Forget About It: 3 Grammar Rules You Can Ignore

Grammar can be scary.

For many, learning and practicing good grammar may seem more like a punishment than an awesome opportunity to mold words into powerful ideas.

This fear may have grown into full blown anxiety – no one likes having their grammar questioned. The result of this anxiety is not writing, proofreading paralysis, becoming overly defensive (not open to criticism), or obsessing over non-standard “grammar rules” that most grammarians couldn’t care less about.

Yes, I ended a sentence in a preposition and I liked it. You did too, because “obsessing over non-standard ‘grammar rules’ about which most grammarians couldn’t care less” sounds condescending and arrogant.

Article writing is about connecting with readers, building trust, and then taking a little journey together (whether to build long-lasting relationships, encourage an exchange, or more). The best way to connect is through your voice, not your words.

Wait! Before you throw grammar completely out the window, remember that your readers still need to understand your message in order to connect with you. Always practice good grammar, but feel free to relax by tossing these 3 “grammar rules” right out the window.

“Don’t End a Sentence with a Preposition”

“What are you looking at?” – Madonna, Vogue

Some attribute this “rule” to John Dryden (English poet and literary critic); others say it was Robert Lowth (Oxford professor and Church of England bishop). Whoever it was, the shift to remove ourselves from ending sentences in a preposition was created to emulate Latin structure. Some rejected it; some didn’t because it often reads unnaturally. The opening of Madonna’s “Vogue” would sound odd if she stated, “At what are you looking?” Either way, don’t go out of your way to not end a sentence in a preposition because your third grade teacher scolded you.

Exception: Avoid using prepositions when they’re not needed. For example, the word “at” in “Where are you at?” is entirely superfluous. “Where are you?” is stronger and more precise.

“Don’t Start a Sentence with a Conjunction”

“Reader, suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.” – Mark Twain

A conjunction is a word that joins words, phrases, clauses, or sentences. We’ve talked about conjunctions before and I stand by our message: You can use “and” or “but” at the beginning of a sentence. And it’s great to use for emphasis. But the key is to not overdo it. Because your style could become too aggressive if you do. And choppy. Or even appear forgetful.

“Don’t Use ‘Which’ for ‘That'”

“That which does not kill me makes me stronger.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

The “proper” usage of the word “which” is used to ask for information specifying one or more people or things from a definite set and for nonrestrictive clauses (often functioning as a conjunction separating two related independent clauses). “That” is reserved for restrictive clauses (the sentence cannot be understood without the given clause). Let’s take a closer look:

The man threw the melons away that were more than one week old. (Restrictive)
The man threw the melons away, which were more than one week old. (Nonrestrictive)

As you can see, the sentences carry the same meaning, but emphasize different points. However, it’s becoming more widely accepted to use the word “which” for restrictive clauses (commonly used in British English).

The man threw the melons away which were more than one week old. (Restrictive)

Which style should you use? That’s entirely up to you.

At the end of the day, you should be comfortable with your writing. The more you write, share your ideas, and open yourself up to criticism, the better your grammar will become and the more you’ll discover what works (and what doesn’t). It takes a lot of work to master your style and to engage readers, but it’s well worth it.

What other grammar rules would you add to the toss bin? Let us know – we’d love to hear from you!

50 Comments »


1

Great post on grammar. As a published writer myself, and regular contributor to EzineArticles, I am forever looking at the different ways we use grammar. For instance, I am especially interested in when and when not separate a list of adjectives with a comma (e.g. it was long, dark, winding passage). Grammar can often be quite tricky in such cases.

Comment provided May 1, 2013 at 10:09 AM

[Reply]

2
Brian Donohue writes:

When I was writing my Master’s thesis, my prof-advisor encouraged me to follow the rule of always setting adverbs after the verbs they modify. I disagreed, pointing out that this rule was not meant to be inflexible. So it’s less a matter of “throwing out” the rules than it is of working flexibly with them.

