Three Grammar Rules to Forget (Because They’re Wrong)

grammar rules to ignore

Writing well is difficult. It requires a lot of time and patience. And it’s made more difficult when one has to ignore one’s earliest teaching on the subject.

I fondly recall my elementary school teachers. Well, most of them. And it’s true that a lot of rules they taught me (say please and thank you, wait your turn, use a tissue, not your sleeve) have served me well throughout life.

But our teachers, with the best of intentions, often teach us writing rules that are simply incorrect when we grow up and strive to write better than a third-grader.

Here are three rules you may have learned back in grade school that you should forget.

Don’t start a sentence with “and” or “but”

Matt and I taught a legal-writing CLE last Friday. One of the attendees noted that she was taught early on never to start a sentence with “and” or “but.” Matt explained that children are taught this rule so that they don’t fall into the trap of using “and” to start sentences over and over:

Yesterday I woke up. And I got dressed. And then I ate breakfast. And I had cereal. And then I went outside to play. And it was fun.

You get the idea. But you’re not going to write like that (we hope). So forget that rule. Using “and” to start a sentence is not only grammatically correct, it’s often the best choice. Compare this:

The defendant had a loaded pistol in his jacket. And he was high on methamphetamine.

to this:

The defendant had a pistol in his jacket. Additionally, he was high on methamphetamine.

Which sentence has a greater impact?

Keeping “but” away from the front of your sentence leads to the dreaded “however comma.” Compare this:

Mr. Jones identified the defendant as his attacker. But he later admitted he lied to police about that and other facts.

to this:

Mr. Jones identified the defendant as his attacker. However, he later admitted he lied to police about that and other facts.

So “and” or “but” not only can start a sentence, often they should.

Don’t end a sentence with a preposition

This rule comes from a few Latin-obsessed writers in the 19th century. But English sentences are not structured like Latin. Forcing the preposition into the sentence leads to bad results:

What is the new tool used for?

or:

For what purpose is the new tool used?

Adverbs must always end with “ly”

As I wrote recently, there are a number of “flat” adverbs that don’t feature “ly”. Examples include:

high, fast, slow, hard, easy, sure, bright, wrong, right, near, late, safe, and soon.

Some can use “ly” but don’t need to, like “safe.” “Drive safe” is just as correct as “drive safely.” But “soonly” and “fastly”? Nope.

Here’s the truth about grammar rules: there aren’t any. You won’t find a Universally Accepted Book of Grammar Rules anywhere. People create what wind up being called “rules” in an effort to improve others’ writing. Some rules are helpful in some situations but not in others. The best way to improve your grammar (or any other aspect of your writing) is to read good writing, buy a good guide to usage (and consult it), and work hard on your own writing.

(image: large school building with blank flag from Shutterstock)

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  • Matt Mergendahl

    Conjunction junction, what’s your function?

    • http://lawyerist.com/author/gyitsakalakis/ Gyi Tsakalakis

      I have corrected your oversight in omitting a link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ODGA7ssL-6g

      • http://lawyerist.com/author/andymergendahl/ Andy Mergendahl

        Thanks for having my back.

  • http://www.4alaw.com/business/ Terry

    It is always good to read an article on good grammar. And it is even better to read one which emphasises the use of good grammar. But that is the point of this article isn’t it?

    I imagine that is the sort of thing you meant! :-)

  • Israel Usman

    Great! More of these, please

  • http://consumerlawyer.mn/cgi-sys/suspendedpage.cgi Randall Ryder

    There’s no mention of Yuni in this article. But I guess it’s still ok. And correct.

    • http://lawyerist.com/author/andymergendahl/ Andy Mergendahl

      Addendum:
      And Yuni is playing with joy and passion! But no one expected that! Or maybe his performance this week is an anomaly and he’ll start being awful again soon! And the fact is, nobody has any idea! But that’s what makes the game compelling! Or just silly!

      • http://lawyerist.com/author/andymergendahl/ Andy Mergendahl

        Just noticed that it’s better if you flip the “but”s and “and”s around there. Weird. Or just a coincidence?

        • http://consumerlawyer.mn/cgi-sys/suspendedpage.cgi Randall Ryder

          I just felt like writing about Yuni. Love that guy!

  • JRS

    I’m still not on board with starting sentences with any conjunction. The whole idea is that conjunctions link sentences and explain the relationship between the two sentences. Rather than having two separate sentences with the second sentence beginning with a conjunction, why not just use a conjunction as intended? Writing as you advocate is disjointed, relatively staccato in delivery, and frankly, harsh to read. Although you use a childish example followed by a “legal” example, the writing is still simplistic in style and fails to cohesively communicate the relationship between the separate sentences.

