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Breaking All the Writing Rules

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on September 27, 2012 in Grammar & ESL
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Pop quiz, hot shot! How many of the old, conventional writing rules do you break on a daily basis? You probably know the ones I’m talking about. These are rules like:

  • Never start a paper with a question.
  • Never start a sentence with “and” or “but.”
  • Never end a sentence with a preposition.
  • Paragraphs must be a minimum of five sentences.

There are countless more – especially if you’ve been taught by English teachers who are intense about the right and proper way of doing things. (That’s code for doing things their way!)

The truth is, there are some hard and fast rules of the English language. For example a possessive is shown with an apostrophe (the girl’s house), but the writing rules above are actually a few steps down below guidelines – they are conventions that have survived from generation to generation. Not rules.

Consider for a moment the most celebrated writers of the classics you suffered through, er, enjoyed in English class. You read through the story or novel and often the teacher will sigh and point out the beauty of the language…in a series of run-on sentences. Or perhaps you enjoy a text only to realize there are only two sentences in a paragraph. Don’t get me started on famous, respected authors – the gods of the English classroom – and their love of “and” and “but” in the beginning of a sentence.

The point here is simple, English teachers have been feeding you lines for years. I can say this truthfully because I’m an English teacher. Even I have to step carefully at times – there is another English teacher I work with who drills these same rules into her students year after year. Simply these are rules I disagree with and help my students overcome.

The old rules of English can’t really hurt you, especially if you’re a relatively new writer, as most high school and college students are, but they aren’t necessary. The rules of writing are made to be broken.


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Starting with a question.

You don’t want to start a paper with a boring or inane question. “Have you ever wondered why the sky is blue?” But there is no problem at all starting with something that intrigues a reader. “What would it be like to wake up under a fuchsia sky?” Questions fall into writer’s style and that varies for different essays and pieces.

Starting with “and” or “but.”

This is a biggie and there is a good likelihood that someone will argue with my point here, and that’s fine. English is an evolving language after all. There is no rule about how you start a sentence. The true rule to a complete sentence is that it must contain a subject and a verb. That’s it. You can arrange your subject and verb any way you’d like in the sentence and add conjunctions and clauses to your heart’s content.

One point, however, should be noted. If you’re going to use either “and” or “but” as the first word in your sentence, it should be done deliberately for voice or style. Your thoughts will likely sound choppy and childish otherwise. If you’d rather not break convention, simply use a classier term like “however” or “also”, which are surprisingly encouraged where the common cousins are discouraged in English classrooms.

Never end a sentence with a preposition.

It happens. This particular “rule” dates back to the 17th century when it was argued that Latin didn’t allow for a preposition to fall at the end of a sentence so English shouldn’t either. I took a couple years of Latin in high school. I can assure you that English and Latin are not the same language and do not follow the same patterns nor have the same rules.

That being said, you can usually rephrase a sentence to be clear and more concise without ending with the preposition. But sometimes you just can’t. And you shouldn’t make a weird sentence just for colonial conventions.

Paragraphs must be a minimum of five sentences.

I have a huge problem with this one. I shudder when I flip open an old text and look at paragraphs that cover an entire page in a go. There is no way that you can convince me that a paragraph really needs to be twelve long, complex sentences long.

Perhaps it’s the changing times or the influence of the internet, but this rule needs to be modified or simply ignored in our modern age. Magazines and newspapers have always followed a more practical rule of one to three sentences per paragraph. It seems only English teachers insist on absurdly long paragraphs. Break it up people! Not only is writing easier to read, but your ideas will be more visibly separated on the screen – or the page – and thus more defined.

All of this begs the question: Where do you fall on the spectrum of writing rules?

 

 

 

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Rebecca is a full-time everything. She teaches English and reading to her much loved, if challenging, high school students during the day and is a freelance education writer in the evenings. With almost ten years in the classroom and advanced degrees in business and information science, Rebecca specializes in materials that inform, educate and entertain. Rebecca indulges herself by pretending to have spare time and writing about the ups and downs of being a freelancing mama whenever she gets a chance.

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7 Comments

  1. Cathy Miller September 27, 2012 Reply

    Love this, Rebecca.

    I respect the rules, but I don’t let the rules rule me. :-) And what I’ve found (did she just start that sentence with “And”?) is that some of those rules were never rules to begin with. Ack – another rule broken. :-)

  2. Lori September 27, 2012 Reply

    Well, I’m of the opinion any rule set in stone is just itching to be broken. :)

    I commit all these “sins” and more. I remember a writer telling me in conversation “You would never start a story with a fact or statistic.” I stifled a laugh and didn’t tell him that I’d not only done so numerous times, but that the editors loved it. English is transitory, and our rules are changing as we type. I remember in first grade, there was this little poster sitting by the window (where I would stare, plotting my escape). It was an ant, upside down and clearly dead, with the caption ” ‘Ain’t’ ain’t a word.” And in that, had I been a smart first grader, I would have seen that the poster writer broke his own rule by using the “ain’t” word as his verb. Alas, I was not that advanced. LOL

    However, it’s now in the dictionary, isn’t it? Back then, that wasn’t about to happen. Dictionary publishers refused it time and again. But we are a pushy people, we American English speakers….

    Rebecca, I would love to share this post with every client who has ever fashioned herself an editor based on antiquated, third-grade grammar rules. Thank you. Seriously.

  3. Author
    Rebecca Garland September 27, 2012 Reply

    Lori – I’ve had to politely correct a few would-be editors myself on stylistic elements like these. I do like it when they catch my typos for me though. You’re free to share with whomever you’d like, of course!

    Cathy – I’m glad you enjoyed it. Writers rebel! LOL

  4. Amandah September 28, 2012 Reply

    I’ve broken writing rules. Why? I read (obviously), and I’ve read blogs and books that have broken many writing rules. If top paid bloggers can break the rules, so can I. If best-selling authors can break the rules, so can I. I like to think that I’m in good company. :)

  5. Tom September 30, 2012 Reply

    I’m with you Rebecca. My feet are planted firmly in the camp of those who believe paragraphs no longer have to be a minimum of five sentences.

  6. MicroSourcing October 1, 2012 Reply

    Starting a paper with a question can be effective, especially when writing an opinion essay, wherein the question can be the premise of the whole article. It all depends on how the question is phrased. Moreover, the question will have to be answered by the writer by the paper’s end.

  7. Ghost writer October 4, 2012 Reply

    Thanks for the nice post and helpful for the content writers like me.

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