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Writing ‘Rules’ You Should Be Breaking

Rules are rules, except when they’re not. Especially when it comes to English grammar. Many of the “rules” we grew up learning are not rules at all.

Yes, you can end a sentence with a preposition. No, there is no rule against saying “People that” instead of “People who.” Yes, you can split an infinitive.

In fact, I will go so far as to say that to truly engage your reader and get your message across most clearly, you MUST do all those things, and more, at one time or another.

Not always, of course. Sometimes it’s better to follow what you think is a rule. Even though it’s not really a rule. It depends . . .

I know that when I tell people the spelling or usage of a word “depends on X, Y or Z,” they think I’m just messing with them. But that’s English for you. A more inconsistent, infuriating – and beautiful – language you’ll never find.

The beauty of English, for me, is how fluid and flexible it is. Sure, it’s easier to learn Spanish or French with their solid rules on syntax and pronunciation. Many an English major will tell you they only learned about the parts of speech when they started studying Latin or one of the Romance languages.

And there is no foreign equivalent of the aggravating “choose to lose those” – words that look like they should be pronounced the same but are not.

Perhaps it was that frustration with the “it depends” pronouncement that led people to create them on their own. But much of this DIY grammar is just uninformed.

Yes, you can:

  1. End a sentence with a preposition. There’s the famous statement attributed to Winston Churchill, who is supposed to have said this “rule” was “the sort of arrant pedantry up with which I will not put.”  It may not always work; your sentence may be more graceful if you put the preposition elsewhere. But it’s your call.
  2. Start a sentence with a conjunction. And why not? Just beware starting every sentence that way.
  3. Write in sentence fragments. We speak in fragments, so when the message warrants it, why not imitate natural language? Good idea? Or bad? Again, it’s writer’s choice.
  4. Split infinitives. Putting a word between “to” and the verb can indeed make your sentence awkward. “I tried not to poorly speak” sounds just awful.  But where would we be without “to boldly go where no one has gone before”?

Some rules are rules, but you can break them in the interest of engaging writing. Should you avoid the word “ain’t”? Yes. Except when you want your words to have some color and life. “Say it ain’t so, Joe!” “It is what it is and it ain’t what it ain’t.”

So, who you gonna believe about all this? (Oh wait — that really should be “Whom are you going to believe?” Shouldn’t it? Yeah, but – come on.)

Visit these expert sources for their own grammar rules meant to be broken. And share yours in the comments.

Mignon Fogarty, Grammar Girl: The top 10 grammar myths.

Grammar Check: English writing myths.