Forget What Your English Teacher Told You

Old school grammarians cringe and shake their heads when they read contemporary writing fraught with contractions, sentence fragments, and sentences started with conjunctions. Here’s a new mantra for those still writing old school: Know the rules – then break them.

chalk and chalkboardI had the best English teacher ever in high school. He taught me to love literature (especially Shakespeare), and to write well. I came to hate grammar lessons because Mr. Borek was absolutely inflexible and insisted that we learn (in my opinion) obscure grammar and parts of speech. It was torture and I still struggle with it. Mr. Borek had a lot of ‘rules’ but he always said:  “Know the rules and then break them.” If you’re breaking a rule on purpose for a reason (not because you can’t be bothered to edit) then do it. I think I heard a collective gasp from the grammarian peanut gallery. Hang on!

Here are some English rules that are OK to break, and some you must break.

Sentence Fragments
A sentence consists of a subject and a verb. Full sentences are still very necessary, but sentence fragments are OK in certain circumstances. You can’t write an entire manuscript with sentence fragments, who would read that? But a well-placed sentence fragment can convey extra meaning to readers. This holds especially true when writing dialogue, either spoken or internal. Sentence fragments help with pacing and tension by making things feel as though they are happening faster. “Quick. He’s coming.”

Run-On Sentences
If there was one grammatical error I committed in school more than any other it was run-on sentences. I use run-on sentences as much as sentence fragments, but I do it for a reason. Just like sentence fragments can quicken the pace of a scene and create tension, run-on sentences do the opposite. As with sentence fragments, run-on sentences have power only if they’re used sparingly with a purpose.

A contraction is two words pushed together with an apostrophe signifying where the missing letters should be. Unless you’re choosing to not use contractions for a reason, you’re writing a historical for example or maybe a scientific paper, the use of contractions is more than acceptable – it’s expected. However, please PLEASE use them correctly. Could of, would of, should of, are all incorrect. I’ve (I have), would’ve (would have), don’t (do not) are all proper contractions. See Marcy’s post on common grammar mistakes.

Exclamation points, colons, and dashes
When I started editing marketing materials, this is how the conversation would go:
Lisa: “That exclamation point is incorrect.”
Lisa’s Boss: “Yeah, so?”
Lisa: “OK, but five is excessive.”
Lisa’s Boss: <sigh> “Fine, only use one.”

When writing promotional material and marketing copy, inappropriate and even flagrant misuse of exclamations points, dashes, and other points of punctuation are acceptable. Marketers want to draw readers’ attention to specific lines of copy – the action sentences: do this, buy that, click here. They underline and bold text for the same purposes. They’re breaking the rules on purpose. Just remember that even though the rules are broken in marketing copy, these grammar rules are hard and fast almost everywhere else.

Whom sounds old-fashioned doesn’t it? This word has fallen out of favour. Even in circumstances where whom is grammatically correct, no one uses it anymore. I’ve had editors change this word in copy edits – not many places still use this formal style of writing.

But we were taught that sentences do not begin with a conjunction. The rules around ‘and’ and ‘but’ especially have loosened considerably, and you’ll find sentences begin with conjunctions almost everywhere. In fiction, writers are looking for authenticity in dialogue and with the popularity of deep POV it’s become very important for characters to sound real. Do you use proper English in every conversation you’re having with yourself or other people? This is completely acceptable – but like all the other rules know that you’re breaking the rule, and why. Ignorance is not an excuse.

What rules were you taught that you find broken by writers and authors?


**We’ve moved! Please join us at our new permanent homes. You can find Marcy at her website and Lisa at her website.


2 comments on “Forget What Your English Teacher Told You

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s