Comment provided May 1, 2013 at 11:41 AM

[Reply]

Glen Ford writes:

The problem with your prof’s advice is well illustrated in the sentence “To boldly split infinitives is an impossibilty. However, it isn’t really bad English.” Following the advice gives “To split boldly infinitives is an impossibilty. However, it isn’t really bad English.’ In this case, it really is bad English (and doesn’t really make sense).

[Reply]

Tom Nolan writes:

What about: “To split infinitives boldly is an impossibility.”
That would appear to answer most quibbles. Personally, if I wanted to express that idea – which is doubtful – I would say, “It is impossible to split infinitives boldly.”

[Reply]

Glen Ford writes:

1. It was meant to be ungainly
2. Boldly is an adverb and belongs immediately after the verb according to the rules.
3. so would I if pushed …. but more likely I would split the infinitive (giving a much stronger sentence).
4. Notice the next sentence?

[Reply]

3
davidinnotts writes:

Great article! And one of several on this topic, I trust.

But I take issue with two of the examples.

First (maybe because I’m a Brit?), “Where are you at?” is, to me, a different phrase than “Where are you?”. For me, the first is asking, “what is your current position in relation to the context we’re discussing”; ie, sales for the month, mental state, etc. rather than simply geographical location, as in the other.

Second, in the melons example, in the first case only some of the melons were discarded; in the other, all of them were. This is a far stronger difference than “the sentences carry the same meaning but emphasize different points.”

But you’re right: the old Grammar Masters have a lot to answer for, trying to restrict English usage into the straitjacket of Latin grammar as they did. But do note that in their day (18th & 19th centuries) most who learned English grammar were also (and usually previously) drilled in Latin grammar first. Not so today!

Please add some more of these restrictions which no longer have their dreadful force.

Comment provided May 1, 2013 at 11:42 AM

[Reply]

Roger S writes:

Totally agree. And remove the comma from the second melon sentence and you do have exactly the same meaning. It’s the comma that/which makes the difference, not the choice of which or that.
This lack of difference it also applies to some other ‘W’ words: the reason why/that we think that is because XYZ; the person who/that said that is over there; the season that/when we sing carols is Christmas; the place that/where we first met. But you can only use the comma before the W word in this type of sentence, and still have a meaningful sentence

[Reply]

davidinnotts writes:

The UK use of ‘which’ where most would use ‘that’ is quite long-standing. It was certainly current 100 years ago: I have several examples from literate and fairly well-known authors.

[Reply]

4
Glen Ford writes:

The split infinitive rule has the same origins (Victorian England) and reasoning as the “ending with a preposition”. The silly part in this one is that English doesn’t actually have infinitives … it has a clause which performs the same function (‘to split). Linguistically, inifintives are single words with a specific ending. Therefore you can’t split an infinitive in any language. To boldly split infinitives is an impossibilty. However, it isn’t really bad English.

Comment provided May 1, 2013 at 11:46 AM

[Reply]

Glen Ford writes:

Oops … Make the really isn’t. …

[Reply]

5
jeff kane writes:

I would like to something on words that sound a like but aren’t the same thing like there ,their, where and wear and so on.

Comment provided May 1, 2013 at 12:16 PM

[Reply]

6

Actually, it was my fourth grade teacher that took me to task on ending a sentence with a preposition.

In all seriousness, I’m glad to finally read something definitive on the whole “prepositions at the end of a sentence” thing. It also encourages me that I’m not the only one who thinks that it’s silly to NEVER use a preposition at the end of a sentenceyou

Comment provided May 1, 2013 at 1:32 PM

[Reply]

7
Carolyn writes:

I still maintain, one must learn the rules, first, prior to being able to breaking them. There are many reasons for this that I cannot discuss, at the moment.
The writer as well as those commenting obviously have that advantage in order to be able to discuss the pros and cons. Otherwise, what has happened in music
will happen in language usage. Today, even Music Majors do not always know what a melody is, nor what it is to sing in tune.
Rules and form are essential for any creative endeavor. Without knowing these fundamentals,
a musician, or writer, cannot expand, or create something original.

