Eight Grammar Rules Not to Follow

Grammar rules are tools that we use to communicate a message, and we use the tools that are suited to the task. If you’ve read my first post, you know that the for copy editors (subversive ones, at least) the reader is the boss. An editor tweaks an author’s words not to appease Victorian grammarians, but to ensure that the reader understands the author without unnecessary confusion or distraction.

With that in mind, there are a handful of supposed grammar rules floating around in popular consciousness whose application ought to be considered more carefully. Although your English teacher may have insisted on them, faithful adherence to them is likely to lead to confusion or distraction more often than not. Here is a handy list (complete with Chicago Manual of Style citations!) to keep with you in case a misinformed wiseacre ever starts reading over your shoulder in the library.

Winston Churchill, the British prime minister during World War II, was able to successfully end the war with a preposition.

Winston Churchill, the British prime minister during World War II, was able to successfully end the war with a preposition.

1. Don't let your prepositions fall at the end of a sentence.

Winston Churchill is famous for his (perhaps apocryphal) disapproval of those who forbid terminal prepositions: “That is the type of arrant pedantry up with which I shall not put.” If you have ever been dismayed by how convoluted your sentences can become when you attempt to satisfy this rule, despair no longer! It is a myth. Good style often requires that prepositions fall at the end of a clause or sentence. (CMS 5.176)

2. Don't split infinitives.

“Its five-year mission: to boldly go where no man has gone before.” Gene Roddenberry had the future of English language usage right, except for the gender exclusivity. Adverbs often have to split up infinitives and modal verbs in properly formed sentences, and CMS recommends splitting infinitives for emphasis or clarity. So split your infinitives if it pleases you and it doesn't result in a perplexing construction. If your sentence is easier to understand than some episodes of Star Trek that I’ve seen, then you’re probably doing okay. (5.105, 168)

3. Don’t begin a sentence with and or but.

But we like to do this! This is a good rule for third graders learning the difference between periods and commas. It’s unnecessary and restrictive for writers who can’t even remember the third grade. In fact, CMS has a statistic that may be shocking for adherents to this rule: "A substantial percentage (often as many as 10 percent) of sentences in first-rate writing begin with conjunctions." Simply put: there is nothing wrong with a leading and or a prominent but. (5.206)

4. Don’t use “I” in formal writing.

I recommend the first-person pronoun over a dishonest (or pretentious) we or a stiff and repetitive one. So does CMS. Besides, you are allowed to have opinions in your writing these days, and if you are going to have them, go ahead and own them. (5.220) 

I almost always urge people to write in the first person . . . . Writing is an act of ego and you might as well admit it.
— William Zinsser

5. Don't use contractions in formal writing.

Uncontracted words can be jarring if they are not being used emphatically, whereas contractions often sound natural. There is a pretty evident difference between “Don’t use contractions” and “Do not use contractions,” and the former is unlikely to disrupt most readers. On the other hand, there are some less common contractions that you oughtn’t use because they are more distracting than their uncontracted counterparts. (5.103)


6. Adverbs should end in -ly.

Adverb don't always end in -ly (consider always in this sentence). In fact, some adverbs have both -ly forms and “flat forms,” with the latter often sounding more natural, as in “hold on tight.” Sometimes there may even be a significant difference in meaning between a -ly form and a flat form, as in that one joke that never grows old. (5.157)

7. Use hopefully only to mean "in a hopeful manner."

Putting the adverbial -ly on hopeful logically (and traditionally) means that a person does something in a hopeful manner. An example of someone doing something in a hopeful manner is a writer who insists against using hopefully to mean “it is hoped” (as is now more common) despite the fact that the usage is pervasive and sounds more natural to most people. Chicago endorses the new usage cautiously. (5.220)

8. Put i before e, except after c.

This is actually a spelling rule, and spelling (thanks to word processors) has become one of those formerly necessary activities that is now only practiced as a sport. I mention this rule here only to point out that it is somewhat inefficient.