Writing That Works: “Rules” You Should Be Breaking

The rules of any language exist for one primary purpose: so we can make sense of what is being said. Despite how it might feel sometimes, they aren’t there just to confuse us. Rules also weren’t invented to give your English teacher or your co-workers an excuse to comb through your writing looking for humiliating mistakes. We have them because if readers and writers don’t agree on what our words and punctuation mean there’s no hope that we’ll be able to communicate clearly. The first priority for any writer (and we’re all writers these days, whether it’s in our job title or not) should be to make it as easy as possible for their readers to understand what they have to say. So it’s critical that we follow some shared guidelines.

But you might be surprised to learn that many of what we think of as the “rules” of written English aren’t real rules at all. And some of them actually get in the way of allowing us to say what we mean. These are the “rules” you should break whenever it helps your writing make sense.

Part of the reason that English can be such a bewildering language, even for native speakers, is that there’s no one authority on how it should be written. Unlike French, which has the Académie Française, there is no governing body to write the laws of English and police its usage. And the fact that English has been widely spoken around the world for hundreds of years means there are distinct versions in the UK, the US, Australia, and India. (Also, some would argue, Texas). Not having an “official” set of rules means that it’s often difficult to understand how the language should work.

There are plenty of places you can get advice about English, but the trick is trying to get these sources to agree. You can consult dictionaries, grammar guides, or journalists’ style books for help, but it’s still possible to come away confused by different opinions. For years The New York Times wrote the plurals of CD and DVD as CD’s and DVD’s, while The Wall Street Journal used CDs and DVDs. How are amateurs like us supposed to figure this out when the country’s two most important newspapers can’t agree? Personally, I prefer CDs because it looks less like a possessive, but I wouldn’t object to either version. (Still, there’s no excuse for CDies, as I’ve seen written in an airport shop).

The truth is, the “rules” most of us learned in school aren’t nearly as firm as we were told. Many of them are simply ideas transplanted from Latin and other languages by people who wanted to impose a little order on the chaos of English. Some, like not splitting an infinitive, should be treated as conventions rather than hard and fast rules. We only need to be bound by them as long as they help make our writing clearer.

As a former English teacher myself, I’d like to empower you to jettison any grammar and punctuation rules that actually get in the way of clear and efficient writing. You’ll find some of the most commonly abused rules below, and I’ll add more in future posts.

Never end a sentence with a preposition:

Whether or not Winston Churchill ever actually responded to an editor who had “corrected” his writing, “This is the sort of bloody nonsense up with which I will not put,” the line provides an excellent illustration of how ridiculous it can be to blindly follow the rules.

What would be the “correct” version of a question like “What did you sit on?” Don’t try to tell me that I should ask “On what did you sit?” because no human I’ve ever met would say that. The only reason I can imagine creating a sentence like that is if you are writing dialogue for a robot or the aristocrats on Downton Abbey.

Which leads us to my own first rule of grammar: if following the “rules” makes your words sound awkward or alien, please break the rules.

Don’t use “I”

At some point during our educations, many of us were told we should avoid using “I” and “me” in business and formal writing. I think the idea was supposed to be that referring to yourself is narcissistic and undermines a sense of objectivity. But what usually happens when you avoid mentioning yourself is that you wind up twisting sentences into unmanageable shapes to avoid pronouns. Besides, writing from your own perspective draws in readers by creating a more personal sense that you’re addressing them directly. So go ahead and use “I.” Just don’t make yourself the subject of every single sentence. It’s possible to have too much of a good thing.

Sentences must include a verb

Really? Why?

The vast majority of sentences should have a verb, but they don’t always need one. One-word questions, for example, are often useful for breaking up the rhythm of sentences or drawing attention to important ideas. As always, make sure that you have a good reason for breaking the rules. And that what you mean is clear from the context of your other sentences.

Never use passive voice

Some editors will unsheathe their red pens to mark up every single sentence that uses the passive voice. Which is a shame, because sometimes the passive is helpful or even necessary. Why would I tell you anything other than “My car was stolen,” if I didn’t know who took it? “Someone stole my car,” isn’t any better.

But the real power of the passive voice comes into play when you want to conceal who is responsible for an action. Try using this sentence structure if you find yourself in an awkward situation.

  • The baby’s haircut was mangled
  • The entire pie was eaten
  • Her collection of Justin Bieber CDs was destroyed

You can’t start a sentence with and, but, or because

And what will happen if I do? Because I do it all the time.

Stringing sentences together with one of these connecting words can be a very effective way to keep your ideas flowing smoothly and lend them immediacy. Just be careful that they make sense in context. If you use “but,” what you say next has to be opposed to what you said in the previous sentence in some way.

Spell out numbers less than 100

I’ve talked to several people who were indoctrinated in high school journalism classes to write out every number up to 100 instead of using numerals. This has never made sense to me, especially for newspapers, because it’s much easier for our eyes to look for numerals when scanning for important information than it is to read the names of numbers. Besides, using numerals helps you avoid all those messy hyphens in numbers like “thirty-four.”

You really only need to spell out single-digit numbers (one through nine). Even then, using numerals is hardly a major offense. I just feel as though a single number like “7” looks naked and lonely sitting by itself. “Seven” looks much happier.

However you deal with numbers, just make sure you’re consistent with your choices.

Always use “a” before a word that starts with a consonant and “an” before a word that begins with a vowel

I get annoyed every time I hear a TV news reader describe something as “an historic event” (especially when they’re talking about something ridiculous like a new record for the most Doritos Locos tacos consumed in one sitting). I always want to send them an email explaining that it’s the way you pronounce the word that matters, not the way it’s spelled. You only use “an” in front of a vowel sound. So here in San Francisco, which is often referred to as SF, we’d say “Dungeness crab is an SF (ess-eff) tradition for the holidays.”

The only instance in which it is ever okay to say “an historical” is if you don’t pronounce the “h.” So if you have a cockney accent, go crazy saying “an ‘istorical” all you want. But never “an historical.”

What other grammar rules seem made to be broken?

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