Comment provided May 1, 2013 at 2:45 PM

[Reply]

Glen Ford writes:

I have to agree (though not wholeheartedly). It’s also true in art (e.g. painting). Picasso for example painted realistically for many years before adopting an abstract style. While creativity can occur without the fundamentals, quality seldom does.

The point is really, twofold …
Firstly, that the rules often aren’t real rules (many are just opinions of a Victorian era Latin/Greek bigot).

Second, that we’re no longer in school and our focus must be on communications not correct useage.

[Reply]

davidinnotts writes:

Carolyn. Glen; let’s get back to basics:

1) In English usage, the rules are much disputed in detail and are actually quite a lot different from the rigid rules of Classical Latin, as used to be taught in most English-speaking secondary education. English is very flexible in use, which is why those old rules were often nonsense. This is quite different from music, where the rules are needed to write stuff which people can recognize as Western music. But the basic guidelines, as taught to English-as-a-foreign-language students in their first year, are good. Little kids who grow up learning and using the rules in speech before they can write will usually get it right – and where they don’t, it’s because the rules are bad or the part of speech non-rational. (Eg., saying ‘foots’ instead of ‘feet’ is rational in modern English, despite being ‘wrong’; i.e. it isn’t yet accepted in place of a left-over Middle English plural.)

2) Rule Zero is that you must be understandable by other English speakers. This means that syntax that works well in other languages will generally be understood in English, albeit seen as non-Native (but often not the other way round). But it also means that the speech cadence in English is all-important. So speaking your text aloud will often give the best pointer to good modern English grammar and punctuation.

So Andy’s query in the first comment has a simple answer: commas come after an adjective that’s a separate qualifier from the next one; which also means that the last adjective needs no comma before the noun. And if an adjective qualifies the one after it, no comma is needed. Construct a sentence with all this in, then speak it out, using the commas appropriately as pauses, and you’ll hear it all in action!

“Gemma wore a slim, slinky, see-through, sunset yellow dress.”

[Reply]

8
Jim writes:

Thank you! If you’re obsessing with minor details like these rather than the content/message, you’re obviously missing the point.

Comment provided May 1, 2013 at 3:01 PM

[Reply]

Glen Ford writes:

Naw … we’re writers who are avoiding work. :D

And trying not to complain about writers who don’t know the rules they are breaking while complaining around the subject.

]:)

[Reply]

9
John Madden writes:

I agree with you very much on the commonly used phrase “Where are you at?” Horrible English!
(I’m from Ireland and England in that order).Also, how many “well educated” people, including TV and radio broadcasters do I hear saying: “We’re now waiting ‘on’ more infrormation from………..” instead of “waiting ‘for’ more information.” You’d never hear Tom Brokaw or Katie Couric talk like that! Now, of course, a waiter is “waiting on” the two customers at table 2 is correct – the only time the word on is properly used after waiting. I enjoy and thank you for all your tips!

Comment provided May 1, 2013 at 3:25 PM

[Reply]

Gary Jacobsen writes:

I once heard Tom Brokaw incorrectly use *podium* for *lectern* during the presidential debates. He also uses “decimate” incorrectly when reporting the news.

[Reply]

Glen Ford writes:

Sorry but Oxford dictionary defines podium as North American a lectern. Websters does as well.
Personally, I also differentiate them but in fact it is acceptable.

[Reply]

10
Randall Magwood writes:

These are definitely some advanced writing tips… things i definitely didn’t pay attention in English class lol. But they are great grammar rules, and they’re something that I look forward to applying to my own articles.

Comment provided May 1, 2013 at 4:37 PM

[Reply]

11
Lance Winslow writes:

Cool examples here today, thanks.

Comment provided May 1, 2013 at 9:58 PM

[Reply]

12
Chato Stewart writes:

Good writing tips, easy and definitely advance grammar rules.

Comment provided May 2, 2013 at 12:07 AM

[Reply]

13
Barry Wilkinson writes:

I’d like to toss in another grammar rule here. It’s the difference between ‘a’ and ‘an’. Being British I pronounce the word ‘herb’ sounding the initial ‘h’. Americans seem to treat the initial h as silent, therefore they would say … an herb… whereas I would say …a herb… As this rule depends on how one articulates a word, can there be any hard and fast consistent rule here?

