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8 Grammar "Mistakes" That Are Actually Correct

No matter how much time, effort and talent have gone in to creating a perfectly captivating layout, every designer has heard, “Make the logo bigger.” Likewise, every copywriter has been scolded for violating spurious grammar “rules.”

Clients, while not always right, always deserve great deference, and more often than not the best response is to find a way to resize the logo or rewrite the sentence in a way that makes the piece even better than you thought it could be. That said, blindly deferring to bogus rules can make anyone’s writing sound stiff and snooty. And who wants that?

People are often taught these phony rules in grade school, or they learn them through a folk process much like knock-knock jokes. But they only get anxious about grammar when writing, hardly ever when speaking. That’s unfortunate, because I believe readers would rather feel like they’re being spoken with than written at.

So let’s take a look at some of those unnecessary grammar anxieties in the interest of promoting more conversational, more effective writing. Here are my eight favorite grammar reprimands and why they’re not worth fussing over.

1. Prepositions are words you should never end a sentence with.
See what I did there? This “rule” was first imposed on English in 1672 by John Dryden. Because he followed the rules of Latin grammar, Dryden claimed his poetry was better than Ben Jonson’s. Of this, the University of Pennsylvania linguist Mark Liberman said, “It’s a shame that Jonson had been dead for 35 years at the time, since he would otherwise have challenged Dryden to a duel and saved subsequent generations a lot of grief.”

In Latin, prepositions always come before the noun or pronoun they refer to: literally, pre-position. But in English, this rule can lead to ridiculous results. It is, to borrow an apocryphal Winston Churchill quote, “the type of errant pedantry up with which I will not put.” Here’s a perfectly understandable sentence ending in seven prepositions: “What did you turn your socks from inside out to outside in for?” Can you rewrite it to follow the Latin rule?

2. And never begin a sentence with “and.”
Whether you believe it was translated by the greatest scholars to be found in Shakespeare’s England or by the hand of God himself, the King James Bible is full of sentences that begin with the conjunction “And.” In the first chapter of Genesis alone, 29 out of 31 verses begin with “And.” A sample: “And God said, let there be light.”

Why is it written that way? Because it’s a very powerful way to move the story of creation along. And notice that I started the last sentence with another conjunction. Don’t be afraid to begin sentences with and, because, but, or, so or also when it improves the rhythm and emphasis of your writing. But don’t overdo it.

3. Never address you, dear reader, as “you.”
Well, why not? That’s who you, the reader, are after all. If I were talking to you in person, wouldn’t you find it off-putting to be addressed as “one”? If I said to you, “One has something stuck in one’s teeth,” you’d think I have something stuck somewhere else.

“One” has its place in highly formal contexts, such as technical or academic writing where it refers to a hypothetical class of people that may or may not include you. But when the point is to get individual readers thinking about their own beliefs and needs, and encourage them to take action, what could be more natural than addressing them as “you”? Bonus tip: It’s also OK to refer to your company as “we.”

4. Remember to never split an infinitive.
This might surprise you, but the particle “to” isn’t part of the infinitive. In the sentence, “She can split infinitives all day long,” “split” is an infinitive. It has no person or tense of its own, unlike the finite verb “splits” in, “She splits infinitives out of sheer insolence.” But infinitives in English often do come paired with the particle “to,” especially in the dictionary form. And some people freak out if particle and infinitive get separated.

The problem is, adverbs also tend to come right before the verb they modify. And although they can sometimes be moved to keep “to” and the infinitive together, the result can be awkward: “Boldly to go where no one has gone before.” Or confounding: “I resolved to quickly lose the weight I had gained” versus “I quickly resolved to lose the weight I had gained” or “I resolved to lose the weight I had gained quickly.”

Or even impossible: “Carl has decided to more than double my pay”—versus what? There’s no other place “more than” could go, and that’s not even the main reason the statement is impossible.

Try not to split infinitives, but if it makes the sentence read better, then split away. If anyone objects, remember Raymond Chandler’s complaint after a copy editor had unsplit all his infinitives: “When I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will remain split.”

5. Complete sentences only. Never fragments.
Why? Afraid of seeming illiterate? Or maybe unserious? A complete sentence contains, at minimum, (1) a subject and (2) a predicate that together express (3) a complete thought. A sentence fragment, also known as an incomplete sentence, lacks one of those three elements. Which drives some people batty.

I once worked with a good writer who used sentence fragments. All. The. Time. I used to kid him about it, but he knew what he was doing, and most of the time it was effective. The three questions posed at the beginning of the previous paragraph and the “Which” sentence at the end are all fragments, but you may not have noticed because they work naturally in context. Unlike this one.

6. When writing, modifiers should never be dangled.
True, if you find yourself writing something like, “After drinking too much, the toilet always spins around uncontrollably,” you should probably rewrite the sentence and consider getting help. But here’s a sentence I wrote, immediately noticed that it had a dangling modifier, and decided that I wasn’t going to change because it’s perfectly understandable: “With a full range of lumen outputs, you can easily retrofit an existing lighting system.”

7. Don’t ever use contractions like “don’t.”
If you were speaking with someone at a party who never used contractions, you’d be checking your watch and slowly backing away. The use of contractions is often considered a mark of informal versus formal writing, but let’s be clear: In conversational English, there is no such distinction. Contractions are a natural feature of the language, not a sign of sloppiness.

For the most part, writing is more effective when it’s conversational rather than rigid and stuffy. So don’t be shy about using contractions where they contribute to a natural flow. There are a couple of exceptions. For example, tombstone epitaphs, highly technical papers, or when writing for nonnative English speakers. Even in these cases, contractions can be appropriate; you just need to take greater care with them. And when writing for readers who may struggle with English, there are more important things to worry about, such as avoiding idiomatic expressions.

8. Once, always, and forever use the Oxford comma.
Your mother, the village idiot, and I discussed this “rule” over a breakfast of orange juice, muffins, and ham and eggs. The Oxford comma, also called the serial comma, is a comma placed after the next-to-last item in a series of three or more, before the coordinating conjunction (and/or/nor). Many people haughtily insist on Oxfordizing everything, and to my shame I used to be one of them.

But is your mother the village idiot? No, there were three of us at breakfast, not two, and your mother seemed quite nice and sensible. Including a serial comma seems to turn the third party at our table into an appositive description of your mother. We can’t have that, so I’d revise it to, “Your mother, the village idiot and I….” On the other hand, since the restaurant scrambles the ham together with the eggs rather than with the muffins, a serial comma is needed after the muffins for clarity.

Some style guides (for example, Chicago) prefer the serial comma, while some (for example, AP) agree with me that it’s redundant except when needed for clarity. But every style guide is just that—a guide, not a lawbook. If you can better serve your readers by breaking a rule, break it. The only rule you should never, ever break is this: Respect your mother.

I could go on forever.

But I’ll spare you. Instead, here’s a word of advice. If you grew up speaking English, trust yourself. You intuitively know all the rules of grammar that really matter. You already have the tools. To become a better writer, you just need practice in using them.

Read widely and deeply. Figure out how the writers you admire communicate their ideas and achieve their stylistic effects. Emulate them. Try this, try that. Don’t censor yourself too much at first. But in the end, revise, revise, revise until you can read what you’ve written out loud and hearing it makes you smile.