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Four Grammar "Rules" You Can Break

My favorite middle school teacher was Mrs. Larkin. My class of 7th graders was one of her first classes when she was a new(ish) teacher, and when we all moved on to high school, she moved up with us. In our little country school in our little country town, we had one of the best grammar and language arts teachers around, and we still talk about how her efforts made us all better writers. She drilled us on everything from verbs to prepositions to varying sentence structure to the elements of a good research paper.

But every now and then, I sort of resent Mrs. Larkin, because it’s her voice I hear in my head when I break the “rules.”

Here’s the truth about writing: you’re allowed to break a lot of “rules.” In fact, I submit that you probably should break a lot of rules. Whether you’re writing fiction or marketing copy or blog posts, some of the old school rules just don’t work.

So if you’re ready to make grammar teachers everywhere clutch their pearls and reach for the smelling salts, start breaking these grammar rules the next time you have to write anything.

It’s okay to:

Start a sentence with a conjunction. Remember SchoolHouse Rock? “Conjunction Junction, what’s your function?” In a sentence, conjunctions like “and,” “but,” “or,” and “so” can join two independent clauses. At some point, many of us were taught that we should never begin a sentence with a coordinating conjunction. As it turns out, most style guides say that it’s perfectly fine to begin a sentence with a conjunction. So where did the rule originate? It seems that no one really knows. For a quick look at the origins of this “rule,” check out this episode of Grammar Girl.

Use sentence fragments. A sentence fragment is just what it sounds like—a piece of a sentence, but not a whole sentence. For example:

Sleeping at my feet. This piece of a sentence is a fragment. There is no independent clause—nothing that can stand alone—anywhere in that short piece of English.

The dogs are sleeping at my feet. Now we have a full sentence and a lot more information.

It’s easy to see the advantage of the second sentence—it sounds correct and gives more complete information.

But is it ever okay to use a sentence fragment?

Sure. Look at this example:

What are the dogs doing, you ask? Sleeping at my feet.

As long as context gives your audience a way to make sense of the sentence fragment, it’s perfectly okay to use it for effect.

End a sentence with a preposition. In the realm of grammar pedantry, few things are more irritating than the grammar snob who insists on correcting every instance of a preposition at the end of a sentence. The truth is that it’s perfectly fine to end a sentence with a preposition—in English. In Latin, the preposition always comes before the noun—which is why a 17th Century English writer named John Dryden suggested that English should operate in the same way.

The good news is—we are not subjects of 17th Century grammar pedants. We can choose to end sentences with prepositions any dang time we wish.

Are there times when ending a sentence with a preposition might not be the best idea? Sure. Maybe it’s too informal, maybe the preposition isn’t necessary (i.e., it can just be dropped), or maybe the sentence just sounds better if the preposition moves to a better spot.

But the next time you find yourself writing a sentence like “That was the last person I heard about” or “She’s the one I went to the store with,” rest assured that you aren’t in error.

Split infinitives. Admittedly, I don’t split infinitives often. But if we all obeyed this “rule,” the USS Enterprise might still be in space dock. “To boldly go” may be the most famous split infinitive of the modern era. And it turns out… Once again, this is a “rule” that didn’t originate as a rule, but merely a preference or suggestion for better writing.

All of these “rules” illustrate an important principle of writing: knowing the rules is helpful, but sometimes, knowing when to break or ignore them is the most valuable knowledge of all.

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