As my business model is selling to Americans it would be good to know how examples such as ‘a herb’ is understood by them as good or bad English.

Comment provided May 2, 2013 at 12:07 AM

[Reply]

davidinnotts writes:

In sensible English, Barry, there’s one rule (and never you mind those pedants!) Use the rule as you’d pronounce the word. By writing ‘a herb’ rather than ‘an herb’, you’ve told us how to pronounce ‘herb’ if we’re to follow you. We get the same problem with acronyms: is it ‘an U.N.C.L.E. henchman’ or ‘a U.N.C.L.E. henchman’? by specifying ‘a’ or ‘an’, you’ve told us whether you want us to pronounce Bond’s adversaries as the word ‘uncle’, or spelled out as single letters.

[Reply]

Barry Wilkinson writes:

Thanks for your input David. As you intimate, my question could be pedantic but I have found that American spelling and grammar works better when selling to Americans. The ‘a-an’ question hasn’t actually been a problem yet, I’m just inetersted.

And speaking of pedanticism, I don’t think Bond ever mixed with the U.N.C.L.E. crowd. :-)

[Reply]

davidinnotts writes:

Good point about non-Americans having to use US idiom to get much recognition in the ‘States. In my last book I found myself slipping that way, too. And Martin Avis ( http://kickstartnewsletter.com/archive/ ) does so in most of his internationally-distributed e-newsletters, written from sunny Sidcup in ex-Kent. As email newsletter promotion is his business, I reckon that he knows what works! (Go to his home page for a free e-book on this.)

In general, though, US grammar is very similar to other English styles – until you begin to get into casual language, where all the local English versions diverge alarmingly. But that’s what this series is about: finding a comfortable English style that isn’t too pedantic, but won’t offend ordinary but well-educated readers anywhere. That way, you gain maximum contented readership.

(Bond may not have mixed with that rival lot, but Fleming had quite a bustup with the TV film people over the name Solo – it began in something Bond, I think.)

[Reply]

14

A well informative article. It is common to see the sentences ending with a preposition such as the above that you pointed in your article. This is especially used to create excessive prompt however this may not be right. Thanks for pointing towards this angle. A pretty cool article. :)

Comment provided May 2, 2013 at 12:42 AM

[Reply]

15
Robin writes:

As an Australian English writer, I use which frequently, but I always see how well it fits into the sentence I am writing. Often, you can leave “that” out of a sentence without adversely impacting on the meaning. When that is the case, I leave it out.

Thanks for writing these articles. They help us revise and think about what we are doing. And, too often we are as someone said,

Comment provided May 2, 2013 at 1:36 AM

[Reply]

Gary Jacobsen writes:

The relative pronoun *that* is used to introduce a restrictive clause, such as: The car that is parked at the curb was damaged. The relative *which* is used to introduce a nonrestrictive clause, such as: The car, which is parked at the curb, was damaged.

When *which* is used, the entire clause can be dropped without changing the author’s meaning. The relative *that,* however, is essential in the sentence.

Use them correctly. Think!

[Reply]

Glen Ford writes:

Not necessarily … We’ve already heard from the English, Australian (and now from the Canadians) … Which is the preferred form … that is seldom used. And since the language is English (not American) being insulting about our preferred useage is hardly useful. We could be just as insulting about your abuse of the language in return.

And trust me, as a writer, I do think … as does everyone else on this thread based on the odd-ball responses.

[Reply]

Roger S writes:

Remove your commas from sentence 2 and you have the same meaning as sentence 1. But you can’t add commas to sentence 1. Using which is only appropriate when you want to use commas to give more information about the subject of the sentence. The technical name for this is extra information is an appositional phrase.

[Reply]

16
Robin writes:

… divided by a common language.

Comment provided May 2, 2013 at 1:40 AM

[Reply]

17

Nice to read another piece on grammar. Words “That” and “Which” can be used depending on the context to stress your point.

