Traditional advice about English grammar is full of rules and suggestions, including many that accomplish little more than inhibit the communication abilities of writers who feel bullied to conform. Novices in a new domain might make it their goal to follow every rule for fear of making mistakes they won’t even have the faculties to recognize.
This is generally a cautious and advisable strategy to follow, but only to a point. A wise and experienced writer can, in any situation, determine which rules are worth following and which will only muddle their intentions.
Here are the 6 top grammar myths that are just plain wrong. By ignoring these myths, you’ll be able to write better with less stress.
1. Beginning Sentences with Conjunctions
Conjunctions are supposed to connect or create a relationship between two nouns, implying nouns must come both before and after each conjunction. This is why many traditional grammarians believe it to be improper to begin a sentence with a conjunction.
But in reality, there are plenty of times it makes sense to start a sentence in the middle of a relationship (such as this sentence beginning with the word “but”). You just need to remain mindful of starting too many sentences this way, as it may grow difficult to follow the flow of your message.
2. Ending Sentences with Prepositions
The same reasoning can be applied to the outdated advice not to end sentences with prepositions, which are used to show relationships between nouns. Often, ending a sentence with a word like “of,” “from,” or “to” is the best way to reduce the reader’s cognitive load or feelings of dissonance about your voice.
Some verbs are phrasal, requiring the specific placement of a preposition to alter their meaning. That’s why looking in an upwards direction is not the same thing as looking up the lyrics to a song.
3. Splitting Infinitives
Every English verb exists as two words in its unconjugated state (i.e., “to _____”; to run, to walk, to eat, to drink, to sleep, to be merry, and so on). We call these infinitives. Uniquely, it is possible to modify infinitives with adverbs before, in the middle of, or after (e.g., “boldly to go,” “to boldly go,” or “to go boldly where no man has gone before”). While each of these phrasings should be considered to have the same meaning, they have different effects on a reader’s interpretation of tone and personality. It’s these weird little stylistic choices that make English such a frustrating and fascinating medium for expression.
Because in Latin the infinitive forms of verbs are expressed as single words, putting anything in the middle of their Latin roots is not possible. Traditional linguists, therefore, declare it to be improper to “split” English infinitives by putting an adverb in between “to” and the verb. This is an example of where adhering to the habits of the past serves no function except to limit the options for expression. There is no reason English should have to suffer the same limits as Latin.
You should modify your verbs in whatever manner best encapsulates your voice and meaning. If you prefer to come across to your audience as more traditional, then by all means remove split infinitives from your draft.
4. Using the Passive Voice
One nearly universal piece of writing advice you’ll hear is to avoid the passive voice whenever possible, deferring to the active voice in almost all cases instead. The passive voice states that a thing happened, while the active voice states that someone or something did the thing.
The active voice is considered clearer and more engaging. It changes the emphasis of the information presented. The active voice places the importance of a sentence on the actor. A sentence is considered (or, if you prefer, readers consider a sentence) more concise and to flow better, incurring less cognitive load, when it is active.
Traditionalist grammarians will never admit, however, that there are situations where the passive voice is superior to the active voice. Passive voice constructions have a more detached, objective focus, which may be preferable for authors writing in a scientific, spiritual, or philosophical tone.
The passive voice omits information about the actor, implying the action itself is what matters and not any person or entity behind it. There are times when a writer doesn’t even know who or what did something, only that something was done. The identity of the actor may also be obvious through context, making their inclusion in a new sentence redundant (and therefore less concise).
5. Writing in Sentence Fragments
Every valid sentence needs to contain its own subject and action for that subject to do. This is generally good advice to follow, but where it falls short is in the fact that people frequently speak in ways they are not supposed to write. They become accustomed to expressing themselves in ways that are technically incomplete or incorrect.
While it’s usually easy to expand an incomplete sentence into a complete one, you don’t necessarily have to. Sometimes the subject is implied by a preceding sentence. Sometimes you want to be punchy. Impromptu. Punctuated to make a point stand out within a paragraph. The danger of overuse is clear, but a tastefully executed sentence fragment can add the personality your book is needing.
6. Making up Your Own Words
Even the words you use in your draft aren’t limited to what a dictionary prescribes. You can use any word you want, so long as it does not shatter understandable English grammar. It doesn’t matter if your word processor and its squiggly red underline insist that your inventive word does not exist. All language is a human construction, shaped by spontaneous real-world use and filtered through a set of general practices. One measure of how well you understand the rules of English is your ability to modify and combine them into unprecedented results. Through consistent prefixes and suffixes, it is possible to expand the meaning of words without readers ever missing a beat or misinterpreting your meaning.
When I attach the suffix -fication to the end of a noun, you can logically surmise that I am describing the process of making or turning into that noun. My favorite example of this manipulation of the English language through its own rules is whatever astrophysicist coined the word “spaghettification” to describe objects stretching and compressing into long, noodle-like shapes under strong forces of gravity. Likewise, to “-ize” or “-ify” something is to transfer qualities to it. Countries that receive a lot of American tourists, movies, and retail franchises might become Americanized over time.
Writing is Art
Remember that writing is art. As long as your intended audience can understand you the way you want and their opinion of you won’t degrade because of your creative constructions, you’re good to go. You can nounify a verb or verbify a noun.
English gerunds (using active -ing verbs as nouns) are a shortcut for accomplishing this and are made complicated by the fact that they can also be adjectives to other nouns (such as the case with the “writing” book I am actively “writing” through the act of “writing”).
If you liked this post, here are some other articles you might love:
- The 10 Most Common Grammar Mistakes and How To Avoid Them
- 11 Things Good Writers Do: The Writing Habits of Successful Authors
- 10 Grammar Software Tools and Punctuation Checkers
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