Tuesday, August 5, 2014

How to Break the Writing Rules, Part Three: Rules that Aren't

So far, we've discussed how to use adverbs and fragments to achieve certain effects in your writing. This week, I want to talk about grammar rules that everyone knows about but aren't really rules. I will be relying heavily on this article, "7 Grammatical Errors That Aren't," but I will only focus on the first three rules, since I think those are the most interesting and general ones.

Original cartoon found at this link: http://www.marktoon.co.uk/gags.htm
Split Infinitives--Everyone knows that only Star Trek captains get to boldly go where no one has gone before. However, the practice of inserting words between the "to" and the verb goes back to Middle English. The earliest examples of split infinitives come from poetry, where they may have been used for the sake of cadence. Even if you're writing prose, there's nothing wrong with splitting infinitives to make a sentence flow better or to emphasize a word. Many people believe (as I did before researching this article) that the reason for objecting to split infinitives has to do with applying Latin grammar to English. However, the first people to object to split infinitives didn't make this argument. Today, we are encouraged to organize our words in the order most pleasing for us--and our readers.

Ending a Sentence with a Proposition--As a Midwesterner, I will agree with Winston Churchill (even though he wasn't from the Midwest, and this quote wasn't from him anyway) that "This is the kind of arrant pedantry up with which I will not put." As above, the "rule" about not ending a sentence with a proposition is supposed to come from Latin. However, English has a lot of idiomatic expressions ending with propositions that sometimes do belong at the end of a sentence.

Starting a Sentence with a Conjunction:  I did extensive research to see if this was really forbidden: in other words, I watched "Conjunction Junction" and determined that they never say you can't use a conjunction at the beginning of a sentence (two negatives make a positive, right?):

It's true that conjunctions are used to join things, and yes, you do need them when you're joining two short sentences to make a complex one. But what do you do if the next thought is closely related to what you just said, and you don't want to ramble on and on, like Tristam Shandy delivering a twelve-hour filibuster in the House of Commons (or Senate, or wherever people avoid doing the job we elected them to do)? So, start the next sentence with a conjunction already. But don't overdo it, because you know I believe in nothing in excess and everything in moderation.

What do you think about these writing rules? Do you obey them or break them? Are there any other writing rules you'd like me to discuss in this series?


  1. I break them all time. I've got a story coming out in an anthology soon and the editor keeps coming to me with grammatical 'errors' that I don't agree with (especially since many of them occur in dialog, which is a whole other thing). It's a fine line to walk sometimes, because an error becomes an error in English when you get enough people to agree that it's an error.

  2. First off, now I'm humming "Conjunction Junction." That is a good way to start the day.

    Second, the preposition one is the one that always bugged me the most. It's so artificial to do it otherwise. The ersatz Churchill quote shows why.

    I start lots of sentences with conjunctions, in part because it gives a certain feel to the way you write: it lets you use fragments or short choppy sentences while still having a sort of rambling feel.

    Great tips.

    I'd like to see some discussion of descriptions and adjectives and how people use them. To be flowery or not? It'd be interesting, as most of my writing is sparse. And similes! What about people who use similes? They're totally like... like... something.

  3. I just want to join in with Briane's "preposition."
    Starting a sentence with a conjunction shouldn't be done to avoid the run-on sentence. If you're pulling a comma and putting in a period, you still, really, have a run on sentence. Beginning with a conjunction should be done to join a thought to a previous complete thought. It really is about achieving the effect you want, not about arbitrarily breaking up a sentence.

    As for the split infinitives, that has always been a thing in the Germanic languages. It didn't "start" at some point; it has just always been.

  4. Rusty, yes, very few people speak in grammatically perfect sentences all the time.

    Good suggestions, Briane.

    Andrew, perhaps I should discuss run-on sentences (or sentence length) too. Thanks for the idea!

  5. That could be an interesting discussion. I talk about sentence length a lot with my students. When you should end a sentence as opposed to when to continue it. "Run on" does not, actually, mean "long."

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