writing tips

5 writing rules you learned in school that you can go ahead and break

Photo of two textbooks and two pieces of chalk sitting on a table top. In the background are the letters ABC written in chalk on a blackboard.

Not everyone feels comfortable with writing. (I don’t mind, that’s why folks like to hire me!) There can be a lot of reasons for this, ranging from learning disabilities to bad teaching to plain old disinterest. If your memories of learning to write involve sitting in an uncomfortable desk diagramming sentences, there’s an excellent chance that you find the whole process distasteful. Although you can’t avoid writing, Mrs. Baumhauer isn’t leaning over your shoulder with a red pen anymore. And while it’s a good idea to check your spelling and run important documents past an English-obsessed friend, there are plenty of those rules that you can toss to the curb. Here are five.

1. Never end a sentence with a preposition.

Mrs. Baumhauer would never admit it, but this rule was pretty bogus from the start. It comes from a Latin rule that mattered because … actually, let’s not get into the because. It’s a rule that mattered in Latin because it would change the meaning of the sentence if you put the preposition last. English, coming largely from Germanic roots, has no such problem. If you ask “What did you do that for?” nobody wonders “What does she mean? For what did you do that?” It’s pretty obvious.

If someone does call you on this broken rule, you can just say as Churchill is (probably mistakenly) reported to have responded: “That is nonsense up with which I will not put.”

2. “They” is exclusively for plurals.

Welcome to the 21st century: the singular they is now part of the vernacular. Outside of stuffy academic settings, there’s no need to construct awkward sentences like “She or he would then decide whether to proceed,” or dabble in unpronounceable abbreviations like he/she, s/he, and (s)he. “Make sure the new client knows they can fill out their paperwork in advance” sounds like something a human being would say, which is exactly the point.

3. All sentences must have a subject and a verb.

No. Stop. Please.

Those are all totally acceptable sentences, by the way. Yes, if you’ve got a really long sentence, you’ll want to make sure it makes sense. If you’re lacking a subject in particular (that’s usually the noun), sentences can seem really off-balance. But things get tricky when you start writing in the second person (which people in business do a LOT and people in English 101 do very rarely), because you end up dipping into the imperative, which often means the subject is implied … blah blah blah. Learn more here if you want a lesson in how that works.

If you want to make sure you’ve got a two-part structure to every sentence, it probably won’t seem too strange. But if you find yourself peppering your writing with sentences like “Why?” or “Fiddlesticks!” or “Just because,” Western Civilization isn’t going to come crashing down on your head as a result. It’s perfectly acceptable 99% of the time.

4. Never start a sentence with a conjunction.

If you need a review, conjunctions are those words that connect two other words or phrases. Honestly, I’ve never found a better basic explanation than the classic Schoolhouse Rock song, so you might as well get that stuck in your head while you’re here. The idea here, as you can imagine, is that since these are connecting words, you shouldn’t start off a new thought with them. But that’s elementary school thinking that ignores the fact that sentences don’t exist in isolation.

That last sentence? It started with the conjunction “but,” but you didn’t get confused because you understood it was in relation to the sentence that came before. You’re a grown-up now, writing for other adults who also understand that sentences and paragraphs need to be understood in relation to one another. So start your sentences how you please. Just remember to capitalize.

5. Eliminate “I” if you are explaining facts.

There are times when you don’t want to refer to yourself in writing. Research for most peer-reviewed journals. Formal contracts. Certain sections of the newspaper. In general, though, the world is a less formal place than our old English textbooks would have led us to imagine, and we recognize that words tend to be written by individuals.

Sometimes you’re writing as your organization, and you’ll want to forgo “I” because it will sound strange coming from a collective opinion. Sometimes you just want to lay out a how-to and ignore the fact that a writer exists at all. But sometimes you’ll be writing as yourself, talking about how you built your business up, how much you appreciate your customers or employees, or how excited you are that the cafe next door now offers dairy free ice cream. It can be challenging to know when to take up a more personal tone, but that doesn’t mean it’s never appropriate. Used well, “I” is a potent linguistic tool that can offer a feeling of intimacy and authentic communication.

If you’re feeling hesitant to write, rules can make you feel more comfortable.

This is especially true for folks who are learning English as adults. If the idea of breaking grammar rules makes you hesitant to write, ignore everything I’ve said. But if you’re not sharing your words withothers because you’re concerned about all those faintly-remembered English class exhortations, know that it’s okay to let some of that go. Read some Grammar Girl for help, and then read Jonny Sun’s bestselling book everyone’s a aliebn when ur a aliebn too and realize that people care more about meaningful communication than so-called perfection. The most important thing is to get your message out to the world.