Grammar “Rules” You Should Break (Right Now!)

Grammar Myths

The English language is full of rules that will make your head spin. Some are easy understandable necessary (e.g. ‘i’ before ‘e’ except after ‘c’) while others are downright baffling. Why can’t you end a sentence in a preposition? Says who!? I’d love to know what sick, twisted person thought this rule up, and not-so-gently explain to him just how many times this awful rule has kept me up at night.

If you notice, however, I break these rules. Often. And you know what? It’s totally okay. Language is constantly changing to suit new ways of communication, and frankly, there’s a time and a place for even using the dreaded “academic ‘I'”. Writing and grammar rules are largely a matter of stylistic choice or personal preference. Depending on your audience, your purpose for writing, and even your method of communication, you may be better off ditching some of the most well-known writing conventions.

Generally speaking, the more formal your writing, the more of these rules you should probably adhere to, but I’m otherwise giving you the okay to stop fretting over the following grammar myths:

1. Writing in the passive voice is always wrong — The active voice is typically more engaging, however using the passive voice has its place too. Maybe this is my Japanese education showing through (the Japanese language loves vague subjects & passive structures), but using the passive voice can soften sentences, shift blame, and convey ideas in a more gentle manner. It can also shift the focus from one subject to another. Don’t know who’s responsible? Passive voice is your friend.

2. And you should never start a sentence with a conjunction — Another stylistic choice. Starting sentences with a conjunction adds variation to your cadence, can be used to create suspense and/or flow, and is often a marker of personal, more colloquial style. Forget what you learned in grade school; this is a grammar myth.

3. Don’t split infinitives — An infinitive consists of “to” + a verb. Take the classic Star Trek example, “To boldly go where no man has gone before.” Grammarians would argue that it should be changed to, “to go boldly“, so as not to split the infinitive, but this is simply a pet peeve.

Choosing to split an infinitive is all about where you want your emphasis, and most times is a purely stylistic choice. Don’t let people’s personal pet peeves get to you.

4. A paragraph contains 3-5 sentences — I want to yell at every school teacher who has told their students this. Sure, it’s a technique to help students set a foundation for writing, but it’s a juvenile tactic that is often abused. Paragraphs are meant to organize ideas. You can have a long paragraph, or a short one. Breaks in paragraphs should occur when you switch topics or ideas; 3-5 sentences is an arbitrary number.

In today’s age of short, quippy Internet articles, paragraphs are used to visually break up information so as not to overload readers. You’ve probably seen loads of one sentence paragraphs, and guess what? That’s okay too! Break this rule now and vary your paragraph structure to not only better organize your writing, but create personality and flow.

5. Never end a sentence with a preposition — Trying to rearrange your sentence so that it doesn’t end in a preposition can leave you reeling. Ending a sentence in a preposition either a) leads to overly formal-sounding sentences (not meant for more conversational writing, creative writing, or informal pieces like blog posts) or b) makes your sentence just sound weird. Blame this myth on the 17th century Latin-obsessives and end your sentence in a preposition if the occasion calls for it!

What writing rules do you find unnecessary or annoying? Rant away!

  • I always love these posts of yours the best. I’m so happy we can English language geek together!!

    • Thanks Charlotte! These ones are the most fun for me too 🙂 I will always geek out about some writing/grammar!

  • Kay

    I never understood why you shouldn’t split an infinitive…as you said it always seemed like a way to make your emphasis resonate! I definitely take stylistic advantage of starting sentences with conjunctions as well. Love these posts!

    • Exactly! Like, who said you couldn’t? Apparently, one guy did and now it’s a “rule”. Ugh, English.

  • #2 and #5 are the rules that constantly hold me back when writing. English is not my first language so I try to follow the rules religiously to avoid the confusion that may occur if I use “wrong” English. But reading this post makes me feel more confident with my English. Thank you!

    Dara | Hola Darla | @DarlaOct

    • I can only imagine how difficult it is for a non-native English speaker to navigate this craziness! Actually, would you be interested in doing a guest post about the topic? It can be more technical or just your thoughts on the “wrong” English and confidence, etc. — if you’d like, of course! I think it would be a really neat perspective to get! (Your English, by the way, is fabulous!)

      • Well, I’d love to! But perhaps it will help me if we could do something more like an interview? I’d love to answer your questions regarding this issue since I’m not sure I will be able to deliver it myself. Haha

        Thank you for praising my English! It means a lot 🙂

        • Absolutely! I’m not quite ready for it yet, but let me get some stuff together and I’ll be in touch!

  • People have told me that I tend to write in a passive voice sometimes, but I tend to not even notice. Does that mean I’m a suck at the English language?! Haha!
    ~Sara

    • I think we all suck at English. Or rather, just the English language itself sucks.

  • I LOVE split infinitives! They just make everything more fun and musical. And as much of a grammar policewoman as I am, I break the rules all the time. But only the silly ones.

    • There are lots of silly ones 🙂 I’m right there with you!

  • Sarah Campbell

    I LOVE this!!! I too ponder these rules as I write and wonder WHY!!?? Thank you for giving me permission to just do it! =)

    • Any time! Go break some English rules 🙂