Some people are pedantic twits when it comes to the squishy rules of grammar.
Truth is, grammar is a powerful tool that lends clear meaning to quality copy, but it’s also far more flexible than most people realize. And a lot of what people claim as hard, fast rules can be completely ignored.
It is important to ensure your writing is easy to understand and that you set the proper tone for your audience. Outside of that, the page is your canvas to paint. Despite conventional wisdom, here are some rules you can safely ignore:
1. Never end a sentence with a preposition.
Bow down to this rule without question and you’ll end up with unnatural sentences that are more difficult to understand. If the meaning of your sentence is clear and it sounds natural, go ahead and end it with a preposition.
Consider “What are you waiting for?” versus “For what are you waiting?”
Both are correct, but the second sounds like part of an 18th Century soliloquy.
2. Don’t start a sentence with “and,” “but” or other conjunctions.
Starting too many sentences with “and” or “but” will make your writing sound like a second grader’s. But use it in moderation and you will have the voice of the everyman.
This can be particularly useful when you are trying to add emphasis or give your writing a conversational tone.
3. Don’t use double negatives.
While you’ll probably want to avoid sentences like “I don’t got none,” there is a place for double negatives, particularly if you enjoy being snarky. “Twilight is a not unpopular series of books,” or “I’m not unfamiliar with your blog.”
Be sure to use it sparingly unless you want your readers to become not unwilling to kick you in places you’d rather be licked.
4. Never split infinitives.
You can go always split infinitives when doing so will make your meaning more clear or allow you to be more concise. And yes, sometimes a split infinitive simply sounds better as in the most famous example “to boldly go where no man has gone before.”
More often than not, keeping infinitives intact is the smartest way to write, yet there is never a need to go run outrageous lengths to hold them together.
5. A paragraph must be between three and five sentences long.
If you wanted, you could use the word “Malarkey” as a paragraph and that would be just fine with me. Use single word paragraphs sparingly and remember that a wall of text is excruciating to read and you’ll be just fine.
6. Never use the passive voice.
As a general rule this is correct – a sentence like “Cookies were eaten by Tracy” sounds awkward and puts the emphasis on the cookies rather than Tracy. On the other hand sometimes you want to deflect blame to the cookies, so using the passive voice would be a valid choice.
7. Never use slang or colloquialisms
Never use slang or colloquialisms such as “y’all” or “ain’t.”
A bit of the vernacular can add color and flair to your copy. The trick is knowing when it will enhance and when it will distract.
8. You can’t use a plural to refer to a singular.
It’s perfectly acceptable to use “they/their/them” to refer to a singular. “A driver should always check their rear view mirror” sounds far more natural than “A driver should always check his or her rear view mirror.” You can avoid this in some cases by using “one” but using “one” in all but the most formal writing does tend to sound a bit Hyacinth Bucket, no?
9. Never use sentence fragments.
Nonsense! As long as most of your sentences have a subject and a predicate, feel free to use the occasional fragment for effect. No worries.
10. Avoid run on sentences.
Run on sentences can be used to convey great excitement, anxiety or a general stream of consciousness feel. It’s a fantastic rhetorical device in the right hands; however, in the wrong hands it looks like you should have paid a copy editor their well-deserved fee.
Always remember, the purpose of grammar is to produce writing that is easy for the reader to understand, not to make writers sweat. Feel free to bend or break any of the rules if it makes your writing more appealing, or for stylistic effect.
But remember, a little bit of grammar rebellion can go a long way.
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