5 ways to break the writing rules

Most of the time, sticking the the accepting guidelines for grammar, usage and punctuation is the way to go, but very occasionally, it’s OK to toss the rulebook.

Every few months at my house, we have “do what you want night.”

I let my kids break the house rules and have an evening of fun and frivolity. “Yes, you can have popcorn for dinner, you can eat it in front of the TV, you don’t have to take a bath, and you can stay up as late as you want.”

Sometimes, it’s good to take a break from following and enforcing the rules.

The same could be said for the rules of writing.

Writers and editors frequently enforce style, grammar, spelling and punctuation rules at our companies or for our clients. Occasionally, to achieve the desired effect in our writing, it’s necessary to disregard those same rules. Here are a few to start with:

1. Start a sentence with “and.”

Though it is often frowned upon, there is no grammar rule in any stylebook or usage manual that I have read that prevents writers from starting a sentence with a conjunction. So it’s okay to start a sentence with “and,” “but,” or any other conjunction. And according to the Chicago Manual of Style … “a substantial percentage (often as many as 10 percent) of the sentences in first-rate writing begin with conjunctions.”

2. Use nouns as verbs.

A colleague recently used “Frankenstein” as a verb and it was quite descriptive. I knew exactly what she meant when she said, “I need to Frankenstein those images for the ad artwork.” If no other word will do, or if it will enable you to write a cleaner sentence, go ahead and use that noun as a verb.

3. Leave out that comma.

As the American Medical Association Manual of Style states, “There are definite rules for using commas; however, usage is often subjective. Some writers and editors use the comma frequently to indicate what they see as a natural pause in the flow of words, but commas can be overused.”

One way to keep your commas in check is by omitting them in a compound sentence if both independent clauses are short. “The test might be useful or it could be harmful.” “I have read the article and I am concerned about the author’s objectivity.” Neither sentence needs a comma.

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4. Mix your metaphors.

Mix, don’t mangle. Mangled metaphors occur when the writer makes unrelated comparisons. “It’s time to step up to the plate and kick the ball to the goal.”

Playful tweaking and mixing of metaphors can revitalize your copy. You just have to be clever about it. “Let’s jump off that bridge when we come to it.” “That meeting was a train wreck hitting a dumpster fire.”

5. Use the singular “they.”

We were all taught that the singular “they” is bad grammar. Style guides say its use is unacceptable in formal writing. Yet avoiding the singular “they” can sometimes make a sentence unwieldy and unclear.

Take the sentence “Someone who knows where they’re going should drive.” How would you “fix” this without creating an awkward sentence?

When done in a well-reasoned way, relaxing the rules of writing can result in clearer, cleaner sentences.

Fellow writers and editors, which rules do you break and why?

Laura Hale Brockway is writer and editor from Austin, Texas. She is a regular contributor to PR Daily and the author of the grammar/usage/random thoughts blog, impertinentremarks.com.

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