outraged by the bad grammar. Here’s Wim Daniëls explaining it in great detail (in Dutch).

Daniëls says there is a mistake in every sentence – lots of people agree with this. Not enough commas, too many demonstratives, incorrect tone… but it’s a song. Shouldn’t that make it safe from the scrutiny of grammarians?

I don’t think so. If you’re doing something that public, it ought to be correct – or at least consistent. If you want to be chummy with the King (using the informal ‘je’ instead of the formal ‘u’, both meaning ‘you’) go ahead. But make it clear. And when constructing a rap based on all the brilliant Dutch things that begin with the ‘W from Willem’, try to think of things that actually begin with a ‘W’ and not plump for other words… ‘The W from waiting for stamppot’ is probably my favourite terrible line.

The song is still out there in all its glory, and the King and Queen certainly seemed to enjoy it on coronation day. And the mistakes might even have a positive outcome – kids will be studying these lyrics in Dutch language class and improving them.

The fact is that when someone writes a big important song representing the public, the public cares about the quality. People don’t want to be associated with bad grammar. There is, of course, something to be said for artistic licence, and I’m not about to start analyzing the latest from Jay-Z or Muse. But good grammar has its place. If you’re writing a song for a king, it ought to be right. Don’t you think?

Pull yourself together – the abuse of reflexives

If you’ve ever worked in an office or business environment, you have invariably heard any number of abuses of the English language (see this hilarious article from Forbes on business speak).

But the thing that really makes me burn – the mistake that’s more bafflingly annoying than all the rest – is the flagrant misuse of reflexives.

Does this ring a bell?
‘We received the price list from yourselves on Monday.’

How about this?
‘It’s a product sold by ourselves.’

Oh dear. Here’s what Partridge has to say about the matter:

Myself, yourself, herself, himself, itself, ourselves, yourselves, themselves. There is a tendency to employ these pronouns where the simple I (or me), you, she (or her), he (or him), it, we (or us), you, they (or them) are sufficient. The self forms are either reflexives, as in ‘I hurt myself’ or emphatic additions, as in ‘He himself did not know’.

(Usage and Abusage, p.199.)

One of the examples of misuse Partridge provides is heard all too often in today’s offices: ‘He sent the inquiry to yourself.’

It should be: ‘He sent the inquiry to you.’ (Or, even better, ‘he sent you the inquiry.’)

Fowler considers this use of reflexive pronouns ‘questionable’ and ‘beyond reproach’. (Fowler’s Modern English Usage, p.510.) Yes, reflexives have an air of officialdom about them. Shoving them into otherwise simple sentence makes the speaker sound, well, more official. Only that’s not the case at all – it makes the speaker sound like they don’t know what they’re talking about. It makes them sound like they’re glossing. The misuse of ‘ourselves’ and ‘yourselves’ is an attempt to over-decorate language, and it doesn’t work.

In technical terms, words like ‘myself’ are used if the object of the sentence: ‘I hurt myself.’ (Someone (subject) hurt something (object).)

If you want to refer to ‘us’ or ‘you’ or ‘me’, try using those simpler words before you resort to ‘ourselves’ or ‘yourselves’ or ‘myself’. Does it sound right? Then it is right.

Fortunately, this practice hasn’t yet crept too far into written communications. So we still have time to pull ourselves together (yes, that’s ok) before it’s too late.

Top tips inspired by Robbie Williams

Today I’ve been listening to music from the 90s. Why? Because of the public battle (if you can call it that) between Robbie Williams – who was in a band I loved – and Brett Anderson – who was also in a band I loved. What a great excuse to journey back to my youth.

The spat was over Anderson’s comment to The Sun: “There has always been cr*p pop music.” He went on to explain his opinion that record companies didn’t have the financial freedom to gamble on non-manufactured music.

Fair enough. It’s an opinion. Also fair that Williams didn’t agree, responding in his blog that all the rock music produced in the 90s, including by Suede, was rubbish.

I don’t have a problem with either of these chaps having an opinion. I don’t agree with either of them, but that’s just how it goes. What I do not appreciate is a public figure very publicly communicating in a sub-standard way. So far, Williams’s blog post has had 2,200 likes on Facebook, 404 Tweets and 168 comments. That’s a lot of exposure for a piece of writing with quite some mistakes, likely to have been read by many impressionable people.

So here are a few top tips inspired by his blog, with examples.

  • Capital letters look like shouting – writing an entire blog in capitals makes it pretty difficult to read
  • When you quote the name of a publication it should be in italics – i.e. The Sun
  • A sentence should be finished with a full stop, question mark or exclamation mark
  • If you want to use an ellipsis, make sure it has three dots. Anything else is just a strange number of full stops
  • Talking of ellipses, their overuse gives the impression of a stream of consciousness, which isn’t easy to follow
  • Commas are your friends. If you pause when speaking, consider using a comma when writing (i.e. instead of using paragraph breaks with no punctuation)
  • You do not need to use an apostrophe when writing a decade, e.g. 90s

And here’s a brilliant song from the 90s – Me and You Vs The World by Space.