4 grammar rules that you don’t need anymore

4 min read

Dig out your old grammar workbooks. Got them? OK, now throw them away! That’s right, we’re talking about breaking the rules. Grammar is constantly evolving, meaning rules that were once drilled into your head by school teachers are now more like guidelines to be ignored. Here are four grammar rules that you no longer need to stress about.

4. Don’t end sentences with prepositions.

“You don’t know with whom you’re messing!” is probably not the phrase you’d hear during an all-out brawl in the middle of a shady dive bar. Chopping and restructuring prepositional phrases was one of those no-nos always touted by your 7th-grade English teacher, but the need for such a rule is questionable at best. It’s wordy, it doesn’t do anything to further clarify the sentence, and it makes the speaker sound awkwardly pretentious.

Seventeenth-century linguists argued that because a preposition can’t be stranded in Latin, the same should be true for English. But Latin departs from English in myriad ways, the least of which being stranded prepositions. While you should probably still use the old standby for academic papers or journalistic writing, this is definitely a rule to toss out of your mainstream vocabulary.

The one exception to this rule is unnecessary tag-ons of prepositions. This means adding prepositions on the end of a sentence when you don't need to. For example, “Where is this bus going to?” can easily be "Where is the bus going?" When you can use fewer words, you usually make a more concise point.

3. Don’t split infinitives.

“To go boldly where no one has gone before,” just doesn’t have the same ring as Captain Kirk’s original, “To boldly go where no one has gone before.” While it is true that the adverb boldly is modifying “to go” in either case, placing it before the verb hints to the listener a special way to characterize the verb before they ever hear it.

The rule of not splitting infinitives is yet another hangover from Latin. Latin infinitives are a single word, indicating to some linguists that English infinitives should be treated as a single unit. But again, English is not Latin. From Benjamin Franklin to William Wordsworth, from Samuel Johnson to George Bernard Shaw, split infinitives have been utilized and advocated by some of English’s best writers, so why not you?

2. Never begin a sentence with a conjunction.

But since writing is communication, clarity can only be a virtue. And although there is no substitute for merit in writing, clarity comes closest to being one,” says William Strunk Jr. & E. B. White in The Elements of Style.

Beginning a sentence with a conjunction, such as but or and, has long been a grave grammar sin. But beginning a sentence with a conjunction helps to keep these thoughts separated and will save you from a confusing cacophony of commas, not to mention allow your reader to breathe between thoughts. Conjunctions, sometimes recognized as the mnemonic FANBOYS (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so), but more accurately by Merriam Webster’s mnemonic WWWFLASHYBONNBAN (whether, well, why, for, likewise, and, so, however, yet, but, or, nor, now, because, also, nevertheless), have been used to start sentences for over a millennium.

The Christian Bible uses conjunction-started sentences constantly:

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.

Merriam Webster says, “Everybody agrees that it’s all right to begin a sentence with and, and nearly everybody admits to having been taught at some past time that the practice was wrong.” There has been speculation that conjunction-started sentences were discouraged so that children wouldn’t string together long clauses and sentences, but initial-conjunction sentences do well to stop the flow of run-on sentences, not further it. As further evidence, the AP Stylebook and the Chicago Manual of Style both permit the use of conjunctions to start sentences.

1. Never start a sentence with hopefully.

“It is hoped that the taxi arrive soon.”

“Hopefully, the taxi will arrive soon.”

Hopefully has been unfairly singled out by grammarians as the adverb you should never use to start a sentence. Taxis cannot do things in a hopeful manner, and you the speaker are the hopeful one. But like many grammar rules, English can bend for the sake of conversation. And besides, rarely do grammarians take issue with adverbs like clearly, unbelievably or fortunately modifying the remaining sentence. The Oxford Dictionary states:

It’s certainly true that you can’t paraphrase hopefully as ‘it is hopeful that’. But this is no reason to ban its use as a sentence adverb: there are no grammatical rules that say the meaning of a word mustn’t be allowed to develop in this sort of way. [This use] of hopefully is now much more common than the traditional one and there’s no need to avoid it in most everyday contexts.

Hopefully, you’re now able to concisely write to someone without worrying about all of these unnecessary grammar rules. But if they can’t appreciate your evolution of the English language, find new friends to share your writing with.

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