Five Writing Rules You’re Allowed to Break

Chances are, you’re repeating some grammar and writing rules as gospel, not knowing they’re completely wrong. Or that they changed. Or that they were never really rules to begin with.

Whatever the reason, you can stop doing them. In fact, you should stop doing them.

Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway - This guy knew a few things about writing and breaking rules.

I’m trying to undo the writing rules my daughter’s 8th grade teacher has been foisting upon her, showing her that they’re not really legitimate, but some arbitrary rule that someone made up to make our language fit a preconceived structure. The English language is an ever-changing organic system that defies most rules. The ones that were created hundreds of years ago — like “don’t end your sentences in a preposition” — was never correct. Other ones like “don’t use incomplete sentences” have changed.

1. You CAN end your sentences with a preposition.

This one doesn’t always work, but for a good bit of the time it’s true. The rule was created by a scholar, Robert Lowth, who wanted English to bend to the same rules as Latin. In the Latin sentence structure, it’s not possible to have a sentence end with a preposition. Ergo, said Lowth, English shouldn’t either.

But it’s wrong. There are times you have to end your sentences in a preposition. For example, let’s say you stepped in something that stinks, and your friend says to you, “In what did you step?”

Wouldn’t you look at her like she lost her mind?

In that instance, it’s perfectly okay to say “what did you step in?” It’s proper English, it’s grammatically correct, and it doesn’t sound completely idiotic.

On the other hand, “where’s it at?” is wrong.

The basic rule is that if you can remove a preposition and the sentence still works, you shouldn’t use the preposition. But if you remove it, and the sentence changes, you should leave the preposition at the end.

Okay: What did you step in?
Not Okay: Where is it at?

2. You CAN start a sentence with And, But, or Or.

This may have been a real English class rule at one point, but no longer. Common usage has rendered it obsolete. People talk this way. People write this way. It may not be completely accepted in business writing, but I can foresee that hurdle breaking down in the next ten years as more business people speak that way.

Besides, it looks pretty cool. And dramatic. And punchy. And intense.

And it turns out the practice has been around since the 10th century. It’s just some arbitrary rule our English teachers liked to enforce without ever knowing why.

3. You don’t have to start with the dependent clause first

A dependent clause is that sentence clause that can’t exist on its own. “Before the trial even ended” is a dependent clause (also called a subordinate clause). And we were told that you needed to start sentences with a dependent clause.

“Before the trial even ended, the real killer had been arrested and the defendant was set free.” not “The real killer had been arrested and the defendant was set free, before the trial even ended.” Even though you might want the important information at the front of the sentence, our teachers told us to put the dependent clause first.

You don’t have to do that anymore. For one thing, it sounds clunky. For another, there are times where the dependent clause will get in the way. Third, there are times a dependent clause needs to be set apart in a different way.

“The real killer was arrested — before the trial even ended — and the defendant was freed.”

It doesn’t always fit at the end, but it doesn’t always have to go first either.

Your better bet? Eliminate the dependent clause completely, or make it a standalone sentence. Which brings me to my next point.

4. You CAN use incomplete sentences.

This was a very minor point of contention while I was writing Branding Yourself (affiliate link). One of my editors would tell me not to use incomplete sentences.

Like this.

“But it’s a style choice,” I would say. “Not a grammar issue.”

And while you don’t want to make that a regular habit, stylistically, it doesn’t hurt to do it once in a while. It’s another common usage issue, where enough people have begun doing this that the grammar sticklers have to bow to majority rules and allow the change in the accepted use. (They don’t have to like it, and they’ll talk about it at dinner parties, but they’ll generally leave you alone about it.)

They also add some punch and drama to your writing, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction. Pepper them occasionally throughout your writing and see what it does for you.

5. A sentence does not always contain a subject, a verb, and an object. A paragraph does not always contain 3 – 5 sentences.

Journalists violate this rule all the time.

