Grammar Rules Made to Be Broken

CC image by Edward Simpson

I have a love-hate relationship with American English grammatical conventions. Grammar is this trusted authority, like your wise grandfather or the mighty and powerful Google. You go to it for the truth, to know the correct way to do something. And most of the time, your grandfather and Google are right. But sometimes, they’re just absurd. Nonetheless, scores of people believe them, holding their word as the ultimate truth. However, as Einstein said, “Unthinking respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth.”

So let us examine a few grammar rules masquerading as truth, rules that you often can (and should) break.

1) Never end a sentence with a preposition.
Have you ever had that friend, the one who’s really into math and then imposes the numerical nature of that field on English? They reduce the complexities of a human language to an equation that always has a right or wrong answer. They’re the ones who, if you’re foolish enough to give them a paper you wrote, rearrange sentences into awkward phrases more appropriately said over tiny cakes and doilies or in the smoking room with a brandy poured by a manservant. Here’s an example:

Who did you talk to?
becomes
To whom did you talk?

Oh, and butler, do make sure you don’t forget my fancy cane for the summer social this evening. But seriously, how many people do you know that speak or write that way? At some point, we need to accept that language evolves and that the modern person just doesn’t speak or write to this level of formality.

Now, there are certain times when you should follow this old adage. Perhaps your character would say the “proper” version of the above question. That’s fine. Maybe you’re writing poetry and the formality is appropriate for the piece. No problem. And the greatest reason of all to remove prepositions from the end of your sentence is when they are flat out unnecessary. The example that grates on my nerves is “Where are you at?” No. Just no. Save yourself the syllable and ask “Where are you?” Please, for all our sakes.

2) Never begin a sentence with a conjunction.
This is another outdated rule. It seems to claim that if you begin a sentence with “and,” “but,” and the like that it will be an incomplete thought. But that’s far from the truth. See what I did there?

CC image by Rajesh_India

CC image by Rajesh_India

Quite often, you can safely begin a sentence with a conjunction. Done well, using conjunctions to begin sentences adds rhythm and sophistication to your writing—it shows you can mold language like clay and use it skillfully. It’s a powerful writing tool, and you would be remiss to not include it in your toolbox.

Do make sure, however, that you don’t write a string of these sentences together just because you can.
For example, I wouldn’t advise the following:

He went to the store. But he didn’t have a list. And then Jane spotted him next to the avocados. So she went up and talked
to him and asked if he needed any help finding something.
Or did he know what he needed?

You sound like a high school girl out of breath as she talks about the public breakup on the quad. Don’t overdo it.

3) Never split an infinitive.
An infinitive is the basic form of a verb. E.g., to go, to write, to see. Old timey grammarians tell you to never, ever split an infinitive. The classic example of a split infinitive is “To boldly go where no man has gone before.” A grammarian would say to change it to “To go boldly where no man has gone before.” Personally, I don’t think people would be repeating this phrase to this day if it were “grammatical,” but I digress. You can safely split infinitives, particularly when doing so clarifies the meaning of the sentence. For example:

He wanted to truly know love.
vs.
He wanted to know love truly.

The meaning is different in these two sentences, isn’t it? The first one with the split infinitive says he wants to truly know, putting emphasis on the knowledge of love. The second, grammatical one is less clear. Is it saying he really means it when he says he wants to know love? Or is it saying he wants his relationship with love to be sincere? Something else? We’re not sure. When splitting an infinitive adds clarity and depth to your writing, do it.

CC image by Mark Strozler

CC image by Mark Strozler

4) Never use contractions in formal writing.
This is popularized by English teachers from a different era. I actually had a teacher in my private high school who forbid us from using contractions in papers for her class. The result? A class full of robots. I did not sound like a human, and I could not help it. Basically, just throw this rule out. My one disclaimer—don’t double up your contractions. For example:

She shouldn’t’ve done that.

My opinion is to never do this. I mean come on, reading that is like dragging your eyes over barbed wire. It hurts. Perhaps it doesn’t bother you as much, but at least don’t do it in writing you want taken seriously.

5) Never write a fragment.
This one is probably the truest of all of these rules, but still, never say never. Fragments can be ugly, terrible little monsters foaming at the mouth. I’m struggling to write one right now, because it’s so painful to birth these creatures. But here we go:

She dropped her teacup. Broken, a pile of shards on the floor.

“Broken, a pile of shards on the floor” is a fragment. It’s an incomplete sentence and thought. Fragments often happen because the writer mistakenly separates a thought from the previous, complete sentence. In this case, the fragment could be fixed by:

She dropped her teacup, resulting in a pile of shards on the floor.

Sometimes, however, fragments can be useful. They can add rhythm and style to your writing, and often they have more meaning than if they were “fixed” to be complete sentences. I’ll give you an example from my own writing:

It was all so inappropriate to him. The whole thing: sunflowers, sunshine, sunny people—inappropriate.

Could I have written this differently to avoid the fragment? Sure:

It was all so inappropriate to him. The sunflowers, sunshine, and sunny people were inappropriate.

Does this capture the disgust of the character and the flashes of images irritating him as well as the fragment version? I would argue it doesn’t. Use fragments when they add to your work.

6) Never use one space after a period.
Not exactly a grammar rule, but I’m going to slide it in here anyway. There are myriad people who believe there must be two spaces after closing punctuation. The two spacers are adamant about their stance. Get a bunch in a room with a one spacer, and they’ll rip him to shreds. I’m going to be bold here and speak to the two spacers—you’re wrong.

Here’s the deal. The original way of typing was including two spaces after a period. This rule existed in the age of typewriters when monospaced fonts were the norm. Basically, if you didn’t do two spaces after a period, it was more difficult to read the text. However, that age is long gone. We don’t have to worry about monospaced fonts anymore, and truly, two spaces make the text on the page swim in streams of distracting white space. Check out this article about the history of period spacing. Be warned, it’s a little snarky.

Two spaces example, 20pt

Use one space after closing punctuation. Always.

Which of these is your favorite rule to break? Or do you hold them all sacred?

By Madeleine Mozley