To write better, break a few rules

By Deborah Gaines
President, Deborah Gaines Associates

Here’s a difficult dichotomy: Sometimes grammatical errors make your writing better. And by “better,” I mean more powerful and compelling. The following rules are made to be broken:

  1. Don’t start a sentence with a conjunction. But why not? And who’s to stop me? For I am inspired by the flow of these sentences. Yet editors continue to challenge them. To which I say, “Phooey.”
  2. Never end with a preposition. There are so many exceptions to this rule that I hereby declare it an ex-rule. From “What did you step in?” to “This idea makes me throw up,” prepositions are perfectly appropriate at the end of a sentence. That said, don’t use them if they’re redundant. “Where are you at?” is just wrong, and even “where it’s at” would be perfectly correct as “where it is.”
  3. Don’t split infinitives. Even before Star Trek urged us “to boldly go where no man has gone before,” Robert Burns “dared to nobly stem tyrannic pride.” John Donne, Benjamin Franklin, George Eliot and William Wordsworth were also fans of this “error.”
  4. Don’t use “data” as a singular. I know it’s a Latinate word, but guess what? So is “agenda.” Have you ever heard anyone ask for the agendum? Somehow we manage to use the Latin plural as a singular and not sound like idiots. Similarly, “The data—not the datum—on this disk is—not are—corrupt.”
  5. Avoid one-sentence paragraphs. My 10-year-old has been taught that all paragraphs must contain a minimum of three sentences: topic, supporting and closing. To which I say: What a load of horse manure.
  6. Don’t use sentence fragments. While too many of these can make your writing sound disjointed, judicious usage adds some welcome “pop.” Even in business writing. In my humble opinion.
  7. Shun contractions. I can’t think of any document—except maybe a wedding invitation or legal writ—so formal that it requires the use of “cannot” instead of “can’t,” “would not” instead of “won’t,” or “I am” instead of “I’m.” However, it’s fine to use the longer form for emphasis, as in “I cannot believe you wore that to the office!”
  8. Worship at the altar of Strunk & White. I don’t much know about Strunk (except that he was an English professor at Cornell back in the dark ages), but E.B. White was an amazing writer. He also broke his own rules. Pick up “Charlotte’s Web” or any of his New Yorker articles, and you’ll find clauses introduced by “Which” and sentences starting with “However.” “The Elements of Style” also rails against adjectives and adverbs: “Write with nouns and verbs, not adjectives and adverbs,” it instructs. Think White paid attention? Nu-uh. And neither should you.
Don’t be afraid to experiment.

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