5 Ungainly Grammar Rules
Whether you just started writing or have decades of bylines, it’s important to revisit the unconscious list of grammar rules you follow to see if it could use a tweak. Thinking about sentence structure is part of honing your craft. Plus, grammar rules partly reflect the times, with certain uses falling out of favor, while others might regain traction.
Context matters in every case. I worked on the transcript for a national podcast recently, for instance, in which like was used repeatedly in place of such as. Yet many would consider that usage grammatically incorrect in writings. The podcast preference was perfectly fine, in part because spoken language tends to be looser about following grammar rules.
There are word usage guidelines that can help authors consider best word and formality level choices, and I’ll cover those in a bit. Scanning popular books in your genre is another good way to consider the audience’s expected formality level. Meanwhile, below are five “zombie” rules of grammar to check out—just in time for Halloween. These grammar rules keep rearing their ugly heads because writers latched on to something a teacher years ago recommended and such. But someone should’ve staked their weak hearts long ago.
In particular, following zombie rules may bog sentences down due to their outmoded formality or the wordiness to execute them. With zombie rules hanging around, it can also be harder to express your natural voice as effectively.
“And the winner is…”
If your grammar radar spiked a bit when I used and or but to start a few sentences above, you are guilty of following the initial conjunction zombie rule. True, coordinating conjunctions often serve to connect nouns or other grammatical elements (such as the or in this independent clause). In all but the most formal writings, however, many consider it perfectly acceptable to use yet and other coordinating conjunctions at sentence start. In some cases, this may be done as a way of joining sentences without the formality of a semicolon or other punctuation mark. Another class of conjunction, subordinating conjunctions such as if and when, also can start sentences (as part of dependent adverb clauses). Think of the verse “If I were a rich man” in the song from “Fiddler on the Roof.”
Whether you’re a YA author who’s fleshing out the casual dialogue of a teen, or are simply trying to connect with readers on a more intimate level (which can be trickier with the written word), using at least an occasional don’t or should’ve should be in your toolbox. Contractions are helpful in moving content along as well, and in creating a less choppy sentence rhythm. Consider whether not adds to the sentence “She would not use conjunctions,” versus “She wouldn’t use them.”
Ending with prepositions
When I wrote above that usage guides help “you think through word choices,” I could’ve chosen to write “can help you think word choices through.” In simple sentences, no harm is done in tacking an of, for, or other preposition on the occasional tail end of a sentence. It spices up text to vary sentence structures a bit, and you may need that approach to avoid sentence-derailing prepositions that would stop a semi-truck for their awkwardness. To make this point, English word usage guru and author H.W. Fowler noted that “The power of saying ‘people worth talking to’ instead of ‘people with whom it is worthwhile to talk’ is not one to be lightly surrendered.”
Using among or between The preposition among is often writers’ go-to option when covering three or more things. Although its sidekick, between, initially meant “by two,” it is better for talking about any number of entities with separate identities that have a (reciprocal) relationship. So, “It’s a secret between the home owner, her guardian angel and the bank” is correct. In a magazine article I just worked on, for instance, I replaced among in a sentence so it read more naturally by current standards, as follows: The participants’ goal was to narrow the gap between research, education and practice.
Reserve among for sentences where things get distributed, generally to an undefined (and potentially large) number—that is, to a collective group. For instance, you’d write “The flyers were passed among the shoppers,” or “Just between you and I, I am among his many long-term friends.”
Wondering how to suss out zombie rules that you might have unknowingly lugged around since grade school? Among the good online resources you can search for explanations of grammar rules are Grammar Girl podcast recaps by Mignon Fogarty, and Purdue University’s Writing Lab resources. Editors will also have their faves, with mine being Garner’s Modern English Usage, though you'll need some hefty memory on something like a tablet to search through the many entries.
Remember: It’s OK to stick with a few old-school grammar rules when writing for more formal settings; just know that relaxing your grammar-related No No list now and again can free your writing up. Doing so is part of stretching your writing muscles, and can energize text. For instance, to be forms of verbs are best kept together when crafting involved sentences. That avoids awkward constructions such as “The mayor said rapidly that he plans to release the survey.” That’s just ugggly, and is it that he said it rapidly, or that he plans to release the survey post haste? Sandwich rapidly between to and release and, voila—instant clarity.
Less convoluted constructions can help smooth out a string of sounds too; after all, who would’ve wanted Star Trek’s original theme to be “boldly to go” instead of “to boldly go.” Once you unpack the dusty grammar rules you’ve been hanging onto, you too will be able to tackle split infinitives and more with aplomb as you boldly go where your muse calls you.
By Barbra A. Rodriguez