7 Grammar Rules You Should Break to Improve Your Writing
By Madeleine Mozley
I have a love/hate relationship with American English grammatical conventions. By and large, I love and enforce them, as do all of us editors here at Embers Igniting Editing. I appreciate how grammar forms a framework around which excellent writing can be created. It brings order to chaos, sense to jumbled syntax, and balance to the written word. Grammar is beautiful, but its beauty lies not in its rules alone, but also in how the rules evolve over time. Language is a living, breathing thing, changing with humanity over its lifespan. If we ignore that fact and hold blindly to the rules of ten or more years ago, then we’re shortchanging our writing today. We’re making it less relevant to the modern audience for which it’s intended. When it comes to writing, I’m fond of saying “learn the rules so that you may then learn how to break them.”
Which specific grammar rules do I feel are worth breaking? When done with skill and intention, the following seven rules can (and should) be broken.
1. Never end a sentence with a preposition.
Have you ever had that friend, the one who’s really into math and then translates the nature of that field to 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?
To whom did you talk?
At some point, we need to accept that language evolves and that, in general, the modern person 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?” 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This is another outdated rule.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? 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.
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 kid out of breath while recounting 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.” You can safely split infinitives, particularly when doing so clarifies the meaning of the sentence. For example:
He wanted to truly know love.
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.
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. 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. Because, honestly, reading that’s like dragging your eyes over barbed wire. It hurts.
5. Never write a fragment.
This one is probably the truest of all of these rules, but still, never say never. Yes, fragments can be ugly, terrible little monsters foaming at the mouth. For example: She dropped her teacup. Broken, a spray of glass shards on the floor.
“Broken, a pile of shards on the floor” is a fragment. It’s an incomplete sentence and thought. Fragments often exist 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, spraying shards of glass all over the floor.
Sometimes, however, fragments can be useful. They can add rhythm and style to your voice, 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 non-fragment version 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. The truth is that you should use one space after a period, never two. Allow me to explain why.
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.
Use one space after closing punctuation. Always.
7. Never use a plural pronoun for a singular subject.
Would you rather use “he/she” when you don’t know the gender of the person or “they?” Logic would say that, if you’re referring to just one person, you must use “he” or “she” because the person is singular. However, this can actually be more awkward than using “they” instead.
Which of these examples is less awkward?
Imagine one of your characters killed someone. How would he or she hide the body?
Imagine one of your characters killed someone. How would they hide the body?
Both examples above work well enough, but I would argue that “they” is cleaner, making the question more streamlined. It’s worth noting that “they” is fast-becoming the preferred pronoun for singular subjects of an unknown gender for the sake of gender neutrality. If someone might be offended by being called “he” or “she,” then some suggest using “they” to keep the gender neutral. Therefore, “they” may become the norm sooner than you think.
Which of these is your favorite rule to break? Or do you follow them all with devotion?
By Madeleine Mozley