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
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?
Yesterday I saw Washington Post chairman and CEO Donald Graham talking about the decision to sell his newspaper to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. What really caught my attention was his explanation that he felt good about the sale partly because Bezos believes in writing:
He’s a reader and he’s a writer. Unusually, out at Amazon, meetings don’t start with slide presentations or PowerPoints. At Jeff’s request, they start with whoever convenes the meeting writing an essay. The first 10 minutes, everybody sits down and reads what the person convening the meeting wrote.
Why? Because he thinks writing requires thought. So that is a little tribute to the power of the written word.
I have no way of knowing if it’s true that PowerPoint is banned from the beginning of all meetings at Amazon, but I love the idea. Requiring people to write out their ideas in sentences and paragraphs complete with context, transitions, and conclusions would help overcome some of the sloppy and incomplete thinking that slides and bullet points lend to so many meetings.
Even better, the idea of having to write an essay might convince people to cancel many of the meetings that only waste everyone’s time.
Excellent advice, whether you’re using Prezi, PowerPoint, or a good old whiteboard. Simplify your visual aids and treat them as exhibits for your audience, not as your script.
One of the main reasons that most presentations are bad, boring and ineffective is because we learn from bad examples. We see lots of slides full of text, so we create some of our own. We’re bored by talks that don’t try very hard to be interesting, so we don’t try very hard ourselves. And we sit through so many meetings where everyone just tries to make themselves look good that our own presentations start to lose touch with reality.
Sometimes what you need to do to make your talks and meetings truly interesting, memorable and effective is to do the opposite of what everyone else is doing. Take the routine, typical presentation that everyone expects you to give and stand it on its head.
Have you ever had this experience?
You’re sitting in one of those big status meetings where everyone goes around the table and talks about all the projects that they’re working on. And every project, it seems, is a smashing success. Ahead of schedule, under budget, beloved by all.
But you know better. You were just talking to the guy from Accounting about how their new expense system was going to have to be totally rewritten. The Human Resources people had been in a panic the day before because of an open rebellion over changes to the electronic time card used by every employee, and the people who run your network are frantically banging on their laptops throughout the whole meeting because the link between your Seattle and Portland offices is down. But somehow none of this is mentioned. Everything, you’re told, is going great!
This is one of the main reasons that people hate sitting through meetings and presentations so much. These meetings aren’t just a waste of time, they’re dishonest. Instead of talking about issues so they can be solved, everyone uses meetings like this to make themselves look good.
My friend Marti and I had an experience like this at a conference where we heard one speaker after another talk about how smoothly all of their projects were going. We were working on the exact same kind of initiatives and in our experience they were always much more complicated and, well, painful than what we were being told. After hearing over and over again how great everything is you start to think that either you are a total idiot or what you’re hearing is less an honest appraisal of a project and more resume polishing. Marti and I chose to believe the later. Call us crazy, but we want to get something useful out of a presentation when we’ve paid conference fees and struggled out of bed to get to the session after the disco party the night before.
So Marti and I decided that it would be easier to learn from peoples’ failures than their successes. We wound up proposing a conference session the next year called The Worst Mistake I Ever Made. The idea was that we’d have a panel that would talk about the worst project each speaker had ever been responsible for and what they’d learned from the experience. If nothing else, hearing stories about disasters would be more entertaining than listening to people talk about how great they were.
Not everyone was as excited about the idea as we were. The conference organizers didn’t put our session on the schedule the first year we proposed it. Or the second. The third year they finally found a slot for us though, worried that the topic was too “negative,” they changed the title to “Lessons Learned.” And they gave us what may be the worst time slot for any conference–the very last one. After a week of sitting in ballrooms all day and carousing all night, people tend to be ready to head home or to spend the afternoon by the pool. We figured we needed to do something out of the ordinary if we were going to get anyone’s attention.
So we handed every audience member a questionnaire as they entered the room asking about their biggest professional disaster. After we had shared our own traumatic and hilarious stories of our biggest mistakes and what we had learned from them, we asked people in the audience to share their own stories. You’d think that people might be unwilling to tell 80 other people about their failures, but we had more than enough volunteers to fill the time we’d been given. The stories were great, everyone laughed, and our session received the best audience evaluations of the whole conference.
Why did it work?
- Each of the stories had a clear “lesson learned,” even if that wasn’t my first choice of a title. The logical next step from “what went wrong?” is “what could we have done better?”
- It was easy for everyone there to recognize mistakes of their own in the stories told by other people. We all tend to commit the same errors, so it’s useful to learn from each other.
- The stories tended to be really entertaining and funny in the same way it can be to watch someone else fall down once you know that they aren’t really getting hurt. Entertaining an audience is the surest way to win them over.
- Having people share their own stories made the whole audience feel like they were involved in the presentation themselves.
- The stories were clearly honest.
- The presenters were fantastic!
But more than anything, I think the session worked because it was different from all the other talks that people had already sat through that week. No one else built their whole session around things going wrong. No one else asked them to fill out a survey as they entered the room. And certainly no one asked them to stand up and share their biggest, most embarrassing mistake with a room full of their peers.
Next time you have to give a talk, try to do something different to grab the audience’s attention. Sometimes the best thing you can do is exactly the opposite of what people expect. Think about what that would look like in your environment and try to do something that will catch people by surprise and make a real impact.