Friday, October 12, 2018

The Grammar Chicken: Helping Writers Write

By Aly Brown, @AlyConnerBrown

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: Something fun and informative today, as Aly Brown returns to the lecture hall with her Grammar Chicken. Yes, that's right. A chicken that helps writers keep track of commonly misused words. Believe it or not, those are two of my favorite things (Well, chickens, and helping writers).

Aly Brown is a newspaper editor and author represented by BookEnds LLC. She recently inked a deal with Feiwel & Friends / Macmillan for a nonfiction middle grade book on Alvin Submersible called The Last Unexplored Place on Earth. Release date 2023.

Take it away Aly...
I was a novelist before I became a newspaper journalist and copy editor, and if there’s anything I’ve learned from the latter, it’s that questioning everything will take you far.

As a novelist, I kept an eye out for the basics – spelling errors and structure – but mainly I was focused on telling the story and crafting beautiful sentences. My day job as a copy editor for the paper opened my eyes to how often adults misuse everyday words. Countless press releases (from professionals paid to write them no less) end up on my desk full of mistakes and inconsistent style. I got into the habit of questioning everything.

Coincidentally, it made my creative writing stronger.

While I use the Associated Press style guide at work, novelists (aka comma lovers) tend to adhere to the Chicago Manual of Style. Many publishers will employ a “house style” that mainly follows one style guide with particular rules of their own. But no matter the guide, consistency is key. Whether you’re writing for a magazine or trying to snag the attention of a literary agent, purchasing a style guide and getting into the habit of asking yourself questions to which you thought you already knew the answers will result in a cleaner, more professional product.

Piggybacking on the concept of questioning everything, I present to you The Grammar Chicken, which I created after a colleague at the press asked me to clarify something and we found an answer online with a picture of a chicken explaining lay v. lie. I joked about answering every grammatical or style-guide question with sketchings of chickens, but that joke then turned into a reality, and soon my desk was covered with doodles of chickens and a sign that read, “Please refer to the chicken for all your grammar needs.”

Below are some commonly misused words and the chickens who explain how to use them.

Hoard v Horde

What’s the difference between hoard and horde?

Hoard (n.) refers to a stash of money, goods or otherwise valued objects. In this case, Chicken hoards (v.) the hoard (n.) of shiny things. So you see it can also become a verb.

A horde technically refers to a group of people, but since this isn’t The Grammar Person, I took creative license with this definition.

Stock v Stalk

 Stock v Stalk

What’s the difference between stock and stalk? 

Stock has a variety of references (wares, a place of public punishment, your ancestry, or the verb of stocking shelves), but it is commonly used incorrectly (“he stocks my Instagram profile” = wrong). Think of the A in stalk, as in “Attacker,” to help you remember that “he STALKS my Instagram profile.”

A While v Awhile

What’s the difference between a while and awhile?

Well, this is one of those because English is confusing and doesn’t always have a great reason examples. Why would The Grammar Chicken say this? Because “a while” (adv.) means “a period or interval of time,” and “awhile” (n.) means “for a short time or period.”

So… Got it? Nope? You’re not alone. They seem somewhat interchangeable, and as a copy editor, I’ve come across plenty of professional writers who don’t know the difference. (Grammar nerds, The Grammar Chicken loves you all, but you’re not fooling anyone when you pretend to be offended when people don’t know the difference between “a while” and “awhile.” Stick with they’re, their and there.)

Here’s a simple trick: Do you need an itty bitty word like “for” or “in” in front? If so, use “a while,” two words. If not, use “awhile,” one word.

Toward v Towards

Toward v Towards

What’s the difference between towards and toward?

Those in the UK tend to like that extra letter and spell it towards with an S. I’ve noticed many Americans still pronounce the S in everyday conversation (hence the confusion) but it is not used if you’re writing for a U.S. publication – whether it’s a newspaper or a book publisher, both the AP Style Guide and the Chicago Manual of Style note to leave it off in all cases. The same goes for forward and backward.

Picking up a style guide and getting into the rhythm of looking up everything will help you polish your manuscript so it looks more professional. And literary agents and editors like working with professionals who take their work seriously.

Happy editing!


  1. Alythia, I've been so confused about when to use "a while" and "awhile" I was just going to let an editor tell me where I am right or wrong. However, that small trick you gave is going to help tremendously. Thank you.

  2. well, backward/s and forward/s are up for debate. In English English the "s" is there. You can be a backward child or a forward young man but my car is going backwards or forwards.