It’s back-to-school season, and parents everywhere are rejoicing at their children’s return to the classroom. After all, the classroom is a magical place where lifelong lessons are learned and the future generation’s success is determined. (That’s the reason parents are cheering, right? Not just because the kids are finally gone?!)
It turns out, however, that a few of the lessons we learned in the classroom—namely, from our beloved English teachers—would be better left in grade school. While they may have served a purpose for developing young writers at one time, these old-school grammar rules are as likely to impede clear communication as to aid it in the grown-up world.
But before we look at which rules you can safely toss out, let’s examine the question of why they might have been taught in the first place.
Learning Grammar’s Nuances
Children understand things in black-and-white terms when they are first exposed to an idea. That’s why some of the more nuanced aspects of grammar aren’t taught early on. For example, in our first years of school, we learned that a noun is a person, place, or thing. It wasn’t until we were a bit older and our brains were more developed that we understood a noun can also be an idea.
Another example is the old mnemonic, “I before E, except after C, and when sounding like A, as in neighbor and weigh.” This particular guideline may have helped us as children to spell some new words, but the older we grew, the more exceptions to the “rule” we discovered. Holding tightly to the guideline as an adult writer would likely produce more misspellings, not fewer.
The English language is full of exceptions to the rules, and to learn an exception, we first need knowledge of the rule. Our teachers did their best on that front. But it is by learning grammar’s nuances that you can bring your writing beyond elementary-school basics.
Mature as a Writer by Breaking Some Rules
So without further ado, here are four things your English teacher may have taught you that belong back in grade school:
1. Don’t end a sentence with a preposition.
This “rule” emerged during the Victorian era when certain writers of repute thought the English language should behave like Latin, requiring that a preposition always precede its object. Contemporary authorities, however, are nearly unanimous that this is an unnecessary restriction for English.
This doesn’t mean there aren’t times when a sentence shouldn’t have a preposition at its close, which may be the reason some English teachers and other self-made grammar authorities have perpetuated the rule.
Here are a couple examples:
“Where is he at?” can simply be, “Where is he?”
“Her department decides where calls will be routed to” is better as, “Her department decides where calls will be routed.”
But eliminating the prepositions at the end of these sentences is more about cutting unnecessary words than about following a rule.
In many cases, attempting to rearrange a sentence to avoid a preposition at the close will result in overly formal, confusing, or just plain ridiculous language. This was exemplified in the famous quote often attributed (some say mistakenly) to Winston Churchill in response to an editor changing his preposition-ending sentence: “This is the sort of nonsense up with which I will not put.”
In short, follow these more nuanced guidelines:
- If a sentence-ending preposition is superfluous, cut it.
- If avoiding a sentence-ending preposition makes your writing sound stuffy, silly, or confusing, leave the word at the end.
One caveat for your consideration: Plenty of people still believe ending a sentence with a preposition is wrong and will think less of your writing skills if you do it. So you may want to avoid it in important documents, such as a cover letter for a new job or a proposal to a client whom you really need to impress. Instead, rewrite the sentence to avoid the issue altogether.
2. Never split an infinitive.
You may remember the term split infinitive from your graded papers. But what are they, and are they really so bad?
An infinitive is the basic form of a verb used with the word to: to walk, to consider, to go, and so on. And once again, a prescriptive rule has been perpetuated to guard “proper” usage, this one stating that you should never split an infinitive verb by placing an adverb (or adverbial phrase) between the to and the verb (to quickly walk, to carefully consider, to boldly go).
This guideline appears to be a carryover from Old English, when split infinitives didn’t exist in the language because the infinitive form of a verb was only one word instead of two. When the two-word infinitive emerged in Middle English and the first splits occurred, language purists argued against the practice. Their reasoning was mostly along the lines of “We’ve never done this before,” but the argument still found its way into textbooks and classrooms over the years, and it has been a lingering constraint on developing writers ever since.
Beloved authors have been splitting away at infinitives for hundreds of years now, much to the purists’ chagrin, and it’s safe for you to do so, also, albeit with some thoughtful considerations.
Avoid splitting an infinitive when it is with a longer adverbial phrase that shifts the verb much further away from the to and may cause the reader to stumble, as shown here:
The new ecommerce platform allows us to quickly, easily, and cost effectively sell our new product line.
This sentence would be clearer in keeping the infinitive together, and arguably more effective by ending the sentence with its more impactful elements:
This new ecommerce platform allows us to sell our new product line quickly, easily, and cost effectively.
So when should you split an infinitive with an adverb or adverbial phrase? We appreciate Chicago Manual of Style’s take on it:
Sometimes it is perfectly appropriate to split an infinitive with an adverb to add emphasis, clarify meaning, or produce a natural sound . . . Recasting a sentence just to eliminate a split infinitive or to avoid splitting the infinitive can alter the nuance or meaning of the sentence. — Chicago Manual of Style 5.171
In short, train your ear to know when a split infinitive may be the preferred option, as Captain Kirk did in his declaration of the USS Enterprise’s mission “to boldly go where no man has gone before.”
3. Don’t begin a sentence with a conjunction.
Conjunctions are some of the most widely used words in the English language. Examples include the following:
These helpful little words are frequently used to join words, phrases, and clauses. Their use with clauses is what gives English teachers concern, leading them to prescribe the overly restrictive rule that a sentence should not begin with a conjunction. The fear is usually that students will write an incomplete sentence (fragment).
However, as students grow older and gain more writing practice, they’re less likely to fall into the fragment trap. And for a maturing writer, a conjunction-starting fragment used judiciously and sparingly can actually be a useful tool for establishing tone, intensity, and cadence in their work. In fact, Chicago Manual of Style (section 5.203) estimates that “a substantial percentage (often as many as 10 percent) of the sentences in first-rate writing begin with conjunctions.” (Our own article, first-rate or not, clocks in at 11 percent.)
All the major style guides agree: starting a sentence with a conjunction is perfectly acceptable. Just don’t annoy your readers by doing it too often.
4. Higher word count equals greater writing skill.
This one may not have been a spoken rule, but it was at least a subconscious lesson. The higher the grade level we reached, the longer our writing assignments became. In first grade, the most that was required of us was a few sentences. By fifth or sixth grade, it moved up to several paragraphs, and by high school we were writing 500- or 1,000-word essays. Depending on your college major, you may have been writing 25 pages at a time by the end of your education.
These higher word counts, however, were more about measuring how well our comprehension and critical-thinking skills were expanding, not our writing skills. All the same, the message many of us received is that mature writing is long writing.
Nothing could be further from the truth. The mark of a good writer is the ability to craft a piece that is clear and concise. Elements of Style author William Strunk, Jr. put it this way:
Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.
Writing concisely takes intention. It also takes time. Mark Twain remarked: “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” Long-winded writing may contain many good ideas, but a proper edit is necessary to cut away the excess, allowing those ideas to get their proper notice.
Become a Better Writer
As you mature as a writer, you have the liberty to break some of the grammar rules you learned in school. However, breaking these rules won’t do you any good unless you know why you’re breaking them.
Learn the nuance behind the guidelines and you’ll make even your English teacher proud to see your published content.
Are there more grammar rules you struggle to master? Work with the Scribe Source’s editing team to find out how partnering with a professional editor can improve your writing and silence that inner grammar cop! Get started with a sample edit on your next project.