“The Times They Are A-Changin”: Grammar Rules You Can Safely Break


Rules were meant to be broken, said no sixth grade English teacher ever. Yet sometimes quietly and without fanfare—and other times accompanied by teeth gnashing among those of us own a sign that says “I am silently correcting your grammar” (true story)—many of the rules we learned in school have fallen by the wayside. In many cases, arbiters of style, including the Associated Press (AP) and The Washington Post, are bending to common usage. In other cases, linguists believe these rules were suspect to begin with. Here are my nominations for four rules I’m glad we can break, and two new developments that make me wonder what civilization is coming to.

Let Bygones Be Bygones

  1. It’s okay to end a sentence with a preposition. You likely have heard the apocryphal quote from Winston Churchill that goes something like this: “This is the sort of English up with which I will not put.” Whether Churchill said this or something like it is in doubt, but the point is clear: trying to avoid ending a sentence with a preposition can make for some pretty awkward phrasing. In her lighthearted and accessible grammar book Woe Is I, author Patricia T. O’Connor notes that great works by the likes of Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton are full of sentences ending in prepositions. (Extra credit if you find the two examples used in my opening paragraph.)
  1. It’s okay to start a sentence with a conjunction. Conjunctions are used to join elements within a sentence, and many of us were taught that’s where they should stay. Grammar Girl’s Mignon Fogarty has an enlightening post about where this prohibition may have started (you can thank those English teachers again). Fogarty is among the legion of experts who believes it’s perfectly acceptable to start a sentence with a coordinating conjunction—what she calls the FANBOYS: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so. And when even as venerable an authority as The Chicago Manual of Style says it’s ok to do this, count me in.
  1. It’s okay to split an infinitive. You can recognize an infinitive by the word “to” in front of a verb. So, to be correct, at the beginning of each “Star Trek” episode, William Shatner should have said, “To go boldly where no man has gone before.” But would legions of Trekkies be quoting that? I think not. It is, therefore, okay to thoughtfully split infinitives. Likewise, O’Connor says, it’s acceptable to split a verb phrase—e.g., can safely break, am silently Though I appreciate the ability to split infinitives and verb phrases, I often find myself correcting these when I edit. Somewhere, one of my teachers is smiling.
  1. It’s okay to use “they” as a singular pronoun. How many times have you struggled with the awkward construction of using “he/she” or “him/her” in a sentence when you don’t know the sex of the singular subject? Case in point: “An individual is eligible for the program when he or she meets the criteria.” This sentence is correct but awkward, especially in a world where gender identity is fluid. Thankfully, the American Dialect Society voted for “they” used as a gender-neutral singular pronoun as the Word of the Year for 2015. If this troubles you, you can always do the tried-and-true editor’s trick of rewording the sentence: “Individuals are eligible for the program when they meet the criteria.” But especially when you are writing for the ear—as in speechwriting—the singular “they” is a lifesaver.

Say It Isn’t So

 I can happily embrace split infinitives and sentences that end with a preposition. But I have to draw the line somewhere. So here are two changes I’m just not ready for.

  1. It’s equally acceptable to use “more than” and “over.” This change caused quite a stir in 2014 when the AP revised its longstanding rule. Previously, as I was taught as a young reporter, “over” meant “higher than,” and “more”—typically used with numbers—meant “greater than.” So every time I passed a McDonald’s sign that said “over 8 billion served,” I cringed. In making this change, AP decided it was easier to switch than fight, since so many of us were using these terms interchangeably anyway. But I’m with the copyeditor who quipped, “More than my dead body.”

 The period is going the way of the dinosaur. Apparently, in a word dominated by texts and tweets, we have stopped using that workhorse of punctuation, the period. No more full stop. More often, linguists say, we are using the period to make a pointed remark. Yes, I’m guilty of this myself. I may have typed in a Facebook post, Best. Birthday Present. Ever. In his article for The New York Times proclaiming the demise of this most basic of punctuation marks, Dan Bilefsky uses only one period in the entire article. But most of his sentences are only one paragraph long, so I know where one thought ends and the next begins. This is one convention I know I can never adopt, and it makes me wonder why we are in such a hurry. Hmm, now that’s a topic for another post.

Ultimately, if you work for an agency or a client with their own internal style guide, that trumps all. For example, The Washington Post accepts the use of the singular “they,” but The New York Times does not. And you need to know the rules before you can break them, so you’ll want to invest in a good style manual—AP and Chicago are two of the best. A good dictionary will also help. Finally, remember that it’s okay to occasionally flout the rules, but if you do it too often, your editor will take our their red pen and you’ll wonder what your text was hit with.

Susan Milstrey Wells is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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