Rule Number One: Throw Out the Rules


Rules are important in writing. Punctuation, spelling, grammar: these things do matter. But (to mangle the proverb) one person’s rule is another person’s straitjacket.

Some of the rules we learned in school (if we were lucky enough to be taught any) aren’t rules of grammar, they’re rules of style. As such, they’re subject to debate. Others were once considered rules of grammar but, in the opinion of most grammarians, no longer apply. Like the language itself, proper English grammar changes over time. If you haven’t spent time lurking on online grammar forums, you might be amazed at how many “rules” are open to interpretation. With grammar, as with style, some of the truisms you thought you knew may turn out to have been written in sand.

In any case, I’m a firm believer that all rules play second trumpet to rule number one: the purpose of writing is to communicate. In other words, if what you’re trying to communicate can be better said by breaking a rule, it is your solemn duty to break it.

Here are some examples of “rules,” either real or imagined, that beg to be broken:

“Don’t split infinitives.” I seem to casually break this rule twenty times a day—in fact, I just did. The so-called “correct” wording would have been, “I seem to break this rule casually twenty times a day.” I don’t think there’s a true linguist or grammarian alive today that believes this a rule to be followed. Most agree it was imposed upon the language by fussy scholars a few centuries ago, who were trying to tighten up the structure of English and make it adhere more closely to Latin. It isn’t a natural part of English as it evolved, and it has no inherent value. To boldly go where few dare to tread, drop it from your rules list.

“Don’t begin a sentence with a conjunction.” But what if it’s the only way to get across your message? Or just sounds better? This isn’t even a rule of grammar, it’s a (pointless) rule of style.  Feel free to ignore it. And move on.

“Don’t end a sentence with a preposition.” I used to think it was Winston Churchill who said, “This is a rule up with which I will not put.”  Apparently, it was actually someone else who said this, possibly scribbling it in the margins of a document by Churchill, in response to the scribbles of an over-zealous editor. But the fact is, this is another piece of so-called “grammar” nonsense that was invented by some fussy Latin scholars centuries ago. It’s almost an urban legend, in that people have been solemnly correcting each other on the subject for centuries, but it apparently doesn’t even appear in old grammar books. The fact is, you shouldn’t end a sentence with a preposition when you’ll have the same meaning by leaving it off. You shouldn’t, in other words, say “Where are you at?” because “Where are you?” conveys exactly the same meaning. But by all means say, “What is this thing for?” and “That’s the table I left the book on” and “this is a rule I won’t put up with.”

“Never use passive voice.” This style “rule” was beaten into my head by my otherwise wonderful ninth grade English teacher. He was a Viet Nam vet, and he’d get quite passionate in his condemnation of war-mongers who would sidestep responsibility for their actions with sentences like “Bombs were dropped,” instead of “We dropped bombs.” He had an excellent point. Passive voice can be evasive. It can be cold and bureaucratic.  It can wring all personality and humanity from a sentence.

But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its uses.  Look at the start of my last paragraph. “This rule was beaten into my head by…” In this case, I purposely chose passive voice to emphasize the most important parts of the sentence—beatings, and my head. (I guess I’d better clarify that the beatings were metaphorical…don’t want to get poor Mr. Cohen in trouble.) I could have written the sentence in active voice, but it would have been at least a notch less interesting: “My high school English teacher beat this rule into my head.”

“Don’t write sentence fragments.” A good rule. Except when it isn’t. Actually, this is an example of a solid rule of grammar that sometimes conflicts with the rules of style. Sometimes, in the flow of communication, a sentence fragment is exactly what you need to make your point. Just like passive voice. Just like it’s been throughout this paragraph. I’ve just discovered that these useful kinds of sentence fragments (as opposed to the ones that are simply grammatical mistakes) are sometimes called “verbless sentences.”

“The verbless sentence is a device for enlivening the written word by approximating it to the spoken. There is nothing new about it. Tacitus, for one, was much given to it. What is new is its vogue with English journalists and other writers . . .. (H.W. Fowler and Ernest Gowers, A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, 2nd ed. Oxford Univ. Press, 1965)

The tricks to using sentence fragments successfully are to do so intentionally, don’t over use them (like I did in the paragraph above), and listen carefully to make sure your meaning will be understood.

Tossing some of these rules in the trash and treating the others with a proper skepticism can make your communications more fresh, forceful and clear. But let me add one caveat, so I don’t get socked with a malpractice suit: There are still people out there who are true believers, however misguided their beliefs. If you’re writing something that you will personally be judged by—like a cover letter for a job—you’d probably be wise to stick to language that doesn’t make you sound like an English language scofflaw. Other than that—go ahead, throw out the rules!

