Clarifying caveats for 5 common grammar decrees

Some rules were made to be broken—or at least bent on occasion. Here are five classics to reconsider.

Much of the writing instruction we receive growing up tends to focus on ironclad grammar and usage rules.

Well-meaning English teachers reinforce the “correct” way to write, and they eagerly point out mistakes. Most of what you learned is probably still valid, but there’s probably more wiggle room than you were led to believe.

Here are six common debates you may encounter as you create marketing content:

1. Ending a sentence with a preposition

The admonition against ending a sentence with a preposition dates back a few centuries, but the rule simply hasn’t aged well. The alternative to the terminal preposition is often an awkward or wordy sentence such as “He gave me something in which to believe.”

The verdict: Although sometimes the sentence-ending preposition is extraneous, in many cases, it’s fine to use. You should avoid it in formal writing, however.

2. The singular ‘they’

English doesn’t have a gender-neutral personal pronoun. Most copy editors hate the choice of “they” when a person’s gender is unknown, however, the Associated Press has recently affirmed the use of this construct—albeit sparingly.

The verdict: Follow AP’s advice: Use it as a last resort, and try to write around it.

3. Passive voice

English teachers have long instructed their students to avoid passive voice like the plague.

This is good advice—you want the subjects of your sentence to powerfully deliver their action via the predicate. However, passive voice is sometimes tough to avoid.

“The team was negatively impacted” has no place to go to become active—judging by the information in this sentence, you don’t know what or who was doing the impacting.

The verdict: If you can easily make a passive-voice sentence active, go for it.

4. ‘In order to’

Microsoft Word hates “in order to,” and some editors are militant about shortening it to just “to.” I agree the longer wording is mostly unnecessary, but it does have its place. If you are using “to” multiple times in a sentence, “in order to” can break up the monotony. Here’s another example:

  • I bought a knit hat to prepare for winter.

That wording makes it sound like the knit hat is responsible for preparing for winter, or that you’re possibly planning to eat said hat. You could flip the sentence around, or you can use “in order to” for clarity.

The verdict: This is another one you can use sparingly.

5. Repeating words

This is a rule I remember from Mr. Zielinski, my high school English teacher: Do not repeat a word (beyond articles, pronouns, prepositions, conjunctions and auxiliary verbs) in the same sentence, the preceding sentence or the proceeding sentence.

It’s a good guideline for word diversity, however, the rule can also result in confusing pronouns, muddled messaging and synonyms that should never see the light of day.

The verdict: Sorry, Mr. Z., I’d like to classify this rule as more of a suggestion. Content that confuses the reader isn’t effective, and, with SEO considerations, repeating a word can be beneficial for your search results. I recommend being judicious with repetition, but always prioritizing clarity.

What common grammar debates do you wrestle with? Feel free to include them in the comments.

A version of this post first appeared on the Smartbug Media blog.

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