Comment provided May 2, 2013 at 5:00 AM

[Reply]

18
Gary Jacobsen writes:

Writers incorrectly substitute *which* for *that* because they are lazy or ignorant, or both. The relative pronoun *which* is used to refer to animals, things, and ideas. The relative *that* may refer to both persons and things. Consider:

Preferred: The man who is standing by the door is my cousin.
Acceptable: The man that is standing by the door is my cousin.
Dead wrong: The man which is standing by the door is my cousin.

Comment provided May 2, 2013 at 7:48 AM

[Reply]

Glen Ford writes:

Being insulting is hardly useful … and quite likely incorrect.

[Reply]

davidinnotts writes:

As a Brit, Gary, I’m backing up your usage in both your examples. And MS Word agrees in both the US and UK versions of the grammar checker (which is based on the ‘Grammatik 5’ program famously first used in pre-Windows WordPerfect). If I occasionally slip when I’m writing, Word points out right away that I need to check and be sure that my style got it as I intended. Not that I agree with Word every time!

And, Glen, I’m sure no slight was intended – I can’t see one in what Gary wrote.

[Reply]

19
Gracious Store writes:

I often have a hard time figuring out when to use “which” or “that”, your explanation of the restrictive and nonrestrictive phrases shades some light for me.
Thanks

Comment provided May 3, 2013 at 6:32 PM

[Reply]

20

At the risk of sounding like an old stick in the mud, I respectfully, but strongly, disagree. When I see a “professionally” written article that contains a sentence ending in preposition it sets my teeth on edge. It it is bad grammar–period –Why write in a way that makes you sound inarticulate, ignorant or uninformed?

As to the “that/which” debate…this is a SIMPLE rule to follow…why would you tell people to pretend it doesn’t exist? Not learning how to do something properly is–as Gary said–lazy. And lazy writers usually are lazy in other ways, as well.

Using a conjunction to start a sentence CAN work…sometimes, but it rarely is necessary. Your work almost always will sound better if you simply leave the conjunction out.

One final word..If you are writing for a publication that uses AP Style these grammar errors will NEVER be allowed…another good reason to do it the right way the first time around.

Comment provided May 4, 2013 at 2:23 PM

[Reply]

davidinnotts writes:

Just shows that pedantry is alive and well and has strongly influenced a lot of us, Kathleen!

Can I repeat that such rules as (especially) ‘do not start or end a sentence with a conjunction’ and ‘never split an infinitive’ are fast rules neither for the great writers nor almost all native English speakers; and even most grammar teachers break their own rules constantly in casual speech (and I do not mean slang).

These rules were deliberately and artificially constructed in the 18th century and reinforced in the 19th by a series of unimpressive ‘primers’ of English grammar for the sons of gentry in ‘grammar schools’ – sons many of whom would have outclassed these teachers even before they entered their station or career.

Most are not rigid rules even in Classical Latin, nor in English do they follow the example of the best Renaissance writers. Instead, they suit the pedantic mind that must have a rule to cover situations where flair and insight serve better but are lacking. Their only utility is as a guide for the young learner, useful until flexible needs can ‘bend’ them to enhance the prose. If you read the letters of typical writers of these centuries, you will see how far from actual practice these pedants stray; the examples above prove the point.
So by all means use the rules for guidance to general practice, but – knowing them – write differently if excellent expression demands.

I’m sorry that an ending preposition grates on you; but it isn’t your fault – it’s the fault of English teachers who taught you the kiddies’ rule but failed to teach you when to be flexible. In the same way, I am still reprimanded by my wife (after 45 years!) for using the word ‘nice’ at all. An influential teacher drilled into her that there was always another word that would serve instead, and ‘nice’ was lazy thinking. The teacher was correct; nevertheless, ‘nice’ has its place in good English expression, and so do other usages which break the teacher’s rules while preserving style and verve. Keep the rule-binding for the beginner!

[Reply]

Not getting into a peeing contest here, but I disagree–again. Any legitimate artist will concede that you have to take the time to learn the basics before you are good enough to start breaking the rules. Joyce didn’t start out writing Ulysses. I dont think any of us is at a place where we can routinely be that creative with grammar and get away with it. If you can — GREAT! When you publish your first best seller, let me know.

