Six writing rules that are actually myths
Writing rules are taught in primary school—they are the bread and butter of learning to write. Simple (often rhyming) phrases such as i before e, except after c are chiselled into our brains, meaning we remember them well into adulthood.
These rules are often necessary for children to grasp the basics of language; however, as editors and writers, it can be disheartening to find out that many of the rules that shaped our understanding of language are actually not so correct. Still, as we grow into more skilled wordsmiths, it’s important for us to leave these mythical rules behind. Hopefully, after reading this post, you understand these ‘rules’ a bit better.
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RULE ONE: say [name] and I, not [name] and me
I remember peers scolding me whenever I said, for example, George and me. This rule always felt so awkward to me, like I was missing the whole picture, and I definitely recall challenging it with several people. So, I was happy to find out a few years ago that, no, it isn’t always correct to say George and I.
The rule still stands for sentences where George and I are the subject (the person or thing doing the action) of the sentence (for example, George and I are going to lunch).
But if George and I was the object (acted on by the subject) of the sentence, the phrase would become George and me (for example, Sarah asked George and me to come to lunch). A handy way to test if you are using me correctly is to remove George’s name and and, and then ask: Does the sentence still make sense?
RULE TWO: NEVER USE PASSIVE VOICE
While passive voice is often to blame in weak writing, in some instances, passive voice is necessary. It’s true that active voice is often preferable, but only because it is more direct and stronger than passive voice.
In creative writing, passive voice is often acceptable as it’s not always possible to associate a person with an action (because we don’t want to or because we don’t know who the person is). For example, My sandwich has been stolen from the fridge.
In professional writing, passive voice is sometimes preferred because it distances the subject from the action—which normally makes for weak writing, unless you are purposely creating distance. The same example as above applies (My sandwich has been stolen from the fridge): You may use passive voice here to avoid naming someone or sounding accusatory.
Passive voice can also indicate that the object of the action is the most important part of the sentence. For example, My sandwich was replaced a week later. Here, it doesn’t matter who replaced it—the object (the sandwich) is more important than the subject.
RULE THREE: NEVER END A SENTENCE IN A PREPOSITION
I always felt guilty about using a preposition at the end of a sentence until I learnt that it’s actually ok.
In some cases it’s best to avoid the preposition at the end of a sentence; however, most of the time it’s necessary to avoid a contrived or unnatural sentence. The trick with this rule is that if you can rearrange the sentence without it sounding awkward, then do so. Otherwise, it’s best to leave the preposition at the end of the sentence—remember, it’s not grammatically incorrect, so don’t feel bad for leaving it.
The following sentence is fine with the preposition at the end: The girl I went to the formal with is better and less awkward than, The girl with whom I went to the formal. Because it’s not any more grammatically correct to rearrange the sentence, you can leave the with at the end.
Note: In some sentences, the preposition at the end is part of a phrasal verb, and you won’t be able to rearrange it, even if you try. For example, It gave me something to look forward to and He was difficult to depend on.
RULE FOUR: NEVER use but, and, or however at the beginning of a sentence
Trust me: Doing this is fine—it can even help to make your writing more varied (just don’t overdo it!). The myth is that because these words are conjunctions, they suggest that the beginning of the sentence is a fragment (and, therefore, the sentence expresses an incomplete thought and is grammatically incorrect). However, this is not true. The rule stands as more of a stylistic preference, rather than being grammatically incorrect.
Note: Starting a sentence with however is fine, as long as you add a comma after however. However, (I couldn’t help myself) this is only true when the however is being used as a conjunction (not to mean regardless of how).
RULE FIVE: NEVER split infinitives
Infinitives are two-word forms of verbs (for example, to eat or to dance). A split infinitive is formed when you add an adverb in between the two words (for example, to hurriedly eat or to frantically dance). The concern with this rule was that the two words were split for seemingly no reason.
There are several ifs to consider if you are thinking about using a split infinitive. If the meaning in your sentence is still clear, even with the split infinitive, go ahead and use it. Would the sentence work better if you rewrote it without the split infinitive? If so, consider rewriting. The basic idea, though, is that it’s not wrong, but if the split infinitive makes your sentence unclear, rewrite it.
Split infinitives can also be used in creative writing, and to great effect; a famous example is Star Trek’s to boldly go.
RULE SIX: use a comma when YOU pause
The rule use a comma wherever you pause may be a simple way to introduce kids to how commas are used, but it isn’t reliable—at all! Some sentences may call for a comma where you’d take a pause, but it’s better to follow set rules, and not this myth, when deciding where to punctuate. Our Quick Guide to Commas might help out here.
I hope my myth-busting has helped to clear up some confusing rules for you. Now that you know the truth, please, be bad—break the ‘rules’!
Have you been sticking to these rules in your writing? Let me know in the comments.
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