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Break the Rules!

August 24, 2011

Rules, rules, rules. The English language is full of rules. “I” before “E” except after “C” (and in a bunch of words that are exceptions). Never capitalize a, an, or the in a title unless it’s the first word. Make sure your subject and verb agree (as if they don’t get along). So many rules to remember … and so many exceptions.

But here are a few rules that you can get away with breaking. (I just broke one of them in that sentence!)

1. Never end a sentence with a preposition.

Nope! Not valid anymore. It used to be “proper” not to end sentences with prepositions; however, it made language very awkward. For example, the sentences “Where should we eat at?” or “Who do I give this to?” would have been considered illegal (well, at least ungrammatical). Teachers forced us to alter sentences to “At where should we eat?” and “To whom do I give this?” We all sounded as formal as the British monarchy! Syntax (the rules for putting together phrases and sentences) has become less archaic and more relaxed in order to be readable, so this rule has nearly become extinct. Instead of saying “To where has it gone?” go ahead and break the rule to say “Where has it gone to?”

2. Do not begin a sentence with so, and, but.

But why? Because most of us were taught never to start a sentence with a conjunction. A conjunction is a part of speech that joins together sentences, phrases, or clauses. These are seven little conjunctions: and, but, or, yet, for, nor, so. Poor little words! Why can’t they be important enough to begin a sentence? There is “no historical or grammatical foundation” to this rule, so says the Chicago Manual of Style (see the 16th edition, page 257). Using a conjunction to begin a sentence can add emphasis, especially in dialogue. So go ahead—use a conjunction. But just don’t overdo it. (Like the last two sentences!)

3. Never split infinitives.

First of all, what is an infinitive? Well, I’m glad you asked! An infinitive is a verb phrase that consists of a “to” + “verb” (for example: to do, to see, to be, to have).

In the English world, as well as publishing, there has been a strict rule not to split infinitives. Guess what? You can get the scissors out and cut the apron strings: infinitives can be separated. Infinitives can be split for the sake of readability, comprehension … and just ‘cause it sounds better! So instead of writing “there is a strict rule not to split infinitives,” I can write “there is a strict rule to not split infinitives.”

Another example: To never stop learning is a crime! (“to” and “stop” combine to make the infinitive “to stop.”) If you wrote “Never to stop learning is a crime” only to avoid splitting the infinitive, it would sound a little ridiculous. So split away!

Ahhh … how freeing is it to break a few rules
where there are so many laws of the language!

What rule (grammar or otherwise) do you wish could be broken?

5 Comments leave one →
  1. August 24, 2011 4:27 pm

    Mom would always get on to me for breaking rule #1. I will have to tease her about it now! 🙂

  2. Melita Thomas permalink
    August 25, 2011 10:57 am

    I know a certain copy editor that insists #3 cannot be broken. But I do. All the time. Because you’re right… sometimes things just sound ridiculous!


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