    I’d also point out that when you present two choices, the preferred choice is the better choice, not the best choice. If your aim is to improve writing, please be mindful of your own writing.

    Furthermore, if there aren’t any grammar rules, as you state in your concluding paragraph, isn’t your entire thesis (that the three rules you’ve explained are “wrong”) contradicted by the concluding paragraph?

    • http://www.towerofivory.net Lukasz Gos

      I’d focus on the meaning, rather than a preconceived function of those words which are designated as conjunctions.

  • http://www.kaintuckeean.com Peter Brackney

    Good article on good grammar!

  • Dan

    Actually, the whole idea is that conjunctions link thoughts. A single thought is generally contained within a single sentence. BUT, there is nothing requiring such a simplistic approach. Consequently, there is nothing wrong with combining two thoughts that happen to occur in two sentences.

  • Claire Kitchen

    Sorry, but if a trainee solicitor drafted a document using ‘and’ as the first word in a sentence, I would ask him or her to redraft. I have seen English judges criticise documents because of perceived bad grammar and spelling.

    • http://lawyerist.com/author/andymergendahl/ Andy Mergendahl

      While it’s important to not irritate a judge, a judicial appointment (or election) does not make one an authority on writing. One of the reasons lawyers don’t write well is that we spent law school reading poorly-written judicial opinions. Here’s one sentence from perhaps the most famous American torts case, Palsgraf v. Long Island R.R. Co. (N.Y. 1928) (Cardozo, J.):

      If no hazard was apparent to the eye of ordinary vigilance, an act innocent and harmless, at least to outward seeming, with reference to her, did not take to itself the quality of a tort because it happened to be a wrong, though apparently not one involving the risk of bodily insecurity, with reference to some one else.

      Cardozo wound up on the U.S. Supreme Court. There’s a law school named after him. But that sentence is incomprehensible. Therefore, it’s bad writing. (Thanks to Matt Salzwedel for providing that example.)

    • http://www.linkedin.com/in/matthewsalzwedel Matthew Salzwedel

      If an English judge gives you grief about beginning a sentence with And, ask him whether he’s prepared to indict Chaucer, Shakespeare, Swift, and Percy Bysshe Shelley for doing it. Better yet, ask him whether he thinks that Lindley Murray — the father of English grammar — was messing up by using conjunctions to begin sentences. See Bryan A. Garner, On Conjunctions as Sentence-Starters, Garner on Language and Writing (2009).

    • http://lawyerist.com/author/chrisbradley/ Chris Bradley

      I have to agree with Andy and Matthew here. While my posts often get torn apart for their ideas, no one’s ever complained about style. And that’s what grammar is really all about, IMO.

      • http://www.towerofivory.net Lukasz Gos

        Aquinas’s writing was praised for how it was transparent. I hadn’t noticed that when I read him …but that’s precisely the point, I guess. Old Roman jurists would make great writers for the Web, too.

  • Ricardo

    Interesting rules

  • Elliott

    Why use “and” when you can make an even better sentence without it:

    High on methamphetamine, the defendant had a loaded pistol in his jacket.

    • http://lawyerist.com/author/andymergendahl/ Andy Mergendahl

      That’s a fine sentence. But I like my two sentences better, as I think they more effectively drive home the message that the defendant’s actions were extraordinarily reckless. Your one sentence doesn’t do that as well, in my opinion. You and I differ as to style. But the real point is that my two sentences are correct in terms of their grammatical construction.

    • http://www.towerofivory.net Lukasz Gos

      Without additional context, I think the opener acts like an adverbial clause of reason there, implying some sort of causation, i.e. that the methamphetine is responsible for the loaded pistol, while the real problem here is that we’ve got a gunner (not necessarily a problem per so) who’s stoned. I’ve got to agree with Andy that the “and” sentence looks better.

  • Kate Hendrickson

    I disagree with your assessment that we should forget these grammar rules, unless you wish to write as if you are speaking. As you demonstrate, that is a mistake!

    • Andy Mergendahl

      Some of the best advice I’ve received about writing is, “write the way you wish you could speak.”

  • Anita Svensson

    I believe extreme caution must be exercised when deciding to toss out accepted rules of grammar when writing legal documents. Following accepted rules of grammar mitigates the possibility of legal misunderstandings. One does not need to be such a stickler for grammar when writing non-legal documents, where style takes precedence over grammar.

