Open
  • Get Your Story Straight

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 may end a sentence with a preposition. Yes, you may say “people that” instead of “people who.” Yes, you may split an infinitive.

One reason these and other dictates came to be seen as rules is that they sometimes do make sense. But – yeah, I started this sentence with a conjunction – there is nothing except common sense to keep you from ignoring them.

7 Dirty Rules of Misinformed Grammar

Yes, you may:

  1. End a sentence with a preposition. I’m sure you’ve heardthe 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? Breaking up a series of clauses into short, separate sentences can add dramatic emphasis. But be careful not to overdo it. Because starting a lot of consecutive sentences with a conjunction can get monotonous. And you don’t want to bore your reader. But it’s your call.
  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 the 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”?
  5. Address the reader as “you.” It can be overly familiar, especially in formal writing, but when you want to be more relaxed and casual, it’s perfectly fine and even preferable. One wouldn’t want to be overly formal, would one?
  6. Use contractions. Don’t worry about this unless you’re writing an academic work or a legal paper.
  7. Use “that” instead of “who” when referring to people. The general rule is that “who” is for people and “that” is for inanimate objects, but not all stylists agree. Some say “that” is acceptable when referring to a group of people, while “who” is preferred for individuals – as in “the student who earned the highest grades” vs. “the class that graduated.” This is another case of letting your ear be the judge. Consider “Who is it that said . . . ?” vs. “Who is it who said . . .?” Which sounds better? I vote for the former.

Some Rules Is Rules

You can still break the actual rules in the interest of engaging writing. For example, 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.”
  • “Ain’t Misbehavin”

For more writing tips delivered FREE to your inbox every week, and for exclusive content in my bi-weekly newsletter Copy This!, subscribe to this blog and follow me on LinkedIn.