Never Say Never: Three Grammar Rules You Can Break

Oct. 31, 2021


I love recycling!

But not entirely for the reasons you might think.

Yes, it uses less energy. Yes, it reduces greenhouse gases. And yes, it diverts material from those ever growing mounds of crap we call landfills. Great benefits all, and I’m fully on board with anything that can help save our planet.

For me, however, there’s more.

There’s something about the very act of recycling that I find immensely satisfying. It's the sorting. Sorting appeals to my inner sense of order. Everything in its place. Everything neat and tidy. Yes sir, yes sir, three bags full sir.

In downtown Toronto, recycling is simple enough. We fill our Blue Bin with all manner of plastic, glass, metal and paper, then dutifully wheel the bin to the roadside every two weeks. It’s an "everything goes" approach; pretty much the only exceptions we need to keep in mind are no take-away coffee cups and no black plastic.

On the other hand, in Prince Edward County, where we have an old farmhouse, recycling is deliciously complicated. The sorting is more precise, more refined, especially when you truck your stuff to the local transfer station as we often do.

To explain: Glass, metal and hard plastic – the kind you can’t easily scrunch with your hands – go together in one bin. Soft plastic – the scrunchable kind – and paper go in another. But beware cardboard – that merits a bin all of its own. (God knows what kind of mischief cardboard would get up to if it were allowed to mix and mingle with garden variety paper.)

For a borderline anal-retentive like me, Prince Edward County’s recycling system is a dream come true. The rules make the job of recycling not less, but MORE fun.  

By now I imagine you’re wondering how I possibly have time for other adventures like rock climbing or bungee jumping with all this thrilling sorting and culling going on. It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it.

And surely, surely, you’re thinking that I must be ordered in every aspect of my life. On that point, you must think again!

The truth is, when it comes to grammar, I can be a bit of a rebel.

In my view, not all grammar rules are what they’re cracked up to be, and I am more than willing to break free of age-old prescriptions when the occasion calls for it. That may be to make the prose clearer or less awkward or to intentionally write in  a certain style.

In a 2014 article in The Guardian, Steven Pinker provides even more reasons to reject grammar rules:

Is the rule based on some crackpot theory, such as that English should emulate Latin, or that the original meaning of a word is the only correct one? Is it instantly refuted by the facts of English, such as the decree that nouns may not be converted into verbs? Did it originate with the pet peeve of a self-anointed maven? Has it been routinely flouted by great writers? Is it based on a misdiagnosis of a legitimate problem, such as declaring that a construction that is sometimes ambiguous is always ungrammatical? Do attempts to fix a sentence so that it obeys the rule only make it clumsier and less clear? Finally, does the putative rule confuse grammar with formality? Many prescriptive guides …. mistake informal style for incorrect grammar.

Take this “rule”, for example: Never end a sentence with a preposition.

A preposition is a part of speech that links nouns and pronouns. Common prepositions include: into, of, with, until, upon, under, during, from, and towards.

The rule says a preposition should always be followed by a noun or a pronoun—into the bin, with Jane, under the full moon, et cetera. And yet, who but the stuffiest of old grammarians, wants to read: From where did this rule come?

For most of us, most of the time, the alternative—Where did this rule come from?—is preferable because it’s less formal and more conversational.

Another good reason to put a preposition at the end of the sentence is when the preposition contributes a crucial bit of information—such as, music to read by or something to guard against.

But that’s not to say that the rule should be abandoned altogether. Any current style guide will explain that the main reason for not “stranding” a preposition at the end of a sentence is that it can cause the sentence to end on a weak note. With apologies to T.S. Eliot…where possible, you should aim to finish with a bang, not a whimper.

Here’s another: Never start a sentence with a conjunction

Common conjunctions include: and, but, or, so, yet and because.

Pinker says many children are taught that it’s ungrammatical to begin a sentence with a conjunction because teachers need a simple way to teach kids how to break sentences.

But, he says, in his inimitably witty way, “Whatever the pedagogical merits may be of feeding children misinformation, it is inappropriate for adults.”

In these modern times, starting a sentence with a conjunction is a useful way to link individual sentences into a coherent passage. It is especially helpful—and kind to your reader— to link two long or complicated clauses. It is often better to have your reader read two sentences, even if one starts with a conjunction, than to leave them gasping for breath or thinking about dinner by the time they finally reach the end of one overly long sentence.

And so, go right ahead and start your sentence with a conjunction. Like that. (And that, by the way, is a sentence fragment, another practice against which there is a rule. Which can be broken.)

And a third: Avoid contractions

The old thinking is that contractions—like you’ll, they’d, should’ve—are informal, crass even—and, as such, there’s no place for them in written English.

But they do have their place! I use contractions all the time. You’ll notice they’re dotted throughout The Clarity Chronicles.

Using contractions, like ending a sentence with a preposition or starting one with a conjunction, can make your writing more conversational, friendly and accessible. For that reason, contractions work well in a newsletter like this because it has a personal style.

While conventional wisdom holds that you should avoid using contractions in more formal documents like legal pleadings or a contract, even that notion is being challenged by plain language advocates around the world.

As Bryan Garner, law professor and author of several best-selling books, including Legal Writing in Plain English, tells us: “A 1989 study confirmed…that frequent contractions enhance readability. This advice applies not just to briefs but also to contracts, rules and other legal documents.”

Mon dieu! What is the world coming to? Next thing you know, they’ll be tossing out all those recycling rules. And then, I ask you, from where will I get all my fun?

Remember this: 
Feel free to deviate from grammar rules—like don’t end a sentence with a preposition, don’t start one with a conjunction, and don’t use contractions—if doing so will make your copy clearer, more conversational, and more stylistically interesting.

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