5 high school grammar rules to break (sometimes)

Diverting from dear old Mrs. Thompson’s linguistic edicts can spice up your prose. Be careful, though; no one wants to eat a horseradish sandwich.


We’ve all been there before—sitting in Mrs. Thompson’s (or whoever’s) high school English class—getting grilled about proper grammar for essay writing:

“Never use first or second person.”

“Never start a sentence with but or and.”

“Never end a sentence with a preposition.”

“And never, ever write a paragraph that’s only one sentence long.”

What’s the problem with these rules?

The problem is that they aren’t practiced by the best writers. Instead, experts break these rules to improve their writing.

I learned this by reading “Writing with Style” by John R. Trimble. If you’d like to become a better writer but haven’t read it yet, you should pick up a copy today.

Chapter 8 from “Writing with Style” is titled “Superstitions” and covers grammar rules that are taught in high school but that every good writer should learn to break.

Below is a collection of five of these rules that bloggers should learn to break in order to become better writers. (Note: Each rule includes a quote from “Writing with Style” and the accompanying page number in the second edition.)

Rule 1: Never use first person

…Let us allow some of our personality, which means some of our ‘I,’ to come through in our style. Let us, in short, be ourselves. (p. 89)

The point of writing in first person is to introduce ourselves to readers, but this rule is tricky because it’s taught for a reason. Without it, most adolescent writers overuse personal opinions and don’t learn to back up assertions with fact. That’s a problem, and that’s not the route to take for a professional writing style.

But avoiding the pronoun “I” is also a problem. Never using first person results in impersonal writing where readers feel disconnected from the author and don’t have the opportunity to connect.

The trick is learning how to use first person properly. Many bloggers make the mistake of using it too much, and every post starts with “I” and ends with “me.” Most blog writers don’t know how to step out of the post and focus on serving the reader.

Bloggers shouldn’t be the subject of every sentence of every post, but their personality should come through in their writing. Finding the right balance will lead to blog writing that rises above the ordinary.

So how do you find the right balance? Here’s a quote from “Writing with Style” that will help:

…Reserve “I” for when you truly need it—either to emphasize that such-and-such is admittedly just a conjecture or personal prejudice, or to add some humanity to an otherwise dry account. The rest of the time, try to generalize objectively and more or less impersonally, as if you’re pointing out what any intelligent person could see for himself. If your assertions are indeed intelligent and well supported, they won’t need props like “it seems to me,” “I think,” “I feel,” and “in my opinion.” (pp. 89-90)

Rule 2: Never use second person

What reader wants to be addressed as “the reader”? It’s akin to saying, in conversation, “I’m glad to hear the listener has recovered from her cold.”

As this quote shows, using second person in writing helps to make prose more conversational. Without it, the author is forced to refer coldly to readers as “the reader.”

Specifically related to blog writing, common copywriting techniques are useful to make posts more engaging. This includes using second person to speak specifically to the reader. Using you in writing gets a person’s attention the same way as saying their name in conversation.

So second person is integral for blog posts that draw readers in and engage them in a conversation, but before you run away and overuse it, here is a parting quote from Mr. Trimble:

Just as some speakers wear out our ears with “you know” punctuating every sentence, so some writers push a close relationship upon us with the reiterated you. We instinctively pull back from such chumminess, regarding it as an unwanted bear hug. Moral: If you don’t need to say you, don’t. If you do need to, say it without embarrassment exactly as you would in conversation. (p. 88)

Rule 3: Never start a sentence with but or and

…But and And are absolutely valid ways to begin a sentence. Not only valid ways, but excellent ways. (p. 85)

As you can see, beginning a sentence with but or and is an excellent way to begin a sentence.

But why?

Both add energy to prose. They keep momentum moving forward between sentences.

Alternatives include “however” and “furthermore,” but neither keeps prose moving with as much energy as but or and.

This also happens the hardest of these rules to break. There’s no rule that high school English teachers drill more than to never start a sentence with but or and.

The problem is that formal writing refuses to accept them as acceptable ways to start a sentence, but informal writing doesn’t have a problem with either. The good news is that most writing, including blog post writing, is informal in nature, so you’re more than welcome to begin a sentence with but or and.

The next time you’d like to start a sentence with one, but you can’t get rid of “Mrs. Thompson’s” voice reminding you not to from the back of your head, go ahead and break the rule anyway. It’ll give your prose more verve, and you’ll look like an expert writer.

Rule 4: Never end a sentence with a preposition

It is a cherished superstition that prepositions must, in spite of the incurable English instinct for putting them late . . . , be kept true to their name [preposition comes from a Latin word meaning “to place in front”] and placed before the word they govern . . . Those who lay down the universal principle that final prepositions are “inelegant” are unconsciously trying to deprive the English language of a valuable idiomatic resource, which has been used freely by all our greatest writers except those whose instinct for English idiom has been overpowered by notions of correctness derived from Latin standards. (A quote from H.W. Fowler included on p. 90)

This lesson in Latin shows where the rule comes from, but H.W. Fowler also shows why it’s so ridiculous. Is there any reason not to end a sentence with a preposition since we do it so much in speaking besides the fact that it’s “inelegant”?

In case you don’t want to take Mr. Fowler’s word for it, here’s what Winston Churchill, a Nobel laureate in literature, had to say about this subject after an editor changed one of his sentences so it wouldn’t end with a preposition:

“This is the kind of impertinence up with which I shall not put.” (p. 90)

He wrote that instead of: “This is the kind of impertinence I will not put up with.”

Which do you think is more inelegant?

Rule 5: Never, ever write a paragraph that’s only one sentence long

Three situations in essay writing can occasion a one-sentence paragraph: (a) when you want to emphasize a crucial point that might otherwise be buried; (b) when you want to dramatize a transition from one stage in your argument to the next; and (c) when instinct tells you that your reader is tiring and would appreciate a mental rest. (pp. 92-93)

If one-sentence paragraphs are useful in essay writing, which Mr. Trimble adeptly points out is true, they have even more use in blog writing and copywriting.

Blogging is largely about making a point. If one-sentence paragraphs help with that, they should be used. If short paragraphs help (which they do in online writing), then they should be used as well.

The problem with grammar rules is that there’s always a time to break them, and when it comes to informal writing, getting a point across is more important than following rules.

So go ahead and use one-sentence paragraphs.

It’s a great way to make a point and break up blocks of text, especially when writing online.

Wrap-up

When it comes to writing for a blog, instead of following standard high school grammar rules which are intended to keep students from learning bad habits, it’s more important to use language and syntax that’s the most effective.

If that breaks some rules, then so be it.

It’s OK to be informal, and it’s OK to break some rules. Although, it’s good to know what the rules are so you know when you’re breaking them. Otherwise breaking rules unwittingly can make you look silly.

In the end, effective copy is more important than “proper usage” because “proper usage” is really whatever gets your point across the best.

Know what I mean?

What are your thoughts? Are there other high school grammar rules you think are OK to be broken? Do you particularly enjoy breaking any of these rules?

Joseph Putnam is the owner, copywriter, and blog writer at 5 North Marketing, where a version of this article first appeared.

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