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! 


11 thoughts on “Rule Number One: Throw Out the Rules

  1. A point that seems to me implicit in this excellent post is that one needs to know the rules before breaking them, and have a reasonable rhetorical reason for doing so. Also implicit is that communicators should avoid absolutes. “Never use passive voice” is an absolute. “Avoid passive voice” is probably good practice for most business communications.

    There are other rules that one would like to see held to hard and fast—a reflexive pronoun will always be preceded by the appropriate pronoun. Or accompanied by. Myself? I would do that.

  2. Excellent points! (Check out the split infinitive, though. I think that means splitting an infinitive such as “to go” with an adverb. That is,”to quickly go.” I just broke another rule there by using a phrase instead of a complete sentence.

    I enjoyed your post! — Ann

  3. Pingback: The Grammarian in the Airport | Which Silk Shirt

  4. I’m curious about the central Pennsylvania verbal habit of dropping the verb “to be.” We often do that in situations where we assume that you understand our meaning in context. For instance, “The car needs washed.” I believe this habit of dropping the verb is still frowned upon widely, but everyone around here understand perfectly what his neighbor means when she says it. 🙂

    Loved this post! Like Tea, above, I dropped the pronoun, and only find that to be a problem when my intent becomes unclear. Recently I meant to tell someone “I appreciate that.” Instead I said, “Appreciate that,” as I walked away, the realization dawning on me that they might have just interpreted my appreciation as a command to be appreciated.

    Thank you. Liked and now following!

    • Thanks for all the appreciation! I grew up in Pittsburgh, so very familiar with the “needs washed” formulation. (In my memory, it was generally said with a a Pittsburgh accent: “This car needs warshed.”) I must say, it sounds very wrong to me, probably because I was taught to disapprove of it. But as you say, I always understand what’s meant by it.

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