5 writing rules you’re allowed to break

Incomplete sentences and ending sentences with prepositions are among the rules you can bend from time to time.

Chances are good you’re repeating some grammar and writing rules as gospel. But they may be wrong. Or they’ve changed. Or they were never really rules to begin with.

Whatever the reason, you can stop:

1. You can end your sentences with a preposition.

The rule was created by scholar Robert Lowth who wanted English to bend to the same rules as Latin. In the Latin sentence structure, it’s not possible to have a sentence end with a preposition. Ergo, said Lowth, English shouldn’t either.

But it’s wrong. There are times you have to end your sentences in a preposition. For example, let’s say you stepped in something that stinks, and your friend says to you, “In what did you step?”

Wouldn’t you look at her like she lost her mind?

In that instance, it’s perfectly OK to say “what did you step in?” It’s proper English, grammatically correct, and doesn’t sound completely idiotic.

On the other hand, “Where’s it at?” is wrong.

The basic rule is that if you can remove a preposition and the sentence still works, you shouldn’t use the preposition. But if you remove it, and the sentence changes, you should leave the preposition at the end.

OK: What did you step in?
Not OK: Where is it at?

2. You can start a sentence with and, but, or or.

This may have been a real English class rule at one point, but no longer. Common usage has rendered it obsolete. People talk this way. People write this way. It may not be completely accepted in business writing, but I foresee that hurdle breaking down as more business people speak that way.

Besides, it looks pretty cool. And dramatic. And punchy. And intense.

And it turns out the practice has been around since the 10th century. (Editor’s note: But doing it too often creates monotony.)

3. You don’t have to start with the dependent clause first.

A dependent clause is a clause that can’t exist on its own. “Before the trial even ended” is a dependent clause (also called a subordinate clause). We were told that you needed to start sentences with a dependent clause.

“Before the trial even ended, the real killer had been arrested and the defendant was set free.” not “The real killer had been arrested and the defendant was set free, before the trial even ended.” Even though you might want the important information at the front of the sentence, our teachers told us to put the dependent clause first.

You don’t have to do that anymore. For one thing, it’s clunky. For another, there are times where the dependent clause will get in the way. There are times a dependent clause needs to be set apart in a different way.

“The real killer was arrested—before the trial even ended—and the defendant was freed.”

It doesn’t always fit at the end, but it doesn’t always have to go first, either.

Your better bet? Eliminate the dependent clause completely, or make it a stand-alone sentence.

4. You can use incomplete sentences.

This was a minor point of contention while I was writing ” Branding Yourself .” One of my editors would tell me not to use incomplete sentences like this: Enough already.

“But it’s a style choice,” I would say. “Not a grammar issue.”

Though you don’t want to make that a regular habit, stylistically it doesn’t hurt to do it once in a while. It’s another common usage issue; enough people have begun doing this that the grammar sticklers have to bow to majority rules and allow the change in the accepted use. (They don’t have to like it, and they’ll talk about it at dinner parties, but they’ll generally leave you alone about it.)

They also add some punch and drama to your writing, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction. Pepper your writing with them, and see what it does for you.

5. A sentence does not always contain a subject, a verb, and an object. A paragraph does not always contain three to five sentences.

Journalists violate this rule all the time.

Because it’s a dumb rule. And untrue.

For one thing, people read differently from the way they did 30 years ago. We’re so impatient that we don’t want to read a lot of text. We need white space to break up the monotony of the Tolstoy-esque blocks of text we find in some books, tech manuals and magazines. If you’ve ever looked at a page with a lot of tiny text and no breaks at all, you know what I’m talking about.

Newspaper publishers learned a long time ago that people won’t read long paragraphs and sentences. So they encouraged writers to use short punchy words, short sentences and short paragraphs.

Even one-sentence paragraphs.

My daughter has been told her paragraphs all need to be three to five sentences long, and I keep telling her it’s not only unnecessary, but it leads to bad writing. If you try to fill up every paragraph with three to five sentences, you start writing filler just to get there.

If you keep some extra white space in your writing—by using short paragraphs—people are more likely to continue reading long beyond where they thought they would quit.

How about you? What writing rules do you gladly (or unwittingly) violate? Are there rules you wish you could break?

Erik Deckers is a newspaper humor columnist and vice president of creative services for Professional Blog Service, where this post originally ran. He is also the co-author of “Branding Yourself” and “No Bullshit Social Media.”


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