The English language is filled with all kinds of grammar rules that should never have been grammar rules in the first place. Some were created a few hundred years ago, some were created in the 20th century, but many of them were incorrect and are just parroted out of habit.
In other cases, some of these grammar rules have changed over the years, thanks to common usage. The English language is an ever-changing tapestry of nonsense, and what may have been true once is true no longer. For example, “nice” used to mean “ignorant,” and the word “naughty” used to mean “poor.”
Here are five grammar rules you’re allowed to break, or at least shouldn’t blindly cling to because it’s what you learned in the 7th grade.
1. You CAN end your sentences with a preposition.
People cling to this rule like it’s carved in stone, but it should never have been a rule in the first place. While there are a few cases where you should not end your sentences with a preposition, there are plenty of cases where you just sound silly trying to meet it.
The rule was basically started by a guy named John Dryden, who, by all accounts, was a not-well-liked fusspot of a writer in the late 17th century. He abhorred the use of prepositions at the end of sentences, so he declared this should be the case.
Robert Lowth thought this was a smashing idea, so he included it in his A Short Introduction to English Grammar, which he published in 1762. It was the first book on English grammar, and its effects are still being felt.
it didn’t help that both men were Latin scholars 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 the pedants, 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: 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
Not Okay: Where is it
2. You CAN start a sentence with And, But, or Or.
This may have been a real grammar rule at one point, but it is no longer. Common usage has rendered it obsolete. It may not be completely acceptable in business writing, but I can foresee that rule 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 a sentence clause that can’t exist on its own. “Before the trial even ended” is a dependent clause (it’s also called a subordinate clause). And we were told that you needed to start sentences with a dependent clause. (Ooh, look, I just did rule #2!)
“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.
“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 grammar rules do you gladly (or unwittingly) violate? Are there rules you wish you could break? Leave a comment and let me know.
This post has been refreshed and updated from its original June 2011 publication.