Those Darn Writing Rules
You’ve heard the “rules”: 1) Start sentences with capital letters. 2) Never start a sentence with a conjunction. 3) End sentences with a period, question mark, or exclamation point. 4) Never end a sentence with a preposition, etc. But some of these rules aren’t actual writing rules? For some reason, someone made up several of these. Following are some “rules” you can skip.
Never start a sentence with a conjunction
There’s no reason why you can’t use a coordinating conjunction (and, or, nor, but, for, so, yet) to connect one sentence to the previous one. And there’s a whole host of subordinating conjunctions (e.g., after, if, when, until, because, while) that you can also use to start a sentence.
Never end a sentence with a preposition
- This may be the granddaddy of grammar prohibitions. (Comic relief: This heading ends with “a preposition”.) In fact, a sentence should not end with a preposition when the preposition is redundant (e.g., Where’s he at? is wrong, because “where” means “at what place”, so the “at” is wrong). However, in some cases, ending with a preposition is totally appropriate (e.g., What are you waiting for?).
One of the most common examples of this non-rule is attributed to Sir Winston Churchill, though it may be more of a joke than an actual event. It seems that an editor or clerk scolded Sir Winston for ending a sentence with a preposition, and Sir Winston penciled this in the document: This is the sort of bloody (or arrant) nonsense up with which I will not put. There’s a fair amount of discussion online about this apocryphal line. When this “rule” is overridden, the Sir Winston’ sentence would read: This is the sort of bloody nonsense I will not put up with, which sounds much better to the ear.
Certainly, there’s formality in appropriate writing, but using stilted phrases in order to adhere to a non-existent rule is ineffective. So, don’t worry about ending a sentence with a preposition, except as noted in the first paragraph above.
Never split an infinitive
An infinitive usually begins with to and is followed by the simple form of the verb (e.g., to be, to go). In appropriate situations, it’s okay to split an infinitive (e.g., To deliberately split an infinitive is correct and acceptable English.). In an anecdote, a youngster was asked to read some lines in a school play. One of the sentences involved splitting an infinitive. He was really concerned because he had infinity and atom splitting in mind and thought the worst would happen. Bottom line: Separating to from the verb is another tool for constructing creative phrases and sentences.
Never use “none” with a plural verb form
None means “not one” or “not any”. So the rule that some sources insist on is that it always be treated as singular and be followed by a singular verb (e.g., The search party looked for survivors, but none was found.). But for over 1,000 years, none has been used with both singular and plural verbs. In the example above, the “survivors” implies “not any persons or things”, so a plural verb is more common (e.g., … none were found. So, when none is used for a singular noun or for a mass noun (e.g., people, money, equipment), use a singular verb (e.g., None (not one) of the people was dressed appropriately for the weather.) And when none is used for a plural noun (e.g., birds, houses, rockets), use a singular or a plural verb, depending on the desired meaning (e.g., None (not any of them) of the people were dressed appropriately for the weather.)
Always/Never use a serial (or Oxford) comma
- A serial comma is a comma placed immediately before a coordinating conjunction (e.g., and, or, nor) in a series of three or more terms. Using it is up to the author and “rules” of his or her publisher. British English and American English usage differ. Example:
Jane had a number of cookie recipes: butter, sugar and chocolate chip and coconut.
Without a serial comma, a reader doesn’t know whether the last recipe in this list is a combination of peanut butter and chocolate chip or a combination of chocolate chip and coconut. To make the meaning clear, the writer would have to insert a comma either after peanut butter or after chocolate chip. Or maybe even better, just rewrite the sentence to avoid the confusion. So, while a serial comma isn’t always necessary, it often adds clarity. And if there’s any doubt about whether to use one, and unless written space is extremely expensive, it’s probably better to err on the side of using it. One thing though: It’s usage should be consistent.
Never write sentence fragments
Right. Like writers don’t do this a lot. And to good effect. It’s not always necessary to write complete sentences. However, the sentence fragments need to make sense.
Never use passive voice
Passive voice refers to a construction where is acted upon instead of the subject performing an action. Passive voice example: The entire stretch of highway was cleaned up by the volunteer crew. Active voice example: The volunteer crew cleaned up the entire stretch of highway. Even though passive voice is frowned on, it’s sometimes necessary. Writers use it when they want to hide or don’t know the person or thing responsible for an action. They also use it when the agent of the action is less important than what happened. (e.g., Mistakes were unavoidable. John was hit by a car that came out of nowhere.)
While there are real rules you need to learn and follow, the ones above are not some of them. But don’t let non-rules limit your writing.
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