Language: Obey the rules!

Recently I wrote a blog post about how language flourishes and – sometimes – becomes beautiful when we adapt the rules we are taught.

On the other hand, there are some language rules that we really, really feel strongly about and that we – not just as editors but as human beings – will always fight the cause of. (Avoiding sentences ending in a preposition is not one of mine, evidently.)


My pet grammar rule is the correct use of ‘that’ and ‘which’ and it’s one I’m often correcting in text because it is so little understood and therefore frequently misused. The rule to remember is:

‘That’ is never preceded by a comma, but ‘which’ always is*.

And that is because of the subtle difference between the two words, which is beautiful and useful. See:

1/ She picked up the envelope that was on the table.

2/ She picked up the envelope, which was on the table.

The first implies that there are several possible envelopes, but only one was on the table: the information following ‘that’ defines that particular envelope compared to others.

The second gives no information about whether there are other envelopes, but purely offers extra description about the envelope in question: it was on the table. Because it is additional information, it follows a comma. (That is another good rule of thumb for helping to decide when to use a comma.)

I surveyed the Hot Key and Red Lemon staff to find out what really fires them up when they see language rules disregarded. (And added some further comment in italics…)


Sara OC, Editorial Director: Exclamation marks MUST be used sparingly. Especially in children’s books; writers do tend to go crazy. Also, dialogue tags should not be illogical:

“I love you,” Jenny smiled.

MUST be:

“I love you.” Jenny smiled.

You cannot ‘smile’ words.

Sarah Odedina, Managing Director: Being the result of a 1970s radical comprehensive education I have little idea what makes for correct, or incorrect use of the English language.  All my ‘editorial’ responses are on what sounds right for the character or the book.   I know you shouldn’t start a new sentence with ‘and’ but sometimes it just sounds right! I suppose I do dislike it when an author uses the same phrases or sayings or terminology over and over again.  It happens.  It is easy to take out and to change.  But I wonder why someone doesn’t notice that they are repeating themselves…

I argued for starting sentences with ‘and’ and ‘but’ here. I think repeating phrases and terms is something all writers fall into at some point, but spotting them is one of the editor’s responsibilities – along with urging changes.

Cait Davies, Sales & Marketing Executive: Their, they’re and there!

Mixing up these spellings is a language crime: they all have different meanings and are not interchangeable.

Georgia Murray, Editor: APOSTROPHES!!!! Particularly when used in a plural. (And also multiple exclamation marks.)

More on this coming up…

Livs Mead, Sales & Marketing Assistant: Your and you’re. And its and it’s. It’s so simple I don’t understand why people can’t remember the difference. (I’m now paranoid my apostrophe usage is wrong).

And yet people do get it wrong, frequently – and possibly out of a paranoid panic about getting it wrong. But don’t panic!

‘its’ = possessive; ‘it’s’ = ‘it is’

‘your’ = possessive; ‘you’re’ = ‘you are’.

When in doubt, keep apostrophes for contractions. I know, it’s confusing because you add apostrophes to make other nouns possessive, but think of ‘its’ and ‘yours’ already holding a sense of possession. They don’t need apostrophes too.

Megan Farr, PR Manager: One pet hate is apostrophes in dates – like 1920’s.

This is like a secret grammar rule that very few people know. Unless you’re talking about something belonging to the 1920s, you don’t need an apostrophe. Remember: if in doubt, keep apostrophes for contractions.

Tori Kosara, Editor, Red Lemon Press: Less/fewer! If I cared a bit less about this common mistake, I would have fewer headaches when editing.

‘Less’ should only be used when talking about unquantifiable amounts (‘less confusion, ‘less anxiety’) and ‘fewer’ when the amount IS quantifiable (‘fewer grammatical errors’, ‘fewer editorial headaches’).

Alexandra Koken, Editor, Red Lemon Press: Excessive use of exclamation marks is a pet peeve, especially in younger fiction and speech. They almost makes me want to mark up ‘Calm down’ in a side note! Plus, too many commas are a bore. 

This is a popular pet peeve!!!!!!! (See: it is quite annoying.)


Now, I know that grammar comes more easily to some people than others, but an aversion to grammar rules needn’t hold you back. Last word from our lovely Editorial Assistant Becca, who sadly leaves us today:

Becca Langton, Editorial Assistant: I’m useless at grammar and punctuation and have been told off SO many times for it. I am particularly bad at differentiating between you’re and your. Not great but I blame the dyslexia. BUT! I am really persnickety about of and off. I think it’s because it’s the one rule that I can actually remember!

And that’s why putting together a book requires input from people with so many different expertise: a writer with a brilliant voice and an excellent story to tell can do all the spelling mistakes and grammar crimes they want, because there should always be a diligent copy-editor and proofreader to mop them up and give the text a polish before sending it out into the world.

A key aspect of working closely with fiction is finding the delicate balance between these rules and the writer’s own adapted rules.

* There are exceptions to this rule, but not when used in this context.

** See, here you don’t need a comma before ‘which’. It’s an entirely different context.



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