Three Grammar Rules You Can Break

As a professional writer, I pay close attention to grammar and punctuation. I'm not rude about it. I don't correct people on Facebook or in person, unless it's my own kids — that's just the benefit of being a father — but I have been known to correct a sign or two when someone uses an apostrophe to pluralize a word. (Seriously, "credit card's" does not mean more than one credit card.)

But other than correcting signs with a red pen I carry for just such an occasion, I tend to leave people alone about their grammar mistakes.

The people I like to correct are the grammar fussbudgets who get their bowels in an uproar over the rules we learned in 7th grade. They'll publicly shame people over their mistakes, not realizing they're using grammar rules that are either outdated or should never have been rules in the first place.

(A quick note: Please don't call grammar enthusiasts Grammar Nazis. Nazis in World War II killed more than 11 million people, neo-Nazis are people who don't see what was so bad about that. People who are sticklers for grammar should not be associated with those fetid piles of dog crap.)

So if you've been following some of the same grammar rules you were force-fed in middle school, here are a few you're actually allowed to break.

1. You can end your sentences with a preposition.

This is a big shock to people because we've had this one drummed into us for so many years. Except we were lied to.

(See, I just did it right there.)

John Dryden. Most of this is his fault.
Many people will twist themselves into a grammar pretzel trying to follow this one — "For what do you want to punch him?" — but it's unnecessary. There are many times you can end a sentence with a preposition and your old English teacher won't twirl in her grave.

You can figure it out by taking the preposition off the end of the sentence and seeing if it still makes sense.

For example, you and I are walking down the street, and you step in a pile of neo-Nazi, I might sniff and saw, "Eww, what did you step in?" I would never say, "Eww, in what did you step?" In fact, no one should, that sounds pretentious.

Take off the preposition, and you have "what did you step?" That doesn't make sense, which means you can leave it in place.

But in the question "Where's it at?" you can take off the preposition and you'll still have "Where is it?" That still makes sense, so the preposition should go

The rule was created by mistake by some Latin scholars in the 1600s and 1700s who tried to apply Latin grammar rules to English, a language that was still maturing and developing. The rule never should have been created in the first place, because Latin rules don't fit English well, but English teachers have been cramming it into our heads ever since.

2. You can split infinitives.

For the last 50+ years, Grammar Hammers have screamed at Star Trek, "To go boldly where no man has gone before! Go boldly!" They're bellyaching about the rule that says you can't split infinitives like "to run," "to sleep," or "to go."

That's because these same Latin scholars who created the preposition rule foisted this one on an unsuspecting public. Except in Latin, you can't split infinitives because they're only one word.

That is, each infinitive is one word, not that all infinitives have been mashed up into a single word. That's how German works. So the Latin scholars made up the rule because they were bored and thought this would be a great way to mess with future generations.

3. You can start sentences with And, But, and Or.

I remember years ago when I was writing some marketing materials for my employer, and I started a sentence with And.

"My English teacher said you're not supposed to do that," said the owner's wife.

I showed her a quote by Elmore Leonard that said, "(I)f proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative."

There are actually three other words we're also not "supposed" to start sentences with: Because, For, and However.

But we can do it because great writers do it all the time. And so do I.

English is a hybrid language made up of words from Latin, Germanic, and even Asian languages. We have so many rules, many of which don't make sense or should never have been rules in the first place. These are three you can break, and I promise you won't get into trouble.

Just stop misusing apostrophes and saying "an historic," and I won't have anything about which I can complain.

(See? Doesn't that just sound pompous?)

Photo credit: Godfrey Kneller (Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain in the United States and the country of origin)

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