What should you never end a sentence with? And what shouldn’t you begin one with? If you want to truly succeed as a writer, you can’t use contractions, right?
According to many English teachers and grammars sticklers, I just broke about four rules in three sentences. You probably learned at least a few of these in school but then went about your merry way in life, breaking all of them.
Here’s the thing, though. The “rules” about ending a sentence with a preposition, beginning one with a coordinating conjunction, splitting infinitives, and eliminating contractions aren’t actual rules. At best, they’re conventions.
They’re commonly referred to as zombie rules because, though they died long ago or were never alive to begin with, they continue to hold on in classrooms around the world.
Most likely, your English teacher didn’t lie to you. They honestly believed what they were teaching, but there are a few false rules of English grammar that persist, even though they’re rarely found in any reputable texts.
We don’t follow them in speech but pull them out when we feel insecure or like we need to impress someone.
Never End a Sentence with a Preposition
That’s right. You can stop with all those awkward with whom and about which phrases.
Though one of the most common, this false rule was never meant for the English language. It’s a remnant from Latin, probably a result of the glorification of Latin.
The problem is that Latin grammar and English grammar have different constructions. Trying to impose rules from one onto the structure of another only results in awkward phrasing.
After graduating college but before studying editing, I once filled out a job application that still makes me cringe today. I kept trying to tell them about myself without ending any of my sentences with prepositions. I can only imagine what they thought of me. (FYI, I didn’t even get an interview.)
And I had a bachelor’s degree in English at that point!
That’s how pervasive this false rule is. So, now you have permission to breathe a sigh of relief and end your sentences with prepositions when the phrasing calls for it.
Never Begin a Sentence with a Coordinating Conjunction
This one isn’t as common as not ending with a preposition, but it persists.
Perhaps it is taught in an effort to encourage children not to start every sentence with and or but. Normally, coordinating conjunctions (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so) are used within a simple sentence or between two parts of a compound sentence, but they don’t have to be.
While we should avoid overuse—just as we should with any word or construction—sometimes the flow and tone of the writing needs a more emphatic break than a simple comma but still needs the conjunction to maintain the connection to the previous sentence.
Never Split an Infinitive
Most people don’t bother with worrying about split infinitives these days, but you’ll still find some diehard grammar sticklers who insist that you should never insert a word, usually an adverb, between the two parts of an infinitive.
An infinitive is the base form of a word preceded by to. For example, to be or to go. "To boldly go" would be an example of a split infinitive.
Sometimes, for a desired emphasis and natural-feeling phrasing, the adverb needs to fall in the middle of an infinitive. But it should be a deliberate, rather than careless, act.
Consider the following:
Notice the change in meaning. The first emphasizes someday; the second emphasizes hope; and the third emphasizes award.
None of them are wrong, but each has a subtle difference to it, and controlling that subtle difference might mean the difference between good writing and great writing.
Don’t Use Contractions in Your Writing
A contraction is the combination of two or more words into a single word with an apostrophe to indicate where letters have been dropped: they’re, it’s, you’ll, don’t.
Whether or not you use contractions in your writing depends greatly on your audience and the purpose of your writing. The more formal the subject, the fewer contractions you’ll want to use.
Both high school teachers and college professors are famous for pushing this rule, and they’re not always wrong. There are circumstances where we want a more formal tone, and they’re preparing us for that. However, sometimes they forget to explain when it’s okay to use them.
Contractions aren’t just for emails and social media. Think how stilted and distant this blog would sound without contractions. We speak in contractions, so if we want a relatable, conversational tone to our writing, why wouldn’t we use them?
Part of the beauty of the English language is its flexibility and adaptability, letting us make it say what we want with unlimited nuance. Just remember that the core purpose of language is communication. How does the way you bend and shape the language change the message your readers receive?
Rebecca Miller is a professional copyeditor and general fan of all things having to do with the written word and the English Language.
You can check out her website at Oakdale Editing or connect through Facebook, LinkedIn, or Email.
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Rebecca has a passion for helping you fill the world with great literature and making sure said literature doesn't get passed over for the lack of a little editing.