Breaking the rules - Grammar Guide

The Right Word: A Writer's Toolkit of Grammar, Vocabulary and Literary Terms - Waldram Sarah 2021

Breaking the rules
Grammar Guide

I suddenly discovered the delight of rebellion.

Jack Kerouac (1941)

We have explored a number of rules of grammar required to write English correctly. But there are also various so-called rules that can be safely — or creatively — ignored.

Such ’rules’ tend to relate to putting words together in ways that some grammarians in the past used to object to strongly. Today, they’re regarded as less vital to clear or correct communication in English, so writers are at liberty use their discretion.

The degree to which writers break the rules depends, of course, on artistic intent. Meanwhile, it helps to bear in mind that some understanding of the rule being broken is key to stylistic effectiveness.

Rule 1: Do not use and or or to start a sentence.

The CONJUNCTIONS (see chapter 1, here) and and or are essentially joining words. Therefore, it is relatively unusual for them to appear at the start of a sentence. On occasion, however, this can be powerful stylistically, calling attention to what follows:

’You can’t get away with this,’ he threatened. And we knew he meant it.

I’ll give you ten minutes to get out of here. Or else.

We could ask him to stay here while we go out to dinner and take in a film. Or is that too selfish?

Obviously, excessive use of and and or at the start of sentences becomes less effective. So, it is important to be judicious in breaking this rule.

Rule 2: Do not use but to start a sentence.

Some people object to using but at the beginning of a sentence, for the same reasons that they object to and or or: they regard it as a conjunction, or joining word, that needs to follow and precede other words. There are no real grounds for this in English grammar and usage, however.

So, while it is acceptable to start a sentence with but, it’s best not to overuse the construction. Using but at the start of a sentence emphasises that what comes next takes away some of the force of the content of the preceding sentence:

According to the old saying, there are lies, damned lies and statistics. But statistics, as we know, are generally more useful than old sayings.

Rule 3: Never split an infinitive.

The ’rule’ of not splitting the infinitive has gained some common currency. It means that another word should not be placed between to and the verb in the INFINITIVE (the construction in to do, to make, to sing, etc., see chapter 1, here). There is no basis in grammar for this, however.

More broadly, it’s a feature of English that adverbs and other words and phrases can separate the elements that make up a verb. For example, in the sentence I have never been to Mexico, the word never separates have and been, which together make up the verb.

This is a question of style, not of grammar. If splitting an infinitive makes for awkwardness, then it’s better not to split it. If, on the other hand, the split supports one’s intended meaning, there can be no justifiable objection to it. Here are some examples:

Prices are likely to more than double.

This is a simple case, because there is nowhere else in the sentence for the phrase more than to go. Rephrasing as Prices are more than likely to double, for example, completely changes the meaning. More than is firmly attached to the verb double in this context and must precede it, so there is no choice but to split the infinitive.

This gave them the chance to flatly refuse to have any more involvement in the project.

’To boldly go where no man has gone before.’

Gene Roddenberry et al., Star Trek (1966)

Flatly is an adverb that sounds awkward if it’s used after the verb in any context. For example, They flatly forbade him to go is more natural than They forbade him flatly to go. This is just as true for flatly and the infinitive.

They were plotting to illegally copy the files.

’She wants to honestly and legally marry that man she has already married virtually.’

Thomas Hardy, Jude the Obscure (1895)

The first example is less straightforward, because it would be perfectly good English (better English, some might argue) to say They were plotting to copy the files illegally. Let us consider what is being done illegally. Is it illegal to plot? No, we can assume that the potential illegal act involved is the copying of the files. To make that clear, the adverb illegally is better placed as close to the verb it supports as possible. And in this sentence that entails splitting the infinitive to copy.

Nonetheless, it’s worth remembering that the split infinitive is a controversial topic. Where there is nothing to gain by splitting an infinitive, it may be better to avoid it, especially in formal writing.

Rule 4: Do not end a sentence with a preposition.

PREPOSITIONS (see chapter 1, here) are used mostly in prepositional phrases, where they occur as the first word. Perhaps as a result of this, the idea has arisen that it’s grammatically incorrect to end a sentence with a preposition. This is not strictly true, however, and trying to avoid putting a preposition at the end of a sentence may sometimes result in awkwardness. Consider the following.

1. Some questions and clauses opening with wh-, for example, what, which, who, typically have the preposition at the end, as in

What on earth were they thinking of?

Statements based on wh- questions also very often are best expressed with a preposition at the end:

The students were asked to give their names and say where they came from.

2. Some infinitive clauses also have prepositions at their ends, as in

Make sure you have something to talk about.

3. Finally, several informal or slang expressions end in prepositions:

That dress is to die for!

She took one look at their faces and knew what they’d been up to.

Rule 5: Never dangle a participle.

In general, it is important to avoid dangling participial phrases — that is, those not clearly associated with a subject. For example:

Lying in the sun, it was hard to imagine the winter back home. [Who was lying in the sun?]

Such mismatches can be corrected by changing the wording:

Lying in the sun, he found it hard to imagine the winter back home.

However, there are a number of dangling PARTICIPLES (see chapter 1, here) that are well established and idiomatic, for example, given, granted, and speaking. These cause no problem for readers or listeners because they understand that no particular association with a subject is required:

Given that dividends depend on earnings, what determines earnings?

Other similar words, including considering and regarding, are so well established in such contexts that they are generally thought of as independent of the verbs from which they sprang and are now said to be prepositions.

Rule 6: Always write in complete sentences.

Of all the ’rules’ of writing, the decision not to write in complete SENTENCES (see chapter 2, here) should be used cautiously and possibly sparingly, but there are times when it works. In literary fiction, as we have touched on (see chapter 3, here), it has sometimes been a mark of ground-breaking creativity.

The rule can be broken in an huge variety of ways, ranging from sentences so long they cease to be sentences, to sentence fragments. It is acceptable to write sentence fragments too in journalistic feature writing, and informal contexts such as letters and e-mails, so long as the meaning is clear. As ever, however, in formal writing, the traditional approach applies; it is best to write only in complete sentences.

’…running his little country store now for his bread and meat, haggling tediously over nickels and dimes with rapacious and poverty-stricken whites and negroes, who at one time could have galloped for ten miles in any direction without crossing his own boundary, using out of his meagre stock the cheap ribbons and beads and the stale violently-colored candy with which even an old man can seduce a fifteen-year-old country girl, to ruin the granddaughter of his partner, this Jones-this gangling malaria-ridden white man whom he had given permission fourteen years ago to squat in the abandoned fishing camp with the year-old grandchild-Jones…’

William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom! (1936)

’I will soon be thirty-one years old. Perhaps. If my crumbling, over-used body permits. But I have no hope of saving my life, nor can I count on having even a thousand nights and one night.’

Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children (1981)