    Andy uses the example of the defendant with the loaded pistol. He asks which of the two examples has the “greater impact.” My opinion is that by disconnecting these two clauses into separate sentences, the impact is lost. This is especially true since both clauses reference a single subject. I believe a best solution would have been to write it as the following:

    The defendant had a loaded pistol in his jacket and was high on methamphetamine.

    When two conjunctive clauses reference the same subject, the comma between the clauses should be eliminated. By using this method, the reader makes an immediate and uninterrupted connection between the two clauses.

    • http://lawyerist.com/author/samglover/ Sam Glover

      Define “accepted.”

    • http://lawyerist.com/author/andymergendahl/ Andy Mergendahl

      Please cite the authorities that support your position.

      • Anita Svensson

        William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White, The Elements of Style, fourth edition is one source.

        • http://lawyerist.com/author/andymergendahl/ Andy Mergendahl

          Hm. Since you didn’t cite your source until asked, and then didn’t provide a page or section number (which one might call a “rule” for a proper lawyerly debate), I pulled my copy (also 4th ed.) from the shelf and looked up “conjunction” in the index. Lo and behold, this is what I found on page 25:

          18. Avoid a succession of loose sentences. This rule refers especially to loose sentences of a particular type: those consisting of two clauses, the second introduced by a conjunctive or relative. A writer may err by making sentences too compact or periodic. An occasional loose sentence prevents the style from becoming too formal and gives the reader a certain relief. Consequently, loose sentences are common in easy, unstudied writing. The danger is that there may be too many of them.

          While that passage may refer to itself as a “rule,” it does not recommend never starting a sentence with a conjunction. If anything, its advice is to be careful not to write like a third-grader.

          • Anita Svensson

            Page 5, Section 4. MAIN HEADING: Place a comma before a conjunction introducing an independent clause. SUBHEADING: When the subject is the same for both clauses and is expressed only once, a comma is useful if the connective is BUT. When the connective is AND, the comma should be omitted if the relation between the two statements is close or immediate.

            Example in the Book: He has had several years’ experience and is thoroughly competent.

            I NEVER stated that one should NEVER start a sentence with AND. Since I do not consider MYSELF a recognized authority in English grammar I would not be so bold as to lay out rules to be obeyed or ignored by everyone else. If you read my comment again you will see that I stated that it was “my opinion” that my solution was the the best of the three presented and I gave a supporting reason WHY. If I played loose and reckless by not citing my authoritative source until asked, I sincerely apologize.

            Having stated the above, my personal preference is NOT to start a sentence with AND or BUT except in informal conversational writing.

            • Andy Mergendahl

              Your first comment referred twice to “accepted rules of grammar.” I was curious to hear if you were aware of an authority that provided the rule. The Elements of Style does not. I don’t consider myself an authority on grammar either. My post is merely repeating what numerous authorities have to say, Garner and Fowler among them. For instance, as Matt noted above, see Garner On Language and Writing, page 63, on conjunctions as sentence-starters.

  • Anita Svensson

    Grammarly Handbook does not state that using a conjunction to start a sentence is in violation of any “rules.” But it does state the following:

    “If a conjunction is used at the beginning of a sentence, the reader may be looking for an idea to connect to the sentence. While using a conjunction at the beginning of a sentence can add emphasis, it’s an informal means of doing so. You can use it in creative or personal writing, but it’s not recommended for formal writing.”

    Source:
    http://www.grammarly.com/handbook/grammar/conjunctions/7/starting-a-sentence-with-a-conjunction/

    If you are bothered by my use of the term “accepted rules of grammar”, let’s throw it out and focus primarily on the argument at hand. You stated that by using the method of breaking the sentence into two and starting the second sentence with an AND, it would provide “greater impact.” I choose to disagree. I believe that it would have been better to apply the SUGGESTION provided in the example by STRUNK AND WHITE. Using their SUGGESTION, I combined the two sentences into one in the way I illustrated in my above comment. I believe that this alternative would have provided the greatest impact for the reasons I stated above. The Grammarly Handbook would appear to agree with my assessment that beginning a sentence with a conjunctive is NOT appropriate in formal writing.

  • Chris

    I believe you are mistaken regarding not ending with a preposition. In most cases, the preposition is a crutch and sloppy use of language. For instance, in your example, the preposition “for” is completely unneeded. The better structured sentence is simply, “What is the purpose of the new tool?” In this way, many of these words and phrases can be avoided entirely. If they are truly necessary, they should be used correctly.