Finally, I am 50 years past grammar school and my opinions have evolved since then. It’s both ridiculous and condescending to lame my third grade teacher for the way I think, act, feel, or believe today.

[Reply]

That was blame my teacher –my keyboard is sticking again..

[Reply]

davidinnotts writes:

Sorry if I didn’t make that clear, Kathleen. Of course you have to learn the rules first! And of course our personal skill, acuity and opinions will evolve over time (a lot of it in my case!). But, as they say correctly, ‘old habits die hard’, and a lot of psychiatrists have made a fat living trying to turn round misconceptions fixed in childhood – particularly those learned via pain.

What we’re discussing here isn’t so serious as that, but I still find myself reciting old grammar rules under my breath (‘i’, ‘e’ and ‘c’ comes to mind). The greatest writers and grammarians have deprecated those two rules in hard-and-fast use, rather than as a guide. We should surely follow those exemplars rather than Victorian pedantry?

As an English teacher, I taught those rules and frequently reminded my students of those rules. But when they pointed out laudable exceptions, I tended to stop the class working to hold an impromptu 5-minute debate on why we needed the rule and did they think that it was good to break it in this case? Every time, these average teens agreed that the exception ‘sounded better’ than the pedantic alternative, but the rule was generally best. Case closed.

[Reply]

davidinnotts writes:

Oh, and as you’re quoting the Associated Press Style Book, do not forget that this guide is in constant flux; reflecting, not commanding, changes in actual US usage. There are other influential style books and they differ considerably on many points. Are all the others wrong – period? Was AP Style itself wrong – period – in the previous edition? Is the King James Bible wrong – period – because it does not conform to AP Style, 2011 version? When I edit an English book from the 1930s (as I am doing while I interrupt myself on this rant) am I right to be irritated to find that the US editor of 10 years ago had the gall to ‘correct’ the spelling of this famous book to US preference of that day? If you write for AP, OK – you have to follow their guide unless you can overrule the editor. If you’re writing for yourself – as you will be in EzineArticles – please yourself… and your readership.

Style guides are just that – a guide. They aim to get authors to conform to the preferred practice of the institution which issues the guide. You may be surprised (I hope not) to find that when an internationally-famous writer tells AP that their text WILL NOT be edited to match the guide – AP defers. Many famous authors have battled equally famous editors on just this point – and it’s why we still don’t know just what Shakspere actually wrote: his text was so heavily altered by the publisher’s editors. And you may be shocked to find that those editors were paid, not to edit, but to typeset that golden prose, but being Compositors and members of a Print Union, knew better than the Author, and had the clout to do as they willed. God save us from the pedant!

Rant over.

[Reply]

21
shreya writes:

Thanks for this writing tips, easy and definitely advance grammar rules.

Comment provided May 6, 2013 at 4:45 AM

[Reply]

22
Roger S writes:

I’m surprised no one has quoted Winston Churchill on the preposition topic

Comment provided May 6, 2013 at 8:44 AM

[Reply]

davidinnotts writes:

Please do – and tell us where you found it! I don’t know this one.

[Reply]

23
NOEL MOITRA writes:

Hi,
Both your ‘sample’ sentences were wrong.
The man threw the melons away which were more than one week old. This is BS.

The correct form is:
The man threw away those melons that were more than one week old.

Comment provided May 31, 2013 at 3:10 AM

[Reply]

24

There have been so many comments about the “that/ which” rule here that it’s making my head spin. The real grammar issue, however, is the simple fact that “that” and “which” are NOT interchangeable. The author, in this case, is just wrong.

In other words, the two sentences —
The man threw away the melons, which were bad.
The man threw away the melons that were bad.

do not say the same thing. In one case he threw away all of the melons; in the other he only threw away the melons that had gone bad.

That’s all I’m going to say on the subject..I think I’ve already said too much…LOL!

Comment provided June 5, 2013 at 2:40 PM

[Reply]

davidinnotts writes:

Spot on, Kathleen!

[Reply]

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Leave a comment

Please read our comment policy before commenting.