Because it’s a dumb rule. And untrue.

For one thing, people read differently than they did 30 years ago. We’re so impatient that we don’t want to read a lot of text. We need white space to break up the monotony of the Tolstoy-esque blocks of text we find in some books, tech manuals, and magazines. If you’ve ever looked at a page with a lot of tiny text and no breaks at all, you know what I’m talking about.

Newspaper publishers learned a long time ago that people won’t read long paragraphs and über-long sentences. So they encouraged writers to use short punchy words, short sentences, and short paragraphs.

Even one sentence paragraphs.

My daughter has been told her paragraphs all need to be 3 – 5 sentences long, and I keep telling her it’s not only unnecessary, but it leads to bad writing. If you try to fill up every paragraph with 3 – 5 sentences, you start writing filler just to get there.

But if you keep some extra white space in your writing — by using short paragraphs — people are more likely to continue reading long beyond when they thought they would quit.

How about you? What writing rules do you gladly (or unwittingly) violate? Are there rules you wish you could break? Leave a comment and let me know.

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    About Erik Deckers

    Erik Deckers is the President of Pro Blog Service, a content marketing and social media marketing agency in Indianapolis, IN. He co-authored three social media books, including No Bullshit Social Media with Jason Falls (2011, Que Biz-Tech), and Branding Yourself with Kyle Lacy (2nd ed., 2012; Que Biz-Tech), and The Owned Media Doctrine (2013, Archway Publishing). Erik has written a weekly newspaper humor column for 10 papers around Indiana since 1995. He was also the Spring 2016 writer-in-residence at the Jack Kerouac House in Orlando, FL.

    Comments

    1. The “rules” of writing remind me of the rules of etiquette. Something that originally intended to make everyone comfortable somehow wound up becoming the thing that separated the cultural elite from the great unwashed and I think that’s really too bad.

      Another point–society changes. Language changes. Why cling to outdated rules that 99% of us no longer observe in our one-to-one interactions?

      To me it’s a simple choice. If it helps make my point clearer, I’ll break any rule. After all, isn’t that the point? Communication?

    2. Thanks so much for this article! You have voiced some of my frustrations in this article and I’m glad to know these things; it takes a lot of pressure out of writing so that I can relax a little more and actually enjoy doing it.
      I think you mentioned all the rules I knowingly broke ( I broke them without worry because I saw that type of thing throughout bestsellers all the time).
      Lol, when my Grandma goes through my writing she points out these types of things…I’ll have to tell her something to get her to loosen up a bit.

    3. These are modern truisms that we should apply to our writing. However, it breaks my heart to read writing advice from someone who often uses passive voice in sentences. Few people ever become important writers without managing voice properly…ES

    4. Anonymous says:

      I place an ocassional run on sentence here or there. At first it was accidental but now I adapted to “me”. I also use double exclamation marks or question mark combo to express emotion, that’s my signature!! Or ?! In my books.

    5. Sam Small says:

      All good. Except the prohibition against “Where’s is at?” As a response to, say, “There’s a bitchin’ party tonight”, it’s perfect.

    6. Thank you…thank you…thank you! At long last someone has told me that the way I write is ok! As a baby-boomer English major who took Latin in high school, I have wandered the dusty roads in search of an honest communicator. My world is now at peace!

    7. Thanks Tina and Anonymous. And thank you, Kristen.

      I actually DID write about the two spaces after a period last February. You can see it at https://problogservice.com/2010/02/04/why-you-should-put-one-space-after-a-period-not-two/

    8. Kristen Guthrie says:

      Ah, thank you! I can’t get people to stop correcting my “And, you’ll love our ….” sentences. In your next post, PLEASE tell people to stop using two periods between sentences!!!!

    9. Indytina says:

      I think I love you! Now, if only we can get some of the old-school editors to allow it. :)

    10. Anonymous says:

      I have always kind of felt the same way. And thought I was right. Period.

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