5 English Grammar Rules You’re Allowed to Break
When it comes to writing in English, there are a lot of rules (and I mean a lot). And what’s even more confusing is that some of the rules aren’t even right!
When it comes to proofreading and editing, you need to know which rules can (and should) be broken, which can be bent, and which you should always keep in mind.
Above all, your writing is about communicating clearly with a reader, no matter the form. And while many of the rules English teachers and grammar aficionados hold dear were devised to maintain that coherency, the truth is that they can often get in the way.
Language is fluid; it evolves over time and with use. Even some of the rules that were right may no longer suit the way we communicate, making them ineffective for certain types of writing.
Still, in order to know what rules we can break and where, we need to understand them and why they were made. Once you’ve got a grasp of the (imaginary) rulebook we’re bound to as English users, you’ll find you’re able to better navigate your writing.
Ready to get started? Here are five grammar guidelines you can throw out the window.
Ending a sentence with a preposition
A preposition is a word or phrase that typically precedes a noun and is used to indicate a direction, time, location, place, or another relationship.
Consider the following phrase: “dinner is on the table.” The preposition in this sentence, ‘on’ tells the addressee the location. Other examples of prepositions include ‘to’, ‘at’, ‘with’, ‘for’, ‘from’, ‘during’, ‘before’, ‘after’ — the list goes on.
Ideally, prepositions should come before the noun. But is ending a sentence with one really that bad? Let’s look at the following sentences:
Where does she come from?
From where does she come?
Sure, the second sentence is grammatically correct, but which one sounds right to you?
For readability and relatability, sometimes it’s just better to let that preposition dangle. Write it out and see how it sounds — we want our language to mirror how people actually talk.
When it comes to more formal works, such as academic writing or reports, you may have a little less leeway. Still, keep your reader in mind and ensure that your sentences flow.
Starting a sentence with a conjunction
Most likely, you were taught this rule to help you avoid writing sentence fragments (more on that below). But using conjunctions to start a sentence (like this one) can be a great way to create emphasis, transition from one idea to the next or even give your words a more conversational tone.
Still not sure? Take it from Professor Jack Lynch, Associate Professor of English at Rutgers University:
“Contrary to what your high school English teacher told you, there’s no reason not to begin a sentence with but or and; in fact, these words often make a sentence more forceful and graceful. They are almost always better than beginning with however or additionally.”
Using plural pronouns for singular nouns
Subject-pronoun agreement means that if you use a singular noun, you need to use a singular pronoun. And sure, that worked (for some of us) back when the default pronoun was ‘he’, but now? Not so much.
For the longest time, English hasn’t been great with singular indefinite pronouns (as in somebody, someone, nobody, anyone). But the tides are shifting and, slowly, we’re beginning to reassess how we can be more inclusive.
‘They’ and ‘them’, while also being plural pronouns, are the preferred single pronouns for indefinite pronouns by many style guides: the Associated Press, APA, MLA, and more. Not only does it ensure that everyone is represented, but it sounds better than the mouthful of ‘him or her’, making our sentences more efficient. Everyone wins!
A sentence fragment is exactly what it sounds like: a sentence that is missing a key component, such as a subject, verb, or complete thought.
Of course, that can be the joy of them! Sentence fragments are great for stylistic and dramatic effect. Drop a fragment or two at the end of a sentence stream and it can make for some powerful prose.
The key here is moderation: if you use fragments sparingly, they can be an asset. If you use too many, your writing can become incoherent and hard to read.
Whom vs who
Even the best of us struggle with this one, but it’s actually quite simple. Just think of how you use ‘he’ and ‘him’ or ‘she’ and ‘her’. In circumstances where you would use ‘she/he’, who is correct. Where you would use ‘him/her’, whom is correct.
Following this logic, what would be the right answer in the following example?
To whom am I speaking? To who am I speaking?
✅ I am speaking to her. ❌ I am speaking to she.
Still, unless you’re doing academic or formal writing, it may be your best bet to just use who. It sounds more conversational and means that you have less chance of getting it wrong.
Have a grammar question you need answered? Get in touch with me today! You can also find more English writing advice here.