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:
- I have no idea of where this rule came from.
- I have no idea from where this rule came.
[Example is from Michelle Pierce’s Copyblogger post]
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: