Five Writing Rules that Deserve to Be Broken
Being a parent teaches you a few things about psychology. One of them is this: telling a child NOT to do something is the surest way to get the behavior you don’t want. When my children were toddlers, I learned early on that saying “Don’t run!” would send my son darting off and that saying “Don’t yell!” would instantly turn up the volume.
I guess I never outgrew my terrible twos because I want to scream whenever someone tells me about a writing rule they think they must follow. By the same token, I feel a mild tantrum coming on when I meet someone who claims to “love grammar.” I've found that's almost always a signal that the person views writing as a mechanical process, not as the art of conveying meaning in a way that connects the mind and soul of the writer with the mind and soul of the reader.
Watch out for fake rules
Many so-called writing “rules” beg to be broken because they are (a) illegitimate, (b) unreliable, (c) outdated, or (d) all of the above. I call such prescriptions “fake rules” because they ignore some of the fundamental truths about how written communication really works.
- Illegitimate writing rules suppose an Ultimate Arbitrator of English Grammar and Punctuation, who sits on a throne of linguistic authority somewhere in London or the American Midwest. Depending on one’s perspective, the Arbitrator guards the big book of do’s and don’ts that constitute either “the queen’s English” or “proper American English.”
Only in fairy tales does such an Arbitrator exist. Neither Queen Elizabeth I nor George Washington nor any other political authority has ever dictated how to communicate thoughts through the mechanisms of written language. When George Orwell imagined the possibility of government-controlled speech, the fairy tale turned terribly dark. If you want a picture of what could happen if we allowed “official rules” to get the upper hand over organic human expression, take a dive into the dystopia of his novel Ninety Eighty-Four.
- Unreliable writing rules work in only a limited number of situations. They give the false impression that shaping thoughts into written words is like driving a car along a narrow, twisty highway at night. In that situation, your number one goal is simply to keep the vehicle between the ditches.
In reality, writing is more like mountain-biking than driving. Experienced writers learn how to “feel” the path beneath them. They welcome bumps and other obstacles because they form part of the terrain of any communication situation, and they learn to steer adroitly so they bring thoughts to life in energetic, creative ways.
- Outdated writing rules derive from writing manuals created by professors or writing instructors in secretarial schools. Just as the word “secretary” has become old-fashioned, so have many of the guidelines in these handbooks.
Our English vocabulary continually evolves, and so do our customs, or conventions, governing grammar, punctuation, and other mechanics of writing. Some of the spellings and punctuation habits of Shakespeare seem as foreign to us now as his raunchy jokes about codpieces.
New words, such as “Google” and “permaculture,” enter our lexicon each year (check out some of the more than 500 words added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2020). So do new conventions for forming sentences and paragraphs. Your great-grandmother may have shuddered over ending a sentence with a preposition, but few people today would balk at conversational statement such as this: “With this new interface, it’s hard to know which way is up.”
My favorite writing rules worth breaking
In the business world, skilled writers recognize that clarity, not correctness, is the true goal. And they feel free to break any rule that would prevent them from speaking in print as plainly and naturally as they would speak aloud. (Hey, did you catch the rule I just broke in that last sentence?)
Here are five of my favorite writing rules to break:
1. Avoid sentence fragments.
Grammatically speaking, it’s true that a complete sentence contains at minimum a subject (the actor in the sentence) and a predicate (the action the subject does). So, if we’re scoring sentences on technical points, partial sentences don’t make the grade.
However, business writing doesn’t work like a figure skating competition. You don’t necessarily get marks for technical performance. At least not all the time.
Yes, in certain situations, such as writing a proposal for a government grant, it’s best to mind your p’s and q’s (and commas and semicolons) because the audience expects a meticulously groomed document. In many other situations, though, the audience actually prefers a more conversational style, and the occasional sentence fragment can create variety and add strategic emphasis.
For example, did you catch the sentence fragment in the previous paragraph? It was this: At least not all the time.
2. Never start a sentence with “because.”
This fake writing rule doesn’t hold across all circumstances. To understand why, we’ll need to wade into a bit of grammar jargon.
“Because” is a special kind of joining word (conjunction). It indicates that what comes after it is less important (subordinate) than what came before. In grammarian lingo, that means that “because” marks the beginning of a subordinate clause (a group of words containing a subject and a predicate).