    • http://lawyerist.com/author/andymergendahl/ Andy Mergendahl

      Again, that’s a style preference that has nothing to do with “correct” grammar.

    • vonB

      I disagree. Consider directness and clarity. “What is the new tool used for?” “To hammer small nails.” This meaning of “use” is clear.
      “What is the purpose of the new tool?” “To hammer small nails. It is designed to hammer small nails, but does not work well. It will be a door prize at the woodworker’s club meeting. This will expand our company’s product line. To replace the one I broke…” The inference and interpretations of ‘purpose’ beyond “use” are multiple. Contextual crutches may clarify, but it is neater to simply get to the point.

  • Zack

    I don’t really see how this:

    The defendant had a loaded pistol in his jacket. And he was high on methamphetamine.

    has any more impact than:

    The defendant had a loaded pistol in his jacked, and he was high on methamphetamine.

    It really seems like the only thing you accomplish by choosing the first rather than the second is to distract your reader, causing him to spend more energy considering the relative appropriateness of beginning a sentence with “and” than considering the effectiveness of your argument.

    If you wanted to add impact by emphasizing that the two events were contemporaneous, you would probably want to do that by choosing a more precise word than “and” instead of forcing an altered grammatical structure that is more distracting than useful.

    But I do agree that it’s not a hard and fast rule. I just think it will be a rare case where it is the best, clearest, highest impact option and will not be more distracting than helpful.

    • http://lawyerist.com/author/andymergendahl/ Andy Mergendahl

      Again, a style choice. I don’t agree that I’m “forcing an altered grammatical structure that is more distracting than useful.” I’m merely choosing a style that has been used by prominent writers for centuries.

      • Zack

        But when the style choice that you make is to use a grammatical structure that is widely, if erroneously, considered incorrect, you know that your choice is going to distract at least some of your readers. Worse, it may lower you in their esteem. What are you going to do? Debate the grammatical correctness of your sentence structure with a judge (or a client)?

        It’s not really helpful to segregate the discussion along the lines of grammar and style. Grammar and style guidelines both exist so that we can understand each other. And even though there is no universally accepted book of grammar rules, there a great many rules that are widely accepted, some of which modern grammarians say are unnecessary or invalid.

        As a writer, you are using what you understand of the body of widely accepted rules to create a certain reaction inside your reader’s head. The desired reaction is for the reader to understand whatever you are trying to convey. If you make a grammatically correct style choice that you know is likely to hinder your ability to be understood, and which may even cause the reader to lose respect for you and what you have to say, does it really matter that it is grammatically correct? You run the risk of impairing your ability to be understood any time you deliberately violate any of the “incorrect” grammar rules. It’s important to consider your audience and evaluate whether breaking the “rule” is worth the risk.

        The plain language movement is about communicating more clearly. My opinion is that beginning a sentence with a conjunction serves that end when it reads so naturally that most readers wouldn’t even think twice about it. That is not the case with your examples. And I know they’re just examples that you intended to show sentences that would be grammatically correct, not to be the best possible examples. But the fact that it was hard to give an example that reads naturally proves the point that beginning a sentence with “and” or “but” is sometimes, but not often, the best choice.

  • Daphne Macklin

    Nice short, clear well written piece. I recall having someone give me the “tut, tut” thing when I dared to start a sentence with “And”. What’s important, in what I learned with a lot of intensive writing training starting as a 5th grader (with an English teacher for a mother) was remember the difference between spoken language and written language. Formal, however does not have be gobbledigook.

  • Derrick`

    The purpose of writing is to convey the meaning of what you wish to say. Grammar is a tool to guide you, nothing more. If you achieve that you have not broken any rules.

  • Mack

    Surely a colon deals with this problem? So the sentence would then read “The defendant had a loaded pistol in his jacket: and was high on methamphetamine”, although this seems no better than the ‘one sentence’ option of “The defendant had a loaded pistol in his jacket and was high on methamphetamine”. A full stop or a colon both make the ” and was high on methamphetamine” appear to be an after thought.

  • CLV

    Ignoring grammar rules is appropriate for those who write well, because they know when they can get away with it, and when it does not work. For those still learning to write well (and aren’t we all), grammar rules can be very useful.

  • Ryan

    Just a quick note on starting those sentences. In academic writing, starting a sentence with “and” or “but” is usually considered incorrect. Also, simply placing a comma in front of the “but” or “and” is often more slick and is always grammatically correct. See below.

    This is my sentence, and it is grammatically correct.