When I’m writing, I make my own rules. The words and the punctuation marks do what I tell them to, and I don’t need The Man imposing limitations on me. I’ll use punctuation marks you’ve never heard of. Look: ❦ That’s a hedera! I don’t even know what it means!
Not many people can handle my level of compositional anarchy though, so they try to apply “rules” drilled into them in long-ago English classes, but a lot of these rules have changed over time or were never rules to begin with. The whole idea of grammatical rules is suspect. Dictionaries and style guides aren’t the boss of you — they only provide descriptions of how language is most commonly used.
Anyway, here are nine common grammar “rules” you can forget all about.
You can’t end a sentence with a preposition
If anyone tells you can’t end a sentence with a preposition, tell them, “Knock it off. I’ll end my sentences however I want to.”
It’s often less formal to end a sentence with a preposition, but sometimes it’s ridiculous to not end a sentence with a preposition. No one will care if you write, “Where did this come from?” But if you write, “From where did this come?” everyone will think you’re weird and stuffy — like the old joke says, that’s the kind of nonsense up with which you should not put.
You can’t begin a sentence with a conjunction
One of my high school English teachers insisted that it was always wrong to start a sentence with a conjunction. And now he’s dead. I wish he was alive so I could tell him that there was never a rule against starting a sentence with words like “and,” “or,” and “but.” Here’s what the 16th edition of The Chicago Manual of Style 5.206 says about it:
“There is a widespread belief — one with no historical or grammatical foundation — that it is an error to begin a sentence with a conjunction…a substantial percentage (often as many as 10 per cent) of the sentences in first-rate writing begin with conjunctions. It has been so for centuries, and even the most conservative grammarians have followed this practice.”
Take that, Mr. Thompson! For a more detailed, less vengeful discussion of this fake rule, check out this post from Lifehacker’s greatest grammarian, Meghan Moravcik Walbert.
“I before E, except after C”
A lot of people remember “I before E except after C” because it rhymes, but it’s not a very useful spelling rule. It only applies to English words that come from French. Plus, it’s only half of the verse. The full rhyme is:
“I before E, except after C or when sounded as A, as in neighbour and weigh. And weird is just weird.”
That’s still useless. What about “efficient?” That’s got an I before an E, right after the C. What about “stein?” What about “foreign?”
In other words, we’re not cavemen. We have spell-check.
“They” should not be used as a singular pronoun
Unlike the three examples listed previously, the rules for using “they” as a pronoun have actually changed recently. When referring to someone whose gender is not known, in the past, it was correct to use “he.” Now it is correct to use “they.” Rather than saying “his or her” in a sentence like “Everyone go to his or her desk,” it’s now correct to use “their.” (That one was always awkward anyway.)
The rule that just changed over the last decade or so, and that makes some people mad, is that it is now correct to use “they” as the singular pronoun for people who don’t identify as either “he” or “she.” The dictionary says that’s how it’s done, but even if it didn’t, using the pronouns people prefer is easy and fun.
You should hyphenate cultural and ethnic descriptors
Speaking of recently updated rule: There is no longer a hyphen between words describing a person’s dual nationality or ethnicity. It’s not correct to write “He is Irish-American.” Instead, “He is Irish American” is preferred. The only exception is if you’re using a combining form of a word, like “anglo-American.”
Overall, hyphens have been disappearing steadily for a long time. They used to hyphenate “teen-age,” “ice-cream,” “email” and thousands of other words. Expect this trend to continue.
The overall philosophy of hyphens: Use them when it would be confusing not to; excise them when the meaning is clear. For example, use “small-business owner,” unless you’re talking about a very tiny person who owns a business.
It’s proper to write the word “per cent”
They got buck-wild at the American Copy Editors Society’s annual conference in 2019. Not only did the world’s copy editors decree, once and for all, that we can split infinitives whenever we want, they fucked around and decided it’s correct to use “%” instead of writing out “per cent.” I heard someone knocked over a chair, too.
You should not split infinitives
I have a confession to make: I have never understood what it means for one to split one’s infinitives. I knew it was frowned upon, but I never knew why. I’ve felt guilty about this for many years, thinking to myself, “Steve, you could just learn what it means,” but then I’d go watch The Munsters instead. But I have achieved victory through longterm procrastination! “It’s incorrect to split infinitives” has never been a rule. It’s more of a suggestion, and now it’s not even that. Split, don’t split, whatever sounds good. You can “boldly go where no one has gone before” or “go boldly where no one has gone before.”
You should not use the passive voice
For most kinds of writing, the passive voice is not the best choice, but it’s not exactly wrong. It just makes things less clear. But that’s really the point of the passive voice. Sometimes you’re not clear on the actor, so you might say something like, “The house was broken into.”
It’s also an effective choice if your intention is to muddy the water. A politician might say “Mistakes were made,” to avoid disclosing who made what mistakes. A police department press office might send out a press release reading “A police-involved shooting of an unarmed man occurred” to avoid saying “a police officer shot an unarmed man.”
“Literally” is the opposite of “figuratively”
This is a contentious one, and a lot of people seem very invested in being wrong about it, including Neil Patrick Harris and Jon Hamm in the video above, but no matter what they say, “literally” can mean “figuratively.”
You can tell because people use it that way all the time. “I could literally eat a horse,” they say, and you know they don’t mean they could actually eat a horse. Language changes like that. The word “terrific” used to mean “terrifying.” Now it means “awesome.” The word “awesome” used to mean a feeling of severe fear or dread. Now it means terrific.
Literally used figuratively isn’t even new! According to Merriam-Webster, it’s been used that way since 1769. F. Scott Fitzgerald did it. So did Charles Dickens and Charlotte Brontë, who wrote “she took me to herself, and proceeded literally to suffocate me with her unrestrained spirits” in the 1800s.
Check out this post for more information, or I will literally come to your house and click the link for you.