Five Grammar “Rules” That Beg To Be Broken

by | Jul 24, 2009 | Plain Language Writing Courses, Writing Matters Blog | 6 comments

For those of us who were actually taught grammar in school, we have stored in our long-term memory a list of unbreakable grammar rules. Usually they start with never. Often we remember the rule, but we don’t actually remember why it’s a rule. And guess what: some of the nevers never were grammar rules. They are grammar myths passed down from English teacher to English teacher to your boss.

Here are my top five grammar “rules” begging to be broken.

1.   Never end a sentence with a preposition. Because grammar rules exist to enhance clarity, it’s hard to see why this rule persists. Here’s an example of a clear sentence that ends in the preposition from and the tortured sentence that results from trying to avoid ending the sentence with a preposition:

2.   Never start a sentence with a conjunction: and, but, so, nor, or.
This rule is strictly a grammar myth. The Chicago Manual of Style states that there is no historical or grammatical foundation for this rule. On the other hand, Chicago points out that there’s no guarantee that starting a sentence with a conjunction improves the sentence. “But the alternative—enforcing a baseless restriction—probably doesn’t help.”

3.    Never split an infinitive.  First off, what’s an infinitive? An infinitive is a form of a verb preceded by the word to: to go, to run, to shop. Splitting an infinitive means inserting a word or phrase between to and the verb.  Nobody quite knows the origin of this rule against splitting an infinitive. (Latin? Old English?)  But nearly everyone agrees it’s obsolete. Here’s an example of a split and an un-split infinitive.

  • Split infinitive:  I decided to quickly look for a new job
  • Un-split infinitive: I decided to look for a new job quickly.

4.    Never use the passive voice.
Although almost everyone knows this rule, many people don’t really know what passive voice is. (It is not the same as past tense.) It’s okay—even preferable—to use the passive voice when you want to emphasize the action rather than the actor. Mistakes were made by John emphasizes the mistakes rather than the actor—John—who made the mistakes. Sometimes the actor is excluded entirely: Mistakes were made. Using the active voice, John made mistakes, clearly points the finger at John. 

5.    Never write a one-sentence paragraph. Most paragraphs contain more than one sentence. That’s because it usually takes more than one sentence to completely express an idea. But sometimes one sentence does the job. There is no need for additional window dressing. A one-sentence paragraph stands out like a neon sign. For example:

If you do not pay this fine within ten days, a warrant may be issued for your arrest.
Do you have a nominee for a grammar rule to break? Post a comment or e-mail it to me, and I’ll include it in subsequent posts.
— Marilynne Rudick (guest blogger)
Tags: Editing, Grammar and usage, Plain language, Writing


  1. Speaking of rules to be broken. . . As a preacher I’m predisposed to oral style and find that the use of “and” between the two last items in a series can distort the meaning of the statement. For example, “I was moved at her compassion, her sensitivity, her selflessness.” Not using “and” has the effect of suggesting that these are three ways of describing the same reality, not three separate realities. Using “and” gets the listener/reader thinking about these as three discreet dispositions, not three ways of describing a single disposition.
    At other times “and” between the last two items in a series of three or more weakens the impact of the series as a whole. “Our faith gives us courage, hope, peace, joy.” In my experience, “and” would add very little here, and somehow muddies the impact of the four elements in the series.
    Perhaps there are better explanations as to why I intuitively omit “and” in these situations. I’d love to hear them.
    Thanks for this site. I’m brand new to it.
    Duane Kelderman
    Calvin Theological Seminary

  2. Rule: A pronoun should agree in person and number with the noun to which it refers. The problem is that sometimes the noun is implied, rather than explicit, and sometimes confidentiality or discretion requires that the gender and/or number NOT be revealed.

    Suppose you are a professional counselor giving a public presentation. You want to use the experience of a former client as an illustration. To make the illustration vivid you want to put in some detail. If you also include the gender of the former client, you are revealing some potentially identifying information. See the problem?

  3. Hi, Mary – Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I think you’re right politeness or intentional vagueness prompts us to use pronouns that disagree in number with their antecedents: “All students should bring their books…” instead of “Each student should bring his book,” which might imply that boys always leave their books at home or girls never do!

  4. For those of us who were really taught punctuation in school, we have put away in our long haul memory a rundown of unbreakable language structure tenets. Generally they begin with never. Regularly we recollect the guideline, however we don’t really recall why its a tenet. What’s more figure what: a percentage of the nevers never were syntax tenets. They are language structure myths passed down from English educator to English instructor to your supervisor.

  5. According to Oxford, split infinitives aren’t a grammatical no-no anymore.

    Another grammatical rule that’s always bothered me is the past tense of “hang” when applied to people, i.e. “hanged”. This has always seemed very awkward to me. I think “hung” sounds much better.

  6. Clear, simple, but persuasive!

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