What are the rules you love to ignore? Step up and share your thoughts in the comment section below!

And remember, if you have questions about something you’re working on, or just want to get it of  your hands, contact me anytime! 

What’s on First

It’s happened. You’ve been abducted by space aliens. They march you to their leader, who looks at you menacingly—at least you think that’s what she’s doing, but you’re not sure those are her eyes. Somewhere, a mouth opens and it says,

“I’ve heard earthlings have something called a chair. What is a chair, exactly?”

Do you say, “Chairs save us earthlings from having to stand up all the time?”

I don’t know about you, but I’d be careful about giving such an answer. The last thing you want to do is annoy the alien-queen, and if I were her, I’d be mighty ticked off by that answer. Why? Because it doesn’t answer the question.

A more correct answer to “What is a chair?” might go something like this:

“A chair is a kind of furniture, used for sitting on. It’s distinguished from other kinds of furniture we use for sitting on by having room for just one person, often having a back, and sometimes having a place to rest our arms.” (I just made that up. Then I checked Webster’s New World Dictionary and found that I was pretty close: “a piece of furniture for one person to sit on, having a back and, usually, four legs.”)

The reason the first answer only succeeded in annoying the alien queen is that it answered the wrong question.

The question it answered, which I admit would be an odd one to ask, is “Why is a chair?” Why do you use a chair? To save you from standing up all the time—or sitting on the floor.

So when it’s time to introduce their company’s latest offering, “Convergence Tremors,”  why do so many communicators end up saying something like this?

Convergence Tremors will bring our company into the 21st century, allowing us to devote more time and attention to meeting our goals and leveraging our ability to share strategies across platforms in ways we never thought possible.

If I’m an employee (or a customer, or the judge of a “best company” award) and I’m in a generous mood, my reaction might be “Sounds great! But what is Convergence Tremors?” (If I’m not in a generous mood, my reaction might be to hit “delete.”)

To make things worse, the answer to “but what is Convergence Tremors?” often runs something like this:

Convergence Tremors streamlines systems and processes and promotes innovative solutions…


Let’s give our hypothetical employee a pop quiz.

Based on the information you’ve been given so far, complete the following sentence. Convergence Tremors is:

a)      a training program

b)      some kind of software

c)       a policy or set of policies for addressing operations

d)      a performance management system

e)      the new Tarentino movie

f)       none of the above

g)      I haven’t the faintest idea

Unless the employee has access to some inside information, the only possible answer is “g,” of course. That’s because the communicator in question made the same mistake you made when you spoke to the alien-queen. He answered “why,” not “what.”

So, the hapless communicator realizes his mistake and sends out an announcement explaining that Convergence Tremors is the name for an exciting new approach to working with customers. Great. Now employees and anyone else who might be interested have the what and the why. But there’s still one more bridge to cross: the how.

Specifically, what is it that Convergence Tremors does that will make it possible for us to “devote more time and attention to meeting our goals?” What is it that will help us “share strategies across platforms” (whatever that means)? In what way will Convergence Tremors “streamline processes and promote innovative solutions?”

When you gave the alien-queen the definition of a chair, the how was so much a part of the what that there wasn’t much more to say about it. But saying something is a new approach to working with customers (for example) still leaves a lot of questions unanswered. Answering how in this case means describing what it is about the approach that allows it to convey the benefits you’ve described.

What is Convergence Tremors?

It’s an exciting new approach to working with customers. By broadening the responsibilities of some team members and moving many paper systems online, it frees us all up to focus more on planning and product development. At the same time, it provides customers with access to more expertise at every stage of the sales process. And it  provides more opportunities for career advancement all around.

That’s what Convergence Tremors is.

Contact me if you’d like some help with the whats and whys of your communication. And be sure to click “follow this blog via email” in the upper right column to keep those communications tips coming!


illustration courtesy of Steve Snodgrass


Good News, Bad News

Fortunately, I’m alive and working on a post. 

Unfortunately, I’m under extreme deadline pressure, both personal and professional, so I won’t get it done this week.

Fortunately, I hope to finish and publish it by sometime next week–so, loyal readers, please be patient.

Unfortunately, I haven’t even had time to make the public announcement that…

…Fortunately, my blog has received a 2012 Apex Award for Excellence in Blog Writing!