Some grammar rules were drummed into our heads at school so thoroughly that many of us still cling to them, despite the fact that they are no longer absolute prohibitions. My three favourites are below, but go gently, please. Disregard them only if following them makes for awkward or unclear writing. (For general rules on writing in plain language you can read my guide here)
I was liberated to discover that:
1. You can split infinitives.
Trekkies can heave a collective sigh of relief, knowing that it is perfectly acceptable “to boldly go where no man has gone before” – if the meaning or flow of the sentence requires it.
I am still a reluctant splitter; old habits die hard. But I would if the context required. I promise.
I no longer judge other writers who do split their infinitives. At least I try not to.
2. You can end a sentence with preposition.
Observing the rule of never ending a sentence with a preposition can lead to very convoluted phrasing.
This famous saying, attributed by some to Winston Churchill, makes this clear: “This is the sort of English up with which I will not put.”
I find this one slightly easier than the split infinitives, probably because obeying this one can lead to ridiculous sentence construction and rather ‘unplain’ sounding language. In fact, I wrote a perfect example in the cartoons below.
This example landed in my inbox (addressed to my husband) yesterday and I laughed out loud at just how ridiculous it sounds:
“Thank you for the agreement with the latest amendment with which for the time being I am content.”
3. You can begin a sentence with a conjunction.
Of the three this is the one I break most often because doing so doesn’t feel that scandalous. And I use it for emphasis or simply because I can.
The renowned author Patricia T. O Conner devotes a chapter of her book, Woe is I: The grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English, to what she calls “the living dead”. She respectfully erects a tombstone to several outdated rules, including my three, and you can access some of these on her website.
Punctuation in pictures
Some of these are doing the rounds of the various wordy groups I belong to. (See, I did it. I ended a sentence with a preposition.) I found others on various word blogs. Thanks, in particular, to @karenjeynes and my PEG google group. I include these for some light relief. Enjoy.
1. How a humble comma can completely change the meaning of a sentence
2. The darker side of jargon
3. What is left when you use plain language
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