Seven Writing “Rules” You Should Sweep Under the Rug

Street art by Banksy

Okay kids, it’s time to stand up and erase all of those writing “rules” that your middle school teacher wrote on the chalkboard. As we learned in this post, the English language is anything but black and white.

As a constantly morphing, developing language, English often renders any finger-wagging proclamations of “you didn’t write that correctly!” obsolete within ten to twenty years—a veritable blink of the eye on the language development timeline.

Here are seven outdated writing “rules” that you can bend and/or break. Keep in mind that some of these were created with the very best intentions, and that they may still apply in some instances, to some degree. The key point to remember when you’re writing is to follow the guidelines of how to write well, but to also keep in mind that many of the self-proclaimed “rules” of English are constantly in flex.

Let’s begin with what might be the #1 most overused statement by English teachers all over the nation:

1. Never end a sentence with a preposition.

Whenever someone tells me not to end a sentence with “about,”  “of,”  “the,” “by,” “with,” or any of the other 150+ prepositions in the English language, I say, “About what are you talking?” The look of confusion on the person’s face often says it all.

Or take a quote from Mr. Winston Churchill, when someone proposed this “rule” to him:

“This is the kind of arrant pedantry up with which I will not put.”

The point that both of these examples make is that by trying to avoid placing a preposition at the end of a sentence, you often end up with a sentence that struggles to convey its message clearly. If you have a sentence that ends in a preposition and there is no easy way to shuffle words around so that it still retains clarity of meaning, it’s probably best to just leave it alone.

2. Never split an infinitive.

This is perhaps the most superstitious of all the “rules” for the English language, because it stems from infinitive usage rules from other languages. Take Spanish, for example. The infinitive forms are one word: “mirar,” “correr,” “trabajar.” Therefore, to split that one-word infinitive is very bad—it doesn’t make grammatical sense, and your audience wouldn’t understand what you were trying to say. English, on the other hand, uses two-word infinitives (“to be,” “to do,” “to see”). And there is no reason that those two words need to be joined at the hip 100% of the time.

Take the quote: “To boldly go where no man has gone before.” The “correct” way to write this would be: “To go boldly where no man has gone before.”

It gets the same point across, but it just doesn’t have the same pizzazz.

It really comes down to style and message with this “rule.” My advice? Write with the #1 goal of conveying a clear message to your audience, and don’t give this hocus-pocus “rule” another thought.

3. Never start a sentence with a conjunction.

Conjunction junction, what’s your function? Conjunctions—”but,”  “and,”  “while,”  “since,”  “that,”  “though,” etc.—are usually used for joining words, clauses or phrases together (we won’t get into the nitty gritty details right now; you know the song).

But lately (see what I did there?), we’ve been seeing conjunctions at the start of sentences.

Is this annoying? If it’s overused. Is it useful? It can be. Can it earn you style points? If it’s used well. Is it hurting your writing? Probably not. Don’t get too overenthusiastic with your breaking of this outdated “rule” and you should be A-OK.

4. Do not use contractions.

Read this aloud: “No Johnny, you cannot have that toy because you did not earn it. That is the end of the discussion!”

Then read this aloud: “No Johnny, you can’t have that toy because you didn’t earn it. That’s the end of the discussion!”

Not only is the first sentence difficult to read, it’s also difficult to say. In moderation, contractions actually help the reader flow through your writing because they provide a much more natural lifelike rhythm and flow to your sentences—especially dialogue. Feel free to use contractions wherever you see fit; just don’t overdo it.

5. Never use passive voice.

This is a juicy one. The passive voice (“the rabbit was killed by the hunter”) versus active voice (“the hunter killed the rabbit”) boxing match has been going on for years. Passive voice does make your writing sound weaker when it’s used improperly. Here are some examples in which it is perfectly fine to use passive voice, however:

  • When you don’t want to mention who did it
  • When you don’t know who did it
  • When it doesn’t matter who did it
  • When the passive voice places the emphasis where you want it

You’ll notice that politicians often use passive voice to take the blame away from themselves or to remain vague about something. For example: “That bill was passed unanimously” (passive) versus “the Invesco Field Board of Directors passed the bill unanimously” (active).

In conclusion: avoid passive voice, but don’t be afraid to use it deliberately when it’s needed.

6. Always write in complete sentences.

Hemingway. Enough said. (Other than the fact that this is a particularly dumb rule, and he thought so too.)

7. Never use first person.

This is one of those “rules” that should really just be a guideline. If you’re writing a professional article for a business website and your name is not recognized as an expert source on the topic, don’t pepper it with “in my opinion” or “I think.” Does your audience care what you personally think in this case? No. Stick to the facts and quote the experts instead.

Now if you’re writing an article about something that you are an expert on, using “I think” makes sense. You’re the expert, and your personal observations and opinions matter to your audience. If you’re writing fiction, “I” is often perfectly valid if the book is written in first person or if you have a narrator as a character speaking in the first person.

Just remember: guidelines, not rules.

Have any grammatical pet peeves? Questions? Finger-wagging experiences? Tell me in the comments!

6 responses to “Seven Writing “Rules” You Should Sweep Under the Rug

  1. Mostly I agree.
    But “the” is an article, not a preposition.
    You probably shouldn’t end too many sentences with an article.

  2. Yes! I’m a rule breaker! Though I will confess to sometimes shuddering slightly when I do so. Like when I just split that infinitive. And wrote an incomplete sentence. Starting with a conjunction. Ha!

    • Some of these “rules” are so deeply engrained that it feels like our English teachers will pop out from behind the computer and slap our hands for breaking them! Just remember: guidelines, not rules. The rebels will win!

  3. Yes, absolutely!

    I’ve long shunned the traditional rules for writing when writing on my own blog. The style guide for blogs leaves a lot to be desired; voicing is probably one of the most important aspects, then the ability to weave together a cohesive narrative.

    There’s loads of considerations that just aren’t covered by the simple rules we all learned in english lit.

    • Thanks for the comment, Nick! I agree—voice is so important in writing, especially in blogs. With so much written content to digest these days, the only way to make your writing stand out is to highlight your own unique voice in a cohesive way. And that’s not always as easy as it seems!

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