Grammar Quirks: Ann Cleeves on Not Letting Grammar Get in the Way

New York Times bestseller Ann Cleeves chats about the grammar quirks she's adopted in her years of writing and some of her favorite words.

Ann Cleeves, Writing for
4-minute read

Grammar Girl: What’s your favorite word and why?

Ann Cleeves: "Serendipity." I love the sound of it, but also the concept, that sense of chancing on a new idea, thing, or person just at the right time. I first went to Shetland because of a serendipitous meeting in a London pub with someone who was heading off to be assistant warden in the Bird Observatory in Fair Isle. He let slip that there was a vacancy as an assistant cook. I couldn’t cook, and I knew nothing about birds, but they must have been desperate because they gave me the job! I went on to meet my husband on the island—he was a visiting birder—and to make lifelong friends there. Shetland is also the setting for the novel that changed my career.

GG: What’s a word you dislike (either because it’s overused or misused) and why?

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AC:  This is probably completely irrational, but I do dislike "so" at the beginning of a sentence. Broadcasters use it a lot now and usually it’s completely unnecessary. It’s become a habit, I think, and it serves no real purpose.

GG: What word will you always misspell?

AC:  "Affect" and "effect."  I need someone to explain the context in which each is used!  I’m still not entirely sure.

Affect Versus Effect

GG: What word (or semblance of a word) would you like to see added to the dictionary? Why?

AC:  "Pixieshittery," used to describe the kitsch tat found in gift shops, especially in faded seaside towns. It was coined by a friend of my husband, and it’s gone on to become part of my vocabulary. It is so descriptive. I used it in one of my Matthew Venn books and readers loved it too.

GG: Any grammar pet peeves we should know about?

AC:  Like many people I hate the misuse of the apostrophe, which is used to denote belonging in certain circumstances—as in "the boy’s ball" (singular "boy") or the "boys’ ball" (plural)—but also a missing letter ("don’t" for "do not"). Of course, there are exceptions to the rule so "its ball" is correct although it means belonging, to differentiate it from "it’s stupid" where a letter is missing … but everywhere, I see apostrophes wrongly added to words that are simply plural. For example, again in a seaside town shop window: "beach ball’s, bucket’s and spade’s for sale."

I try not to let grammar get in the way when I’m writing a first draft.

GG: To what extent does grammar play a role in character development and voice?

AC:  Grammar is important in dialogue, I think. Here in the UK, we often judge people by the way they speak. We’re also obsessed with class. Within one sentence we’ll be able to tell where someone belongs socially and the sort of school or university they went to. It’s a kind of shorthand, so the reader can place the character quickly. I use grammar too to place a character regionally. My books are set in far-flung regions of the UK. I don’t often use dialect words, which can be confusing, but I try to capture the rhythm and grammatical idiosyncrasies of regional speech.

GG: Do you have a favorite quote or passage from an author you’d like to share?

AC:   This is from the beginning of Ali Smith’s "Autumn," which I loved.  It’s to show that we can play with grammar, and that the rules are there to bring meaning, but they can be ditched if the writer feels they’re not helpful. Smith uses very little punctuation, but if the reader is confused, she’s meant to be. Ride with the beautiful language and understanding will come.

"It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times. Again. That’s the thing about things. They fall apart, always have, always will, it’s in their nature. So an old old man washes up on a shore. He looks like a punctured football with its stitching split, the leather kind that people kicked a hundred years ago. The sea’s been rough. It has taken the shirt off his back; naked as the day I was born are the words in the head he moves on its neck, but it hurts too."

GG: What grammar, wording, or punctuation problem did you struggle with this week?

AC:  I haven’t struggled with anything this week! I try not to let grammar get in the way when I’m writing a first draft. I just need to get the story onto the page. And I’m very lucky. I know that a good copy editor will pick up my errors when she reads the manuscript.