Now, if we’re complying with common notions of grammatical correctness, then a subordinate clause should never stand alone. It needs an independent clause (complete sentence) to cling to.
Consider this example: Jeb will call the client tomorrow. Because we need to better understand the project requirements. Here, the main idea is that Jeb will call the client tomorrow. The reason for that action gets expressed through a subordinate, or dependent, clause starting with “because.” On its own, the clause “Because we need to better understand the project requirements” doesn’t really make good sense.
But watch what happens when we flip the order of the two clauses. This sentence beginning with “because” makes perfect sense: Because we need to better understand the project requirements, Jeb will call the client tomorrow.
If you want to scrupulously avoid sentence fragments, then you’ll want to steer clear of sentence fragments starting with “because,” or other subordinating conjunctions, such as “while,” “although,” and “since.” But don’t avoid these useful joiner-words altogether because they enable you to connect ideas in meaningful ways. As a bonus, they also add variety to your sentence structures, and that helps engage readers.
3. Don’t split infinitives.
The infinitive form of a verb includes the word “to” as in “to walk,” “to run,” or “to innovate.” If we’re thinking like a figure skating judge, then for full technical points, it’s best to avoid splitting the two halves of an infinitive by inserting a describing word (adverb).
For example, in the phrase “to boldly go,” the adverb “boldly” separates the two halves of the infinitive “to go.” Ouch, how painful. Or is it?
Which of these two sentences sounds most natural to you?
- Example 1: After several discussions, we decided to gradually draw consumer attention away from the new product. (split infinitive)
- Example 2: After several discussions, we decided to draw consumer attention gradually away from the new product. (no split infinitive)
I prefer Example 1, but you might prefer Example 2. These days, few English professors would consider either sentence wrong. (As a former English professor, I wouldn’t waste my time debating the point.)
Let your ear be the judge. Chances are that what sounds natural to you will also sound right to your reader and get your point across to them.
4. Never begin a sentence with “but.”
I’ve already broken this rule once in writing this article. (If you missed that infraction, see point 2 above, paragraph 5.) In a situation that calls for strict grammar compliance, such as writing a government report, I wouldn’t make that move. But in most situations (oops, I did it again!), beginning with “but” sounds conversational and doesn’t jeopardize clarity in any way.
Generally speaking, it’s best to keep business sentences as short as possible, ideally to about two lines or less. So when you catch yourself combining two contrasting ideas by using “but” and a comma, why not separate them?
Which of these examples do you find easier to read?
- Example 1: The aspirator ran quietly through the night, even though it was not operating at full speed, but as soon as the morning shift began, it suddenly shut down, without giving any malfunction warning.
- Example 2: The aspirator ran quietly through the night, even though it was not operating at full speed. But as soon as the morning shift began, it suddenly shut down, without giving any malfunction warning.
Most business readers would prefer Example 2 because the short sentences make the writing easier to skim.
5. Don’t use contractions.
I’ve had my hand slapped over this rule more than once, and each time I’ve protested. Sure, there are a few circumstances in which contractions aren’t appropriate. Those are the kinds of writing situations that equate with a fancy-dress party. Sometimes you just have to ditch the blue jeans for a tuxedo or ball gown.
The key is to pay attention to the dress code. How many business situations do you find yourself in these days that require formal attire? If you can get away with wearing business casual clothes, then you can probably get away with using business casual language, which includes contractions, such as “you’re” and “won’t.”
Contractions help make your style conversational, which increases your likability factor with your readers, which in turn helps to build trust. In short, there’s power in the apostrophe, so unless you have good reason to abandon it, go ahead and use it as often as you would if you were speaking aloud.
Challenge yourself to stretch beyond the rules
Business communication that makes readers sit up and take notice meets three criteria: it’s clear, simple, and direct. Don’t let alleged rules, or fear of the rules, interfere with any of those qualities in your writing.
That doesn’t mean you have to become a rebel for the anti-grammar cause. But it does mean you should feel free to express yourself as plainly and eloquently in print as you do in speech.
The more knowledgeable you become about how writing conventions work, the more comfortable you’ll get with bending them to your own will. As you stretch beyond a rule-bound approach, you’ll find you can fully express your meaning in the style that best represents you and your brand.
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