English Grammar - Seven Outdated Rules You Can Ignore


No matter what your fifth-grade English teacher says, some grammar "rules" no longer apply. The style mavens of our day all agree that the ability to communicate clearly and concisely takes precedence over archaic grammar rules. Stop chewing your pencils and forget about these rules. Each rule is followed by a grammatically correct sentence.

1. Never split an infinitive.
I want to carefully consider all of the options presented to me.

Following this rule all of the time will make your prose unnecessarily academic and stuffy. When in doubt, don't split the infinitive. But if splitting the infinitive conveys your meaning more clearly and concisely, split away.

2. Active verbs are always better than passive verbs.
Jerry was robbed. (The active alternative: Somebody robbed Jerry.)

Generally, active verbs are better. In the following cases, however, passive tense works just fine.
*When you don't want to mention who did it
*When you don't know who did it
*When who did it is irrelevant
*When the passive voice places the emphasis where you want it

3. Never start a sentence with a conjunction (and, or, but).
And then he left, never looking back.

Starting a sentence with a conjunction can help transition from one idea to another or add a dramatic tone to a passage. If you start sentences this way too often, your paragraphs will sound like one long run-on sentence. Use conjunctions at the start of sentences judiciously.

4. Never start a sentence with there are or there is.
There is no excuse for your behavior.

Sentences that begin with there are and there is are usually weak sentences in need of a stronger noun. But making a conscious decision to start a sentence this way to place emphasis on specific words is perfectly acceptable. "Your behavior is inexcusable" and "You have no excuse for your behavior" just don't sound as stern as the sentence above.

5. Never end a sentence with a preposition.
What is he pointing at?

This holdover from the 18th century has no place in modern language. Imagine how stilted and formal our language would be if we followed this rule! According to Words into Type, Winston Churchill once said, "This is the kind of nonsense up with which I will not put" in defense of the terminal preposition.

6. Always use more than instead of over with numbers.
The relic is over 300 years old.

Over, more than and in excess of can all be used with numbers. Let your ear, rather than a rigid rule, be your guide.

7. Data is plural, so the verb must always be plural.
The data proves his thesis.

Like several other plural words with Latin origins, data is now accepted as either singular or plural, as any up-to-date dictionary will confirm. When was the last time you heard someone use the word datum (the singular of data) in a sentence?

Need more proof that these rules are outdated? We've got citations from several respected references at http://www.writing911.com.

© 2005, Kivi Leroux Miller. All Rights Reserved.

Kivi Leroux Miller is president of Writing911.com, which provides free writing advice, tip sheets, e-courses, and in-person workshops for people who need to write well at work. She specializes in providing guidance to nonprofit organizations on newsletters, annual reports, and other publications.

Visit http://www.Writing911.com to sign up for Writing Tips, a free monthly e-newsletter that will help you improve your writing and your publications. Kivi is also the president of EcoScribe Communications, http://www.ecoscribe.com, a communications consulting firm.


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