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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Tips For Writing More Effective Email: SEAR

SEARThese days it seems that everything needs an acronym. But while acronyms and initialisms used to exist to make complex terms and phrases (Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus) into words that sound less terrifying and are easier to remember (SCUBA), sometimes it seems that they exist today just to bewilder and embarrass us. Maybe it’s because more and more technical terms are leaking into our everyday language. Maybe it’s because so many acronyms and initialisms (HTML, SQL, GIF) don’t look like words and give us no cues as to how to pronounce them. Or maybe it’s because our clever and secretive children seem to write in a new language that consists of little more than a series of unrelated letters strung together with smiley faces. IMHO, a combination of all these factors has done a lot of damage when it comes to making everyday writing easy to understand.

Just the same, I’m going to go out on a limb and introduce an acronym of my own in the hope of making it easier to remember the elements that I think are most important when it comes to writing clear and effective email. I hope that mine is more reminiscent of the days of helpful acronyms (CARE) than the muddled-sounding efforts (UNIFEM – which sounds like an evil supercomputer with a female voice but actually stands for United Nations Development Fund for Women) people are resorting to lately. I wanted to come up with a real acronym, something you could recognize as a word and didn’t have to struggle to pronounce. Above all, I wanted something that you could remember and would help you recall the four points I want to emphasize as key to successfully writing business email.

What I came up with is SEAR, which is, I think, pretty good. Not only is it a real word, but it’s a verb, an active, forceful word. It’s a command, for crying out loud! This is an acronym with a lot going for it! Creative writing teachers will always tell you that, in order for your language to be memorable, you should engage as many of your reader’s senses as possible. Marketers do the same thing: why do you think hotels have “signature scents” and Starbucks has an official soundtrack? They want to take advantage of all your senses to help make you remember their brands and keep you coming back for more.

SEAR is just the kind of suggestive word to do that. It evokes the bright heat of a flame; you can practically hear the sizzle of the fire in its long, sibilant “S.” To make it even more memorable, take the mental picture a step further and imagine that it’s a nice steak you’re searing. You can practically smell it, can’t you, your mouth watering as you almost taste that first bite?

“Alright, enough of the acronym!” you say. “We remember it already. You’re making us hungry! But what does it mean? How are those four letters going to help me with my writing, and why are they arranged in that order? Why is it SEAR and not EARS?”

So here we go. Here are the four things you need to think about when you sit down to write at work, in the order you should generally think about them:

Strategy–Basically the idea here is to do a little planning before you start to write. Take the time to think about whether email is really the right format for your message. Have you clearly worked out what it is that you have to say, or are you still struggling with it? Have you given yourself enough time to write and to write well? Is there something in your email that could get you in trouble down the road? Best to consider these ideas before you even start typing a new message.

Emotion plays a crucial role in the overall strategy of your writing, but it’s something that’s often ignored. Poorly-handled emotional content can probably cause you more severe problems than any of the other pitfalls of writing email. And most of the time emotions get stirred up unintentionally because we are simply better at communicating in person than we are in writing. Email is notorious for lacking the cues to tone and meaning that we share in our everyday person-to-person conversations. Because of this, it’s often hard to tell if someone is kidding or if they’re really angry with us. Are they just being brief, or are they upset? And the truth is that we don’t always take the time to be good readers, either, which makes it even harder to communicate clearly.

But we all need to take a little more responsibility for our writing to make sure that it isn’t going to stir up emotions unnecessarily. Is the message you need to convey something that’s loaded with emotional content? If so, maybe you would be better off considering another, more personal, format. Do you have a history of conflict with the person you intend to write? Are they likely to react badly to this particular topic? If so, you might want to reconsider using email and pick up the phone instead. Better yet, walk down the hall and see them in person if you can. I know, many of us would rather avoid conflict at all cost. But sending an email that upsets someone isn’t going to help.

Audience–This idea really builds on the topic of emotion. It’s critical that you always think about who you are writing to. How are they going to react to your message? Do they even know who you are? If not, you’ll need to introduce yourself. How are you going to get their attention when they get hundreds of emails every day? What are they interested in and what information do you have that they are going to care about? It’s important to make sure that your message is modulated for this particular audience. Are you using the right tone? If you’re writing to the president of your company in the same tone that you write to your best friend, you should probably reconsider unless you’re also a VIP. Is the person you’re writing to a stickler for spelling and grammar? If so, you’d better run that spellcheck and proofread one more time.

Rules have to be followed to make sure that all of your other hard work isn’t wasted. So far I’ve played down the importance of correct grammar and punctuation, which is why I’ve made this the last of my four topics. But the fact is that you can do everything else well and still lose all your credibility if your readers are put off by typos and missing punctuation. There are still lots of people out there who will judge your intelligence and ability based on the mechanics of your writing–whether or not that is fair. Know who those sticklers are and do your best to weed out the mistakes in your messages to them.

But really, why not do your best in all the emails you send? The rules of grammar and punctuation only exist to make language clear and easy to read. When you write poorly you increase the chances that your message will be misunderstood or not read in the first place. After all, if you can’t take the time to write clearly, why should your reader struggle to make sense out of what you have to say?

Those are the headlines, the big ideas from what follows. Follow